Putting the pieces together Teamwork: Chess aces from as far away as Kazakstan and Belarus are being recruited with scholarships to a world-class organization -- at UMBC.


When Alan Sherman recruits a blue-chipper for his team, he spares no ammunition.

He touts his university's top-notch facilities, the high level of competition, the great coaching and the opportunity to play alongside such masters of the game as William "The Exterminator" Morrison, a legend from the parks of New York.

If the prospect lives abroad, no problem. Sherman's scholarship players have come from Russia, Sri Lanka and Kazakstan. Arriving soon: identical twins from Belarus.

So perhaps it's not surprising that Sherman has assembled something of a dream team. But maybe it is surprising that the sport is chess, and the school is neither Harvard nor MIT but the University of Maryland Baltimore County in Catonsville.

If all goes according to plan, UMBC not only will win the "World Series" of collegiate chess this month, but will pull off the sport's equivalent of placing two teams in the Final Four. And it will happen in the ballroom of a Baltimore hotel.

But the team's accomplishments go beyond a mere zeal for victory. It's also loaded with top-flight students, pursuing everything from a bachelor's degree in computer science to a doctorate in electrical engineering.

Thus has Sherman, an associate professor of computer science, built for UMBC a unique public relations tool. While chess may not bring the revenue or television exposure of big-time football and basketball, there's no better game for burnishing a scholarly reputation. Beat Harvard at a brain game and your e-mail fairly hums with reverence. Do it with an international lineup featuring a 32-year-old hustler named "The Exterminator" and you may even acquire a certain mystique.

"Chess is, quite frankly, symbolic of a mind-set here which says nobody is more prestigious than people who do really well in intellectual pursuits," said UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III. "It is helping us to attract more and more smart students."

You can chart the rise of UMBC and its chess team along roughly parallel lines. Go back to the year Sherman arrived on campus, 1989, and both were rated in the pawn category. The next year, the team finished next to last of 27 teams in its first trip to the "World Series," the annual Pan-American Championships.

Sherman, who had been chess club president as an undergraduate at Brown University, became the team's faculty adviser, and by 1993, the year the gung-ho Hrabowski arrived on campus as president, the team was ready for another crack at the Pan-Am.

It finished a surprising third. How had the pawn become a knight in only four years?

"I started recruiting players," Sherman said, with just the hint of a grin. "It started in a very low-key way. I was on the graduate admission committee for the department, and I would see folders where some people would mention an interest in chess, and, when this happened, I would take that extra effort to write them a letter and encourage them to come. It worked."

If UMBC could finish third, why not first? he figured. So did Hrabowski, who wanted his school mentioned in the same breath as the Ivy League, and chess seemed like one way to do it.

On came the money for scholarships and team expenses, and Sherman plotted a few goals:

* Beat Harvard head-to-head.

* Win the Pan-Am.

He sent away to the U.S. Chess Federation for mailing labels for the top 100 finishers in the national high school championships. He culled chess rankings for every high school senior rated at 2,000 points or higher (the "expert" level, determined by how well one fares against other rated competitors) and sent letters to more than 200 prospects.

He placed a classified ad in Chess Life magazine: "Chess Players/Scholars Wanted." He got in touch with the coaches of scholastic powers such as Philadelphia's Masterman High School, and junior clubs such as Harlem's Raging Rooks. UMBC became annual host of the Maryland High School chess championships. First prize? A chess scholarship to UMBC.

It hasn't hurt that only a handful of other colleges offer chess scholarships. There's also no National Collegiate Athletic Association looking over Sherman's shoulder, tut-tutting about the contacts with recruits, the eligibility of graduate students, or amateur status.

As the players got better, Sherman realized he needed a coach. He heard that Igor Epshteyn, one-time coach of the junior national team of Belarus, was programming computers in New Carrollton.

"I asked him if he'd be interested in coaching the team," Sherman said. "His face lit up, and he said, 'Of course.' "

The new coach saw right away that Sherman "needed someone to be a teacher, a person who had a system of training," Epshteyn said. "There are some coaches in America, but it is technical training, not a system." Too much emphasis on opening moves, these Americans, too little emphasis on the punch and jab of the middle and endgames.

Then Sherman set his sights on his biggest catch yet. He decided to recruit a grandmaster. To departmental colleagues the idea was preposterous, and few were surprised when the first attempt failed. Then he got in touch with grandmaster Ilya J. Smirin, a former junior player under Epshteyn, still living in Belarus and ranked 27th in the world.

But there was a catch.

"He wanted to get permanent residence in the United States out of this deal," Sherman said.

Sherman wrote a legal brief to immigration officials on Smirin's behalf and collected supporting letters from chess organizations. and behold," Sherman said, "it worked."

