For the first time in 16 years, the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s chess team isn’t going to the Final Four, a crushing blow for a once-legendary program being outspent by other schools in an arms race for the game’s brightest young minds.
UMBC finished 10th on Wednesday at the Pan-Am Intercollegiate Team Chess Championships, the tournament that produces the top four U.S. college teams. The school fielded two grandmasters against some teams with two or three times as many.
“It’s very frustrating, but we knew this would be an uphill battle,” said Alan T. Sherman, a UMBC professor and director of the school’s chess program.
Four teams tied for first on points and will move on: Webster University in St. Louis, Texas Tech, Columbia University and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Sherman built UMBC’s program from scratch in the early 1990s, offering scholarships to talented players from around the world who gave themselves nicknames such as “The Mongolian Terror” and “The Polish Magician.” UMBC has won or tied for first 10 times at the Pan-American tournaments, raising the school’s national profile.
Then other colleges set out to do the same thing, climaxing in 2012 with Webster University’s hiring of Susan Polgar, a prominent coach profiled in Wired magazine.
Besides handing out more than a dozen scholarships, Webster allocates $635,000 a year for coaching salaries, expenses and other enticements — outspending UMBC by 4 to 1, according to Sherman’s estimates. By contrast, UMBC has five chess fellows funded by the school’s campus soda contract with Pepsi. The funding includes an annual $15,000 food and housing stipend and full tuition for the first year. After the first year, if tuition goes up, the student is responsible for the difference.
The result: UMBC has won just two Final Four titles since 2007, after winning four straight in the mid-2000s.
“UMBC was the pioneer, and we had a big impact,” Sherman said. “But the UMBC administration has not invested in the program in a way that keeps up with changing times. I have been warning them about this for many years, and reality has finally caught up.”
In the past, UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III has boasted about the team’s accomplishments. “We’re sending the message that educated people should be focusing attention on how to think critically,” he said in 2013. “That’s what it means to be educated.”
Following the team’s showing at the Pan-Am tournament, Hrabowski said nothing.
A school spokeswoman said she would check to see whether he was available for comment but then quickly issued a statement on behalf of UMBC: “The University continues to take great pride in the team’s academic and chess achievements and the strong chess tradition established by Dr. Alan Sherman at UMBC.”
Experts on college affordability have criticized the spending, comparing it to college athletics.
“Are we just starting another version of what’s happened in the football or basketball arena?” Richard Vedder, an Ohio University professor and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, asked last year. “I think we are, even though the stakes are smaller.”
Nevertheless, Sherman said the school’s players are frustrated at what the program has become. Also at risk, he said, is the team’s outreach to Maryland schoolchildren. The opportunity to learn from the world’s best players is declining, too.
“Unless the university invests in adequate infrastructure and resources for our intellectual athletes and scholastic outreach programs, UMBC chess and its positive influence in the region will continue to decline,” Sherman said.