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UMBC Chess Team places among top chess teams in Americas

Rohan Ahuja is a member of the UMBC Chess Team, which placed ninth at the 2019 Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Tournament. Photo by Marlayna Demond, courtesy of the UMBC Chess Program.

Most students have walked by the plethora of trophies that overlook Commons Mainstreet, but few probably realize that they are the work of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Chess Team. This past winter break, the team added to their accomplishments by placing ninth out of 63 teams at the 2019 Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The competition, which took place from Dec. 27-30, is “the most important and competitive intercollegiate team chess championship in the Americas,” said Rohan Ahuja, a junior computer science major on the team. Teams from universities, colleges and community colleges in North, Central and South America and the Caribbean gather together for four intense days of chess. 

The tournament operates in a six-round Swiss System. Each team is made of four players and up to two alternates. “In each match, four members from each team play each other,” Ahuja explained. Teams get one point for winning a match, half a point for a tie, and no points for losing a match. Each match takes anywhere from three to four hours. The four highest-scoring teams advance to the President’s Cup, or the “Final Four.”

Ahuja said that the UMBC team “only narrowly” missed qualifying for the President’s Cup. Still, the team finished ahead of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and other “strong chess schools.” However, this year’s success is not new to the UMBC team. UMBC has won the Pan-Am championship a total of 10 times, and qualified for the President’s Cup 15 times.

The team members usually prepare for tournaments individually, said sophomore psychology major Mai Narva, noting that each team member has their “own style of playing.” Narva said that for smaller tournaments she forgoes any extra preparation, choosing to go and “give [her] best.” But for competitions like Pan-Am, she puts in extra effort. 

Narva studies chess between three to seven hours each week in addition to practicing with her individual coach. She and her teammates also participate in a number of individual chess tournaments throughout the fall semester. In September, UMBC students are invited to compete in the UMBC Championship, an annual competition that helps the A and B teams select their members. Other individual tournaments occur throughout October and over Thanksgiving break. One weekend before the Pan-Am tournament, team members competed in the Maryland Action Rapid tournament in Rockville, Maryland. “All of [the team members] tied for first place,” Ahuja said. After the Rockville tournament provided “much-needed playing practice,” the teams were ready for Pan-Am. 

This semester, the team will hold the 2020 Alvin S. Mintzes UMBC Open tournament in the Commons from March 7-8. 

When the team is not gearing up for their next competition, they participate in chess-related community service. Team members hold chess lectures and partner with local schools for after-school chess initiatives. “I’m glad… to share my chess knowledge that I’ve developed over the years to motivate and teach children who enjoy the game,” Ahuja said. UMBC also offers individual coaching sessions through the UMBC Chess Academy for community members to learn from the team. 

Whether the team is representing UMBC at a tournament or in the community, Narva says the university has a reputation for its love for chess. “The UMBC Chess Team… hold[s] the ‘chess flag’ of UMBC high,” Narva said.