UMBC chess team falls in tourney

The Baltimore Sun

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County's chess team lost its bid yesterday for a fifth national championship, and, as tends to be the case for any brazen team accustomed to winning on its competition's grandest stage, talk immediately turned to next year.

The team finished second to the University of Texas at Dallas in the President's Cup - college chess' equivalent to the basketball Final Four. But with two grandmasters coming to the school from Israel and another one from Ukraine, the chess director for UMBC says he expects his team will be in good position to avenge yesterday's finish.

"They outplayed us. Hats off to them. We feel pretty badly," said Alan T. Sherman, later adding, "But we should have an even stronger team next year."

Dozens showed up at the UMBC game room to watch the competition between the nation's premier chess teams. Miami Dade College and New York University finished third and fourth, respectively.

UMBC has won four President's Cups since the event began in 2001. Yesterday's win for UT-Dallas was also its fourth championship, a fact not lost on Sherman.

"It's very much a rivalry," he said.

The President's Cup draws the top four American teams from the sport's other major collegiate competition, the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship, which features anywhere from 20 to 40 teams. UMBC finished runner-up to UT-Dallas at that match in December as well but had previously won the competition seven times.

Much like past showdowns between the teams, the five-hour competition yesterday morning featured its share of drama. All four matches were in doubt until the end, Sherman said, leaving UMBC team members questioning whether the result would have been different had a couple of breaks gone the other way.

UMBC entered the final round needing to win two games and achieve at least a draw in another to overcome UT-Dallas' lead. Under a scoring system in the round robin tournament that awards a point for a win and half a point for a tie, UT-Dallas clinched the title 2 1/2 points to 1 1/2 .

A lost coin flip to decide which player goes first put UMBC in a hole, leaving its top player and third-best player at a disadvantage, Sherman said. In high-level chess, he said, that advantage can amount to a half-point difference in the final score, and the first board ended in a draw.

UMBC had the advantage on the second and fourth boards, winning the former before losing the latter.

Students took the defeat hard, though sophomore Timur "The Uzebekdragon" Gareev, UMBC's No. 2 player, finished the two-day tournament undefeated, winning the Most Valuable Player award.

"Quite frankly, the team was in a somber mood. They felt the outcome was a missed opportunity," Sherman said. "They didn't play as strong as they could have. We're going to take some reflection and see what we can do to improve ourselves."

Second-place finish aside, it's been a relatively memorable few weeks on the Catonsville campus. The school was captivated by an unprecedented run by its men's basketball team to the NCAA tournament, giving the school national attention in its loss to Georgetown in the first round.

The spirit spilled over to a pep rally last week, where hundreds came to cheer on the chess team. Although UMBC failed to bring home another title, President Freeman A. Hrabowski III told the players in a post-match address that all is not lost.

"He told us how proud he was. And what a great accomplishment it was," Sherman said.

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