Knight Fever: Sherman used imported grandmasters to make UMBC a chess powerhouse.
Knight Fever: Sherman used imported grandmasters to make UMBC a chess powerhouse. Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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In 1991, Alan Sherman took over the chess club at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Since then, he’s built America’s greatest college chess program ever.

Sherman’s school has gotten some good press of late, topped by a reverent profile of president Freeman Hrabowski on 60 Minutes. U.S. News & World Report placed UMBC atop a ranking of “Up and Coming Universities,” whatever that means.

But ask outsiders to name one thing about UMBC, and they won’t mention Hrabowski or U.S. News or even the Biodiesel Club’s victory on MTV’s “Dream It, Do It” challenge.

Nah. UMBC’s still best known as the place where the world’s oldest board game gets taken seriously. “When you see a chess player with a team jacket, you kind of bow in reverence,” says Hrabowski, who has been at UMBC since 1987 and calls Sports Illustrated editors “visionary” for putting Bobby Fischer on the cover. “At UMBC, we treat the chess players the way other people talk about an American Idol winner.” That’s thanks to Sherman, a UMBC professor who lives in Cleveland Park. He’s the guy who, with Hrabowski’s blessing, started recruiting international grandmasters to UMBC the way John Wooden recruited 7-footers to UCLA.

Sherman had played chess as an undergrad for Brown University. But he says he was only very casually involved in the game when he accepted a job teaching computer science at UMBC. Shortly thereafter, he got an invite to become the chess club’s faculty advisor.

At the time, Sherman says, he was aware of just one school—the Borough of Manhattan Community College—that gave chess scholarships. But the situation on campus and around the world convinced him that “I was the right person, at the right place, at the right time, to make some significant contributions to college chess.”

The collapse of the Soviet Union, home of the best chess players in the world, occurred around the same time Sherman was kickstarting the UMBC program. State funding for chess programs in the former republics was drying up. So Sherman figured scads of great players would be eager to come west. He just had to convince them to come to Baltimore County.

Sherman showed his dedication to UMBC while recruiting Ilya Smirin, a Belarussian who had been schooled in a Minsk chess academy and later attained an international grandmaster’s rating. Smirin said he’d come if Sherman could promise a full UMBC scholarship and a permanent resident visa. Sherman coaxed the Abell Foundation, a Baltimore charity, to fund the $20,000 scholarship in return for a youth chess tournament hosted by Smirin. (Community service through chess is now required of all UMBC chess full-scholarship recipients.) He then attended immigration workshops and petitioned the State Department to grant Smirin the visa based on his chess expertise. The plan worked.

College chess was once dominated by the long-established genius-magnets. The first chess league in the U.S., founded in 1892, was a four-team confederation made up of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia. But no Ivy League school has won a national title since 1990, the year before Sherman took over at UMBC and started importing foreign talent. By 1996, the second-best college chess team in the country was his UMBC B-Team; the best was his UMBC A-Team. UMBC’s top players have been exclusively foreign for years. Sherman’s brainiacal brainchild has become so famous that UMBC no longer needs to buy ads in Chess Life and Review, the monthly chess players’ bible. “When I started, I was aggressively going out and trying to get the best players from around the world, no matter where they were from,” Sherman says. “Now, I just watch my phone. They’ll call.”

On Sherman’s watch, UMBC became so chess-obsessed that the annual student tournament’s championship match was broadcast live on campus radio, complete with a play-by-play announcer.

At the end of the month, UMBC will compete in the Pan Am Intercollegiate Chess Tournament, a competition that began in 1946 and is known as the World Series of College Chess. Sherman’s teams have won it a record nine times. The second most successful school is the University of Texas-Dallas, with seven wins.

These would seem to be tough times for extracurricular programs at Maryland institutions. Down I-95 at the University of Maryland-College Park, the flagship campus’ football team is in shambles following Ralph Friedgen’s firing. The vaunted Terps basketball program is expected to be in a rebuilding state for years following the retirement of head coach Gary Williams. Last month, amid fears that the profitable programs could be in for a long drought, UMCP President Wallace D. Loh announced massive cutbacks in student activities. As of the 2012-13 academic year, Loh proclaimed, UMCP will no longer fund varsity teams in men’s tennis, track, or cross country, men’s or women’s swimming, or women’s water polo or competitive cheerleading. Yet as all those traditional collegiate pastimes are axed, the chess program at UMBC is flush.

Sherman says the line item for the chess team on UMBC’s budget is “fixed at $25,000,” and that amount is eaten up paying for travel and “some tournament preparation.” But the chess program also gets money for coaches from student activities, plus funds for several scholarships (including at least five full rides). There are grants as big as $15,000 for top players from Pepsi Cola, which paid a big fee to displace Coke as the official soft drink of UMBC chess.

Add it all up, Sherman says, and UMBC chess operates on a budget of “approximately $250,000” per year.

A quarter-million-dollars? For a college chess team? In this economy?

“That may seem like a lot of money,” Sherman says. “But I find it’s not enough and not keeping up with inflation.”

In any case, the folks who have the only opinion that matters, those in the UMBC administration, appear happy with the bang the school has gotten for its bucks.

“We had a vision of our campus where it’s really cool to be smart,” says Hrabowski. “Clearly, Alan took our interest and priority to the next level when he came in.”

UMBC enters the upcoming Pan Am tourney with something to prove. In its last outing, at the Final Four of College Chess held in April in Herndon, the UMBC team gave its worst big-event performance in two decades. UMBC finished last, behind three Texas colleges: University of Texas-Dallas, University of Texas-Brownsville and winner Texas Tech University. UMBC had won the Final Four a record six times heading into the competition. It had never finished fourth.

Sherman says there are valid excuses for the pummeling. His third-best player had been hospitalized with a stomach ailment two days earlier. More frighteningly, he says, the Texas schools are now outspending UMBC.

Susan Polgar, an international grandmaster and director of Texas Tech’s chess program, says that while she “can’t put an exact number” on how many dollars go to chess at her school, the cause was helped by an anonymous donor’s $320,000 earmark.

“People see us and UT-Dallas and UT-Brownsville and how three of the top teams are from the same state and they think chess is now a Texas thing,” she says. “No. Football is a Texas thing. This is a coincidence.” (The 2011 Pan Am, alas, will be held at a Marriott hotel in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.)

Polgar says all the Texas schools that whupped UMBC have emulated Sherman’s big-dollar, Euro-centric model.

All the Final Four participants, however, are now making a play for American Ray Robson, a child prodigy out of Florida viewed as the most promising U.S. player since Fischer went bonkers. UT-Dallas awarded Robson, now 17, a full chess scholarship when he was 10 years old. Sherman says he’s been in contact with Robson’s parents to discuss bringing him to Baltimore. But Sherman’s not confident of landing the blue-chipper.

“Ray Robson is good enough to think about someday being a world champion,” he says. “We get good players, but not guys who have their eyes on being world champion. Those guys are probably not going to play college chess.”

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