(AP) CATONSVILLE The University of Maryland, Baltimore County is once again the team to beat in college chess.
UMBC earned a place in history on Friday by winning the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship in Miami — the “World Series” of college chess — for a record-breaking seventh time.
The Retrievers won their first title in 1996, then won five straight from 1998 to 2002.
“It would be very difficult to have this same kind of run by a sports team at any level,” said Jerry Nash of the U.S. Chess Federation, the tournament organizer. “And especially when the competition is as fierce. This is the premier event — not just for the U.S., but for Canada and the Americas.”
This year’s title, however, was the first for UMBC since the school was at the forefront of a debate over player eligibility that helped accelerate collegiate chess reforms.
Under rules that went into effect last year, players must maintain a 2.0 grade point average and take at least two classes in the semester when a tournament is held. They can be no older than 26 and can compete for no more than six years.
The Retrievers were so dominant in the first three days of this year’s tournament that by the final round on Friday, they had clinched at least a share of the title. They played to a draw with host Miami Dade College to finish with 5.5 team points, winning the trophy and $1,000 prize.
Among the highlights for UMBC were victories over two-time defending champion University of Texas at Dallas and a sweep of Harvard. “That always sort of feels good, to beat a school like Harvard,” said Pascal “the Frenchman” Charbonneau, a senior from Montreal.
“For UMBC that’s the thing: We don’t have a football team, but we have a chess team. It’s sort of a pride for the school, and we’re very happy to be a part of that.” The Pan-Am tournament dates to 1946, and UMBC has had a chess team since at least the 1960s. But the Retrievers did not become a powerhouse until Sherman joined the program in 1991.
In 1995, UMBC began offering scholarships, and the next year the team won its first title. Now, the school fields three teams and has players from Ukraine, Poland, Canada and Afghanistan. About eight competitors have scholarships, Sherman said.
The members of the “A” team have colorful nicknames to go along with their formidable chess credentials: Pawel “the Polish Magician” Blehm and alternate Katerina “the Kiev Killer” Rohonyan are international grandmasters; Bruci “the Cuban Cyclone” Lopez is a master.
UMBC will be the host school of next year’s Pan-Am tournament in Washington, D.C.
“Between UMBC and UT-Dallas, they’re the two powerhouses of collegiate chess in the country,” said Nash, of the Chess Federation. “Third place is fairly distant.”