College In Md. Wins Final Four Chess Tournament
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, a former nun turned a school that seemed bound for failure into a success story. And two decades later she's still spreading the gospel of how to fix failing schools. Her story in just a few minutes.
But, first, there's a brand new final four champion. No, it's not Duke, not the University of Connecticut, it's the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. And they are celebrating their second consecutive victory in the final four of college chess.
Joining us to talk about the weekend's excitement is UMBC Chess Club Director Alan Shermann. Welcome, congratulations.
Mr. ALAN SHERMANN (Director, UMBC Chess Club): Thank you, and good morning.
MARTIN: So, how do you celebrate a win in the chess final four? Do you pour Gatorade on each other?
Mr. SHERMANN: Well, in the past sometimes we've had pep rallies with cheerleaders and dance teams, but most of our players are taking academic overload, so they're back to the books and exams.
MARTIN: Oh, well, that's a good example. So, you won this championship on the road. You played at the University of Texas at Brownsville and all of the other final four teams were Texas teams. There was University of Texas at Dallas, Texas Tech, and of course the University of Texas at Brownsville. So, did that create kind of an aura? Did you feel like you were kind of going into the lion's den, as it were?
Mr. SHERMANN: A bit. They certainly had the home court advantage, but we just tried to play the best we could, played the board and tried to outplay the opponents.
MARTIN: Do people cheer? What's the atmosphere like? Are there, like, signs? Was there any attempt to psych each other out? I mean...
Mr. SHERMANN: I think there's a lot of psychology going on. It was a very intensely fought competition played at a very high level of chess. It was the strongest lineup in the history of college chess.
MARTIN: You mean overall, not just your team, but the final four teams overall?
Mr. SHERMANN: It was incredible. There were seven international grand masters, 10 international masters, 15 players rated over 2,500.
MARTIN: So, it was big, it was high-level competition. So, you won - your team has won six out of the last 10 chess championships. You know, when a team often becomes dominant, they attract, you know, haters, like of course there are the anybody-but-Duke crowd. And on the women's side, of course, there are people who say that that kind of dominance is bad for the sport, even though so, I dont know, are you attracting haters because of your team's ongoing success?
Mr. SHERMANN: We have supporters and critics. And we also have the problem that if we don't win, then people view it as a failure. So, we feel a lot of pressure to keep up the performance.
MARTIN: What does it take to be good at chess? I think there are those who have the impression that this is something that if you don't start when you're three, you're out of the game. So, what does it take to compete at this level?
Mr. SHERMANN: Well, I think there are a number of factors. The ability to think ahead, to plan your moves, to be creative, to go beyond the existing knowledge. Of course, you have to be well-prepared. In this tournament you knew who the opponents were, and so there was a lot of specific preparation for individuals. And then you have to be in good physical and mental shape. Each game lasts between four and six hours. And the physical demands are extreme and if you're not in excellent physical condition, you will not play well.
MARTIN: You know, that's interesting. I don't think a lot of people know that. So, what kind of physical conditioning do chess players engage in?
Mr. SHERMANN: All of our team members engage in aerobic sports: jogging, swimming, soccer.
MARTIN: Really? What about you?
Mr. SHERMANN: I used to jog. I don't do so much now a little tennis.
MARTIN: So, what else does it take? I mean, there have been a couple of, you know, movies that have popularized chess. And there are the predictable sports themes, like, you know, the underdog. You know, the kid who comes from nowhere, from an unlikely background and stuff but are there some through lines for the people who tend to excel at this, well, do you call it a sport? What do you call it?
Mr. SHERMANN: I call it an intellectual sport.
MARTIN: Intellectual sport.
Mr. SHERMANN: I think it has many of the elements of sports. It's a competition. It's a game, and it has the adversarial element that what you do directly affects the opponent. And it does require this physical conditioning for stamina. I think, like debate and model UN, chess is a major intellectual sport and as such, it exemplifies our values at UMBC, a place where we value activities of the mind and a place where it's cool to be a nerd.
MARTIN: Okay. Well, to that end, what kind of reception you said that these students are all, you know, back to the books today because they're all high achievers, but do they get the VIP treatment on campus? I mean, what - do people want to, you know, buy them drinks? I mean, do they get, you know, a hero's welcome at least? Flower petals thrown in their path, something?
Mr. SHERMANN: I think there will be a reception with a band and a pep rally and the players are well known on campus. Three of our four players have perfect 4.0 GPAs. And our team captain, Sergey Erenburg, is a candidate for valedictorian this May.
MARTIN: And, so, finally, and I don't want you to give away any of your trade secrets, but what's your strategy for getting back to the final four in the championship next year? 'Cause three of your four are seniors.
Mr. SHERMANN: We're always recruiting. Recruiting is the single most important factor. There are many factors: coaching, organization, determination, the desire to win. But you can do more with recruiting than anything else.
MARTIN: All right. Alan Shermann is the director of the chess club at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. He's also an associate professor of computer science, and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios, taking a victory lap. Thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. SHERMANN: Thank you.
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