Before UMBC stunned No. 1 Virginia in the NCAA tournament, it was the Retrievers' championship-winning chess team making headlines for the school.
CHARLOTTE, N.C.—The greatest sporting achievement in University of Maryland-Baltimore County history before Friday night came in 1996. Twenty-two years before the Retrievers became the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, another Retrievers team played Cinderella by going from (nearly) worst to first.
In 1990, UMBC’s chess team finished 26th out of 27 teams at the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship. Six years later, after years of funding and recruiting, the Retrievers not only won the Pan-Am but placed their B team in second place in dominating fashion. It would be the first of 10 titles for the team as it enjoyed tremendous success over the next two decades.
Dr. Alan Sherman, professor of computer science at UMBC and director of the school’s chess program, has built a monster of a chess program at a school that is now famous for doing what had long been thought impossible. UMBC throttled the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed 74-54 on Friday night and introduced itself to the American sports world at large. But the chess world has known about UMBC since before some of its basketball players were even born.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Sherman told me by phone about now sharing the stage with the basketball program. “I don’t know how they did it. It’s kind of like a novice beating a grandmaster at chess. It rarely happens.”
The story of UMBC’s chess program features near full-ride scholarships, international recruiting and even green card applications. But it starts in the early ’90s when Sherman, a Ph.D from MIT, came to UMBC as a professor of computer science and took over the chess program.
He began recruiting better chess players, and the first grandmaster he landed was Ilya Smirin from Israel. Smirin has gone on to be ranked as highly as No. 16 in the world, but in the early ‘90s he was a kid trying to get to the United States. So Sherman, with no legal training and only a few back-and-forths with a lawyer, wrote a petition for immediate permanent residency for Smirin to get him a green card.
Imagine that. Just as men’s college basketball is being turned on its head with an FBI investigation into improper recruiting benefits received by players, a college professor was able legally secure a green card for a chess savant so he could attend UMBC.
“I was just very motivated to recruit strong players,” Sherman says. “In each case I wanted to understand what they wanted. In his case what he wanted more than anything else was a green card.
“Eventually it worked. It was a tremendous amount of work. I had no idea the amount of work I was getting myself into and I don’t think I’d do it again.”
Sherman says the program was the first in the country to offer major scholarships for chess. Those scholarships continue today with what is known as UMBC’s Chess Fellow awards. The school today offers five awards that cover the cost of tuition, a $15,000-per-year stipend to cover housing and food and additional funds for travel to chess tournaments.
“It’s sort of common sense that it’s much easier to recruit a player who’s rated very highly than to recruit a novice and try to train them to become a great player,” Sherman says. “Training is important but it has a relatively marginal impact in comparison to recruiting a significantly better player.”
The Pan-Am Championship takes teams from North, South and Central America as well as the Caribbean. From 1996 to 2012, UMBC won 10 of those titles and is currently tied for the most in history. The President’s Cup determines U.S. college team champion, and UMBC has won a record six championships there and went to every final four from 2001-15.
Much like parity in college basketball helped the Retrievers top Virginia on Friday, parity in college chess has slowed UMBC’s program. Other schools like Saint Louis University and Webster University have entered the fray and are offering more money for their chess scholarships, taking some of the top talent that would have worked its way to Baltimore County.
While Sherman is looking for a financial bump in his chess budget, he’s gotten great support from university president Freeman Hrabowski III, who has even gone as far as calling some of the chess recruits to convince them to join UMBC. Hrabowski, a self-proclaimed math nerd, has grown close with the men’s basketball team and leading scorer Jairus Lyles, in particular.
“That’s the great thing about UMBC. Everyone cheers for one another,” head basketball coach Ryan Odom said Saturday. “Cross campus there are so many different things going on. On campus, that creates a great environment to learn in. A lot of great mentors, none better than our president… He’s the best president in the country. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been around a lot of different places and to be as active as he is within our teams—and not just men’s basketball—all the teams, it’s really, really special.”
Before Friday night’s game, Sherman was emailing with an old high school friend. The topic of the game came up, and Sherman wrote that he didn’t “think UMBC will be a match for UVA…at least not at basketball. Maybe at chess.” When he woke up Saturday morning to see the late-night result, he was happy for his university, but he wasn’t surprised.
“One advantage the underdog sometimes has is the higher-rated player sometimes underestimates them,” Sherman says. “In chess and all sports, you have to balance the reality of what’s on the board with what the probabilities are before the games started. If you overestimate your position and underestimate your opponent, you can get in serious trouble. You can end up taking too many risks or making too many dangerous moves because you’re trying to win and the position doesn’t justify it. Our team is actually trained in that strategy.”