IT WAS A rough March for Cinderella on the basketball court. At the chess board, though, she was her usual dazzling self. For the fifth straight year Miami Dade College—a two-year school whose team includes a Wal-Mart cashier, a security alarm salesman and a 34-year-old former Italian-food delivery man—made the Collegiate Final Four. On Sunday in Dallas the Sharks finished third in the national championship, one spot ahead of Duke.
It was a rare road trip for MDC. Miami Dade hosts tournaments when it can, because the school can't afford to pay for the team to travel regularly. And since the players—three of the four on the current squad are immigrants from chess-happy Cuba—have jobs, they rarely get together for practice. Instead, they make like Bill Belichick and intently scout their opponents, poring over online databases with play-by-play accounts of their previous matches.
Miami Dade made the Final Four by beating Harvard—the second straight year the Sharks made chum of the Crimson. Among the other schools on MDC's hit list in recent years were Yale, Princeton, Stanford and MIT. "We don't have the privileges they do," says Charles Galofre, 21, an alarm salesman who learned to play in a Miami park. "But since they're supposed to be superior players, they feel the pressure."
The Sharks have begun to look and act the part of a burgeoning chess powerhouse. Team captain Renier Gonzalez, once the top player in Cuba, quit his restaurant job to teach the game full time. ("He left delivering spaghetti for delivering strategies to counter a Sicilian defense," says team adviser Rene Garcia, a psychology professor.) And last year the players decided to trade their T-shirts and flip-flops for Miami Dade blazers.
The jackets were on display last weekend at the championship. MDC finished behind the University of Texas at Dallas and the University of Maryland--Baltimore County, a chess juggernaut that in 2003 poached the Sharks' top player by promising a full ride. It's tough for MDC to compete with that; all it can offer is $500 in financial aid, a nice blazer and a chance to whup up on some of America's most elite institutions.