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From doormat to powerhouse, school vying for chess championship

December 26, 1996

BALTIMORE (AP) _ There are football schools and basketball schools. Alan Sherman is a collegiate coach at a powerhouse chess school.

Sherman’s squad doesn’t hail from the Ivy League or a technical institution. These chess masters are from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

And if everything goes according to plan, Sherman’s team will move from doormat to national powerhouse this weekend.

The school, which six years ago placed next to last in its first appearance at the Pan-American Chess Championships, is favored to win this weekend’s tournament.

Since coming to UMBC in 1989, Sherman, a computer science professor who practices martial arts and tosses out references to psychological intimidation when he talks chess, has become a master recruiter of the collegiate chess world.

``I see UMBC as definitely the team to beat,″ said Howard Prince, faculty advisor of the Borough of Manhattan Community College chess team, a powerhouse in its own right whose top player this year will be the national women’s champion.

About 40 teams _ some coming from as far away as Peru _ are expected to compete in the championships, to be held at UMBC.

Sherman planned to meet today with the newest members of his team, highly-rated twin brothers from Belarus.

``This is the last two pieces,″ Sherman said this week, eagerly anticipating his first face-to-face meeting with Valery and Dmitry Atlas. One of them, he said, is a potential grandmaster.

The Atlas brothers will join a national high school chess champion and a street hustler nicknamed ``The Exterminator,″ who learned his chess in New York’s Washington Square Park. All were recruited by Sherman.

Sherman said attracting top-level chess players is akin to attracting top-level students.

``It’s a game mixing art and science,″ he said. ``It’s a game of the mind.″

The professor’s push to attract top-level chess players began with a 1990 letter to an applying graduate student, who happened to mention he was the Sri Lankan national chess champion.

Sherman followed that by attracting Igor Epshteyn, a Washington-area computer programmer and chess coach who used to coach the Atlas brothers.

He finagled a grant from a Baltimore-based nonprofit group to pay the tuition of a grandmaster who now ranks among the top 30 players in the world.

And Sherman got university officials to add chess scholarships, making UMBC one of only a handful of schools to offer them, according to the U.S. Chess