Rah! Rah! Block That Rook!

By Luke Mullins From the Magazine: Friday, November 9, 2007
Filed under: Public Square, Lifestyle

Small, no-name colleges have become powerhouses in intercollegiate chess, trying to attract top-quality applicants and alumni money, writes LUKE MULLINS.

Were it not for chess, Ray Robson might be just another boy genius. After completing sixth grade last year, the spindly 12-year-old began pursuing higher learning at his home in Largo, Florida, studying Mandarin with his mother and discussing literature with his father, a professor at St. Petersburg College. But by upsetting a slew of middle-aged chess opponents, Ray has distinguished himself from even the most exceptional American prodigies. “He directs his own chess studies; I can’t help him there,” says Gary Robson, Ray’s father.

Ray began playing chess at age three, after his father brought home a plastic chess-and-checkers set from the local Wal-Mart. Expecting his son to take to checkers, Gary was surprised when Ray easily grasped the complicated maneuverings of chess, and downright shocked when, a year later, Ray beat his old man for the first time. “I never let Ray win at anything,” Gary Robson says. “You should see our ping-pong battles. They’re ferocious.”

Since that time, Ray has worked tirelessly to improve: mastering state-of-the-art computer chess programs, amassing a library of 500 chess books, and studying under three different professional instructors. The hard work has paid off. With seven scholastic titles under his belt, Ray has finished in the top ten of the World Youth Chess Championships for the past three years, and tied for first place at the Pan American Youth Chess Championships for the past two. And just last year, Ray became the youngest player in history to qualify for the United States Chess Championships.

…At the 2002 Pan Am Tournament, UMBC ’s “B” team upset its “A” team to win the title. (The “A” team, meanwhile, tied for second place with UTD.) The “B” team was anchored by Alex “The Surgeon” Sherzer, a 32-year-old grandmaster.

Several months later, in May of 2003, Sherzer would stun the collegiate chess community when he was arrested in Alabama for allegedly attempting to solicit sex from a 15-year-old girl he met on the Internet, according to wire services. He was acquitted of the charges, but because of the arrest, additional details came to light. Sherzer, who left UMBC before classes ended for an internship in Louisiana, had already received a medical degree from a university in Hungary.

The incident was a huge embarrassment for UMBC, as it appeared to reinforce charges that some students were attending the university simply to play chess. In response to growing criticism about older chess recruits, the USCF in 2004 instituted new eligibility rules that required certain top-rated players to be younger than 26 years old to play on a college team.

The new regulations also limited players to six years of eligibility and required them to have at least a 2.0 grade point average. Students who were already playing when the rule change went into effect were grandfathered in under the old rules—which placed no restrictions on age or length of eligibility. (American collegiate chess is governed by the USCF College Chess Committee, not the NCAA—which has more stringent eligibility requirements for basketball and other sports it oversees.) While establishing an age ceiling for collegiate chess eligibility, the new rules did not create a floor. If Ray Robson, at 12, wanted to play for UTD, he could.

Meanwhile, officials at Texas Tech University in Lubbock have big chess plans of their own. In May of this year, the school announced the hiring of Susan Polgar, a four-time women’s world chess champion and five-time Olympic gold medalist, to help launch a unique program that would promote the study of chess while trying to make Texas Tech a national championship contender.

The initiative, known as the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence, or SPICE, will provide opportunities for Texas Tech professors to conduct academic research on issues relating to chess, such as the effect of chess on Alzheimer’s disease, or the way chess influences language development in children. But at the same time, university officials hope that Polgar’s presence will attract strong students and chess players to the university.

Texas Tech, which is currently the home of legendary basketball coach Bobby Knight, has traditionally been known less as an academic institution than as a strong sports school. But university officials are counting on chess to change all that. “The goal is to make Texas Tech as good academically as it is athletically,” says Jim Brink, senior vice provost for academic affairs.

But with more universities hunting for top prospects, the current rulers of the chess world aren’t about to stand still. Sherman is pressing UMBC’s administration for more scholarship funding. “You need more than just four major scholarships to support a team with only four players,” he says. “No head basketball coach would survive on five basketball scholarships a year.”

Meanwhile, in May, UTD announced that it had formed a partnership with the European Chess Union to offer two full scholarships to the male and female winners of this year’s European Youth Championship in Sibenik, Croatia. “We’ve upped the ante, so to speak. We’re not only getting our name out in Texas, we’re also getting our name out in Europe,” Stallings says.

“It’s where the best chess players are,” UTD’s Coleman says. “To get better at chess, you need to play against players that are very strong, [and] in this country there aren’t too many.”

Well, of course, there’s Ray Robson. He’s out there in Largo, Florida, under his robot and choo-choo train blanket, dreaming of chess.

Luke Mullins is an associate editor of U.S. News and World Report. His previous articles in THE AMERICAN were about Lou Dobbs and white-collar prisoners.

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