By Michael S. Rosenwald
The Washington Post
In the cutthroat world of college chess, the University of Maryland Baltimore County was once as dominant as Duke in basketball or Alabama in football.
UMBC was the first school to institutionalize scholarships for top players, recruiting grandmasters from Russia, Germany, Israel and beyond. The playbook worked, enabling a school few had heard of outside of Maryland to rack up six Final Four championships and build a reputation as an intellectual powerhouse on the cheap.
Now other schools are one-upping the king of college chess, raising the specter of the arms race that plagues other college sports. Just last year, Webster University in St. Louis recruited Texas Tech's diva coach, whose team of Grandmasters followed along. This weekend in Rockville, Md., at the Final Four of college chess, UMBC will be competing, but its longtime chess director suspects his team will lose — dominant no more in a world it created.
"Anything can happen because it's a competition," said Alan Sherman, UMBC's chess director. "But I'm predicting Webster will be the clear winner."
His statement is striking not only because coaches rarely forecast their opponent's victory but also because of the man making the prediction. Sherman, a UMBC professor and cryptology expert, single-handedly built the school's program from scratch in the early 1990s, a product, he once wrote, of "serendipity, determination, organization, recruiting, coaching, coordination, vision, perseverance, teamwork and good fortune."
Molding the team in his spare time, Sherman's dominance unfolded over several years. From 1996 to 2002, UMBC finished first or tied for first in six Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championships, the tournament that produces the top four U.S. college teams in the Final Four. UMBC became, in Sherman's words, "a declared fixed target, the team to beat." Others offered more scholarships, hired full-time staffs and spent money on worldwide recruiting trips.