- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

Forget basketball. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County is celebrating its own Final Four victory — in chess.

In the sixth annual Final Four of chess this past weekend, UMBC defeated the University of Texas at Dallas for the President’s Cup of the Pan-American Intercollegiate Championships.

“As far as hype, I don’t know if you can compare it to an athletic event, but it is definitely well-known here on campus,” said Alex Bardakh, UMBC’s club’s president.

UMBC has dominated the championship title since the competition began six years ago — winning the past four contests in a row. Texas won the first two.

UMBC was victorious even though their top player, Alexander Onischuk, was at another tournament in Russia.

“I was nervous when I learned that Alex would be in Siberia,” said Alan Sherman, the faculty director of the chess program. “But hats off to Pawel Blehm for stepping up and winning.”

The UMBC players were Mr. Blehm, Pascal Charbonneau, Bruci Lopez, Katerina Rohonyan and Beenish Bhatia.

Mr. Sherman gives the players nicknames such as the “Kiev Killer” for Miss Rohonyan, or the “Polish Magician” for Mr. Blehm.

“We find [the nicknames] very helpful for psychological warfare,” he said. “Chess is a game of strategy, tactics and psychology. We find it often intimidates our opponents.”

The rivalry between UMBC and Texas is legendary in chess circles.

This year, Texas was the first-seed team, even though each team had two grandmasters — the highest ranking for a chess player. There are about 40,000 chess players in the United States today and only 40 grandmasters.

Both schools have been fierce competitors in the Pan-American championships, the largest college chess tournament in the Western Hemisphere, which has been held every December since 1946. The Final Four playoff was created six years ago.

The other two college teams in the tournament were Miami-Dade College and Duke.

The tournament was a round-robin event, meaning that each team played each of the other three teams.

“Our hope is to eventually get a sponsor and a big, expensive-looking trophy we can trade each year, but for now we have the name without the trophy,” Mr. Sherman said.

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