At this Final Four, it's all a mind game


One week after the University of Maryland Terrapins brought the national basketball championship home to College Park, another Maryland university will be contending for a national title in the Final Four.

However, where the Terps won with brawn, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Retrievers rely on brains.

This is, after all, the Final Four of chess.

"College chess is like Revenge of the Nerds for sports," said Alan T. Sherman, faculty adviser for the UMBC chess team and an associate professor of computer science. "It's a chance for smart, outstanding students to be sports heroes."

UMBC, which has the top-ranked college chess team in the country, faces off against a close rival, University of Texas at Dallas, today at the World Chess Hall of Fame and Sidney Samole Chess Museum in Miami. Harvard and Stanford universities are the other teams in the invitational tournament, which like the basketball Final Four is for the four best college teams in the country.

Even though Las Vegas hasn't come out with the point spread yet, neither big-name university is favored to win.

"We've won the Pan American competition five out of the last six years, so we're the team to beat," Sherman said.

With the bravado one might expect from a team that has two grandmasters to UMBC's one, Tim Redman, director of Texas' chess program and a professor of literary studies, disagreed. "I think we're slightly better," he said.

Unlike the basketball tournament, the chess Final Four won't be carried on network television. Chess enthusiasts will have to make do by following the match on the Internet.

And instead of being played in a cavernous auditorium filled with 53,000 crazed, face-painted fans, the chess tournament will take place in a tranquil museum wing where the expected 300 spectators are forced to keep silent so as not to hurt the players' concentration.

The spoils that go to the winners are less significant, too. Instead of a gigantic crystal trophy and the potential for lucrative professional contracts earned by players on the nation's best college basketball team, players on the nation's best chess team get a small silverplate loving cup and bragging rights.

"It's all honor," said Redman, whose team beat UMBC by half a point to win the chess Final Four last year, the tournament's first year.

Unlike with top-ranked college basketball players, there is little pressure for college chess players to turn professional before graduation.

Not only is there no distinction between professional and amateur players in U.S. chess, but only a few dozen players in the world make a living from their chess earnings, according to Sherman of UMBC.

The closest thing UMBC has to a professional is chess team captain Eugene Perelshteyn, who last year won a fellowship that gives him $32,000 a year for two years to cover the cost of top-level coaching and travel to world-class tournaments.

Just as there are basketball schools where the campus is steeped in all things b-ball, there are chess schools, too. UMBC and the Dallas campus are two of only about 15 colleges in the country to offer chess scholarships. Both schools have been known to congratulate their teams with pep rallies featuring the schools' dance teams and pep bands.

And at the UMBC bookstore, there are four types of chess sets for sale, ranging from magnetic to marble, not to mention UMBC Chess visors and decals.

Similarities between the two Final Fours also go beyond the culture and the name.

"Real competitive chess can be compared to any sport -- you have to study the game and you have to prepare," said Perelshteyn, who, like other competitive chess players, prepares for his matches by not only studying his opponents' games but also keeping in good physical condition.

"One chess game can last for up to six hours," said the 22-year-old senior from Boston who is majoring in computer science at the school in Catonsville. "When you think, you stress. If you're not in good physical shape, you can make one mistake, and in competitive chess, one mistake can make you lose."

All four teams will play one another once during the two-day tournament, which is sponsored by the U.S. Chess Federation. The university with the highest total of game points will win the championship.

In addition to Perelshteyn, UMBC's four-member team includes chess grandmaster Alex Woitkevich of Poland, William "The Exterminator" Morrison of New York, and Battsetseg "The Mongolian Terror" Tsagaan of Tatarstan.

UMBC students are likely to react to the chess team's triumph or demise in the Final Four differently from their counterparts in College Park.

UMBC Police Chief John Cook said yesterday that his staff is not gearing up for rioting, bonfires or other violence tomorrow, the day the championship will be decided.

"We have no indication we will have unruly behavior," he said, "but that in no way lessens the enthusiasm we have for the team."

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