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UMBC’s Chess Team Heads to Final Four …. Again

John Lee for wypr

  The chess team at the University of Maryland Baltimore County is arguably the dominant sports program in Maryland. The team will compete in the 15th annual college final four in New York City later this month. The tournament is governed by the United States Chess Federation. UMBC has made it every year and won it six times.

Compare that to Maryland Men’s basketball. Not even close. Two final fours and one championship. The Maryland Women, Four final fours and one championship.

At UMBC, chess is king. When you walk into the Commons, you see a dozen large chess pieces and multiple trophies on display. But it didn’t happen overnight. Dr. Alan Sherman, the director of UMBC’s chess program, became the team’s faculty adviser in 1991. The year before, UMBC had placed 26th out of 27 teams in a different competition, the Pan-Am Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship. Dr. Sherman started building the program. He recruited top players. The university kicked in scholarships. There was coaching and mentoring. Five years later, in 1996, they won the Pan-Am for the first time. The program took off. Dr Sherman says the word got out to players around the world. Dr. Sherman says, “In the past we’ve had people from Ukraine, Russia, Mongolia, Tatarstan, even America.”

The last time UMBC won the final four was in 2010. Other colleges picked up on UMBC’s success. Webster University in Saint Louis has won the last two tournaments. Dr. Sherman says Webster is outspendingUMBC on chess by at least 3 to 1, so it can offer more scholarships and attract more top flight players. Webster is the number one ranked team going into the championship while UMBC is in the underdog fourth place slot. But UMBC’sNiclasHuschenbeth isn’t worried about that. He says the four teams’ rankings are pretty close. “It means everybody can beat everybody,” Huschenbeth says. “And this will make it really exciting.” Huschenbeth is a 23 year old junior from Germany. He is also a grand master attending UMBC on a chess scholarship. He says one way to get ready for the tournament is to study the opposition. Most of their opponents’ previous games are on line. Huschenbeth says, “Based on what they’ve played in the past, you can make predictions on what they’re going to play against you and you can develop your own strategy against it.”

Doctor Sherman says his players also have to stay in good physical shape. He says chess is a catastrophic game. One bad move can mean defeat. “You have to be able to operate at a high level of intellectual functioning for six hours, and that requires extreme physical demands,” Doctor Sherman says.

Kore is graduating in May. So this is his last shot at a championship and he says he really wants to win. Kore says chess teaches logical thinking which he will take with him in his career as a software developer. Kore says, “I think also being a chess player, a sports person, that that instills a lot of character in you. Integrity. When to say no and when to stand your ground.”

University of Texas at Dallas and Texas Tech round out the Final Four.