When Ray Kaufman sits down across the chess board from an opponent, he's prepared for battle -- one that he plans to win with the power of his mind.

"It's sort of like a war," explained Kaufman, 20, of Potomac, the star of the Montgomery College chess club. "When I play an opponent, I treat it like it's life or death. Winning is important, but I know thinking well and playing a good game is an important part."

Unlike the casual chess player, Kaufman possesses a dedication to the game that caused one club member to describe him as a "chess-playing machine" and others to speak in awe of his skills.

It was Kaufman's play that helped propel the club's four-member team to victory as the top community college at the Pan American International Team Championship in December in Miami. The team of Charles Willis, 42, of Potomac; Khine Kyaw, 32, of Germantown; Artem Gulish, 19, of Montgomery Village; and Kaufman finished 15th in the overall standings at the tournament, regarded as the "Super Bowl of collegiate chess," according to Montgomery College officials.

The team finished second among community colleges to the host school, Miami-Dade Community College, but took home top honors because Miami-Dade had won a fourth-place trophy in the overall competition and could not receive two prizes under tournament rules.

A team from the chess powerhouse of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County was the overall champion of the tournament, attended by 30 teams from schools including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University.

Winning the trophy was a thrill, but Montgomery College team members said it's an intense passion for the game that keeps them returning to the chess board to stretch their minds over a fresh set of challenges.

"Before I played chess, I had nothing to do. I was very depressed. It gave me an awakening, here was something I'm good at," said Kaufman, who learned to play chess at age 10 from his father, Larry Kaufman, 55, of Potomac. The senior Kaufman, a retired stockbroker, holds the title of international master, one step below grand master, the highest ranking in the chess world.

Facing the pressure of a tournament time clock was nothing new for Kaufman, a sophomore who was awarded a full scholarship to UMBC as an eighth-grader when he won a Maryland high school chess championship. He plans to attend UMBC this spring after spending the past year improving his grades.

But still there was a rush of satisfaction when Kaufman realized during the tournament's final hours that he would beat International Master Irina Krush of New York University, the nation's top female collegiate player. Krush had beaten Kaufman at three other matches, but this time she was out of luck.

"I really wanted to win because I'd lost to her a couple times before. I knew if I won, I'd tie the match," Kaufman said. "She got under time pressure and she made a blunder, and at that point I thought I was going to win."

Like Kaufman, the other team members consider chess an integral part of their lives. In addition to reading books and playing games on the Internet, they regularly work on improving their skills during Monday night meetings of the chess club in the Rockville campus cafeteria.

"Chess is a very big part of me," said Gulish, a freshman who moved to Maryland from Ukraine when he was 12. "It exemplifies a great deal. At the beginner's level, you might not see it. If you go more into chess, you see how it's related to life. To outside observers, it might be just a bunch of moves. People don't see the artistry. But the real art is created between the battle of two minds."

Club meetings are casual: About a dozen players show up and play. Some are intent on the board, practicing their moves and new strategies; others take time to catch up with friends, according to the club's faculty adviser, David Lott, an English professor at Montgomery College's Rockville campus.

Members do not need to be students to attend, but must be registered at the college to participate in tournaments.

"Chess club is a party where everybody has roles and nobody gets out of line. We talk about everything and socialize," said Willis, who is pursuing a degree in construction technology and learned to play at age 4. A four-year club veteran, he was a member of a team that attended the Pan American championship in 1999.

Lott hopes to expand club membership and is working on a program in partnership with local PTAs in which members can teach chess to elementary school students.

"I'm very interested in the academic potential of chess," Lott said. "The literature suggests teaching elementary school kids chess helps them with critical thinking skills."

The idea to send a team to the 2002 Pan American championship came up soon after the club began meeting last fall, and members worked to raise money for the trip. The team members were chosen not only for their playing ability, but also for their availability, since the tournament is held between Christmas and New Year's Day.

Although Kaufman was clearly the star player, Willis's inclusion was a result of happenstance. He was the substitute for another team member who could not make the trip. Though he did not win, Willis found that just managing to get a team to the tournament was an exercise in some of the many lessons that chess has taught him over the years.

"Just like in chess, life is the same way," he said. "You just sort of have faith that things will work out and you can't push things."

Chess players interested in joining the Montgomery College chess club can contact Lott at 301-251-7413 or e-mail dlott@mc.cc.md.us.

Artem Gulish, left, Konstantin Gulish and Charles Willis examine the chess board.