Chairman of the Chess Board Cleveland Park's Alan Sherman, and a squad of east-European imports, have made UMBC a college chess powerhouse

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

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.”

Read Cheap Seats Daily every weekday at City Desk.

Our Readers Say

Congratulations on a great article on chess. I dear say the Internet and all this social networking phenomenon is making it possible for the game of chess to be resuscitated to a level unheard of.

Alan Sherman and particularly Dr. Susan Polgar are definitely unsung heros in this revitalization of a great game that needs promoting in our schools from the many benefits derived from it.
McKenna, you amaze me yet again. I don't know where you find your stories, but I am so glad you do, because even if other reporters found them, they couldn't do them justice. So interesting! Thanks and as always, please keep up the good work!
Susan Polgar is the greatest chess player in the world. I love her!
The streets know Vaughn Bennett is the voice of DC chess. Why can't the great Hrabowski recruit chess players from the US or Baltimore? Or why can't the guy who lives in Cleveland Park recruit kids from within the city, here, DC!

There are conspiracies behind this chess game that have maligned "inner-city" children as being unable to get the game of chess.

While I greatly respect and enjoy your columns, I would be more interested to know why and how UMBC's program has flourished using FOREIGN kids?

That's like these Euro NCAA D-1 players who have to sit out ten games because they played professionally when they were 14 for teams that played in smoke filled high school gyms?

What is chess doing for the city, DC? What is it doing for the young people of the city? Ask Vaughn Bennett. This story is as equally referential about UMB as the 60 mins piece.

You are a street reporter -- get out in the streets and find the real story here.
@Gina a

Don't be such a lemming. There is a story here that is not told. Why has the program been built with foreign kids, not US kids -- from Baltimore / DC?

A lot of people know about UMBC chess and its double talk. Nothing new here. -- written by Dave McKenna

You know what the story is... what is the response from the up and coming university why they can't recruit US prodigies>?
Cap City: What's that, CCRP? You're confessing I scooped you on the Vaughn Bennett story by 9 1/2 years? Thanks, but...That's no way to Play the Feud!

As to the other parts of your rant: I do find the chess world really fascinating, including why Americans stink at it. The rest of the world was always much more into Bobby Fischer than we were. UMBC does recruit locally and domestically -- I put some mention of the Florida wunderkind who's the Kobe Bryant of chess -- but the players just aren't good enough to wear the UMBC jacket. The school does an amazing amount of chess outreach, but the best kid in Charm City would still get stomped by the worst kid in Minsk. Thanks again for the attitude and for reading, CCRP.
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<Chairman of the Chess Board: Alan Sherman's UMBC College Chess Powerhouse - Washington City Paper>
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