But Smirin turned out to be more interested in his professional career than in being a student and left school after a year.

"The people who come here on academic-chess scholarships [minimum SAT score of 1,400] are just wonderful students, no problem whatsoever," Sherman said. "But the grandmasters are sometimes hard to deal with. There is this conflict: Are we abusing them; are they abusing us? What are the priorities? They can take advantage of you."

But who needs a grandmaster when you have "The Exterminator"? That would be William Morrison, self-taught chess legend and one-time $10-a-game hustler from New York's fabled Washington Square Park. If you've seen the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer," Vinnie the hustler is partly based on Morrison, Sherman said.

"I first met him at the UMBC Open Championship, which he played and won last year," Sherman said. "I talked to him and found out he hadn't yet graduated from college. He'd been to Morgan State and to the Air Force, and he'd had some financial difficulties, and I said, 'Well, look, what if I can get you a scholarship to go to UMBC?' "

"I agreed on the spot," Morrison said.

If chess were a game that made sports headlines, you would have read plenty about Morrison. By 10, he was beating his chess teacher at Brooklyn's P.S. 154. By 14, he was playing for money, making the rounds at clubs, tournaments and Washington Square Park, home of the country's toughest pickup games.

Sometimes he lucked into people like the inexhaustible Russian who kept losing even as he raised the stakes from $10 to $50 a game. They played all night until Morrison stumbled home at sunrise, pockets full. Another time he ended up staring down the barrel of a gun as a sore loser demanded reimbursement, and then some.

At 16, he was beating stiff enough competition to rate above 2,000 points, making him an expert. Two years later, he hit 2,200, making him a master. The higher rankings would have come sooner, but with hustlers -- playing frequently outside certified competition -- ratings tend to lag below skill, which is the way they like it.

He got his nickname during a visit to Baltimore in 1979.

"I ran into someone who took me around, named Harvey Shaw. He loved chess. He knew everybody who played chess, and he said, 'I've got to introduce you to the chess community.' He himself was hustling, so he said, 'I'm going to make a lot of money off you.'

"So we go around and he says, 'Hey, meet my nephew, why don't you play my nephew? He's visiting me, plays the game a little bit.' 'Sure,' they'd say, 'I'll beat your nephew. What are we playing for? Twenties? Thirty?' So I'm beating this guy and taking all his money, and after that he takes me somewhere else. It was pure decimation, so he gave me the name."

But no matter how much he played, he found, "You can't exactly afford a Maserati when you're hustling."

He decided he needed a real income, so he enrolled at Morgan State University, majoring in pre-med biology.

He ran out of money a few semesters short of graduation and enlisted in the Air Force. Four years later, he began working at a series of laboratory jobs. Now, he's the father of a 6-year-old daughter and an infant son. Sherman approached him last winter, when he was busy winning a string of East Coast tournaments. Morrison is on track to graduate this summer with a history degree. His chess rating is hovering around 2,500, making him a senior master.

Joining him in UMBC's upper echelon are freshman Gregory Shahade, who played last year on Masterman High School's national scholastic championship team, graduate student Pavel Pasmanik from Russia, freshman Oxana Tarassova of Kazakstan, Bella Belegradek of Russia and sophomore Erez Klein, a New Yorker whose chess teachers have included Jack Collins, one-time mentor of Bobby Fischer.

With their help, UMBC achieved Sherman's first goal in October by defeating Harvard, 4-1, in a six-board match.

Sherman is awaiting the arrival of the final pieces in his endgame, twin brothers Valery and Dmitry Atlas. They're from Belarus, by way of Liechtenstein, where they've been studying for five years. Valery comes rated higher than Morrison, while Dmitry will be third strongest on the team. They'll be studying for doctorates in electrical engineering, and their scheduled arrival date is downright serendipitous -- Christmas Day, two days before the Pan-Am tournament begins in a ballroom of the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel.

Four-player teams compete in the tournament, and with the Atlas twins on board Sherman feels UMBC not only will be strong enough to win the title with its first team but can place its second team in the top five.

He's been working exhaustively to pull the four-day event together, while also scouting the opposition by writing away for past tournament results.

Once the competition begins, players will do further scouting, going from table to table. Sherman also will keep an eye on the players in the Pan Am's high school competition. The members of the winning team will be offered UMBC scholarships.

If UMBC indeed wins, perhaps some rivals will grouse about ringers and scholarships. Or maybe they'll decide to join in, and do some recruiting of their own.

"I really do hope that this becomes contagious, that many schools will offer scholarships," Sherman said. After all, "It's a lot cheaper than paying for a football team."

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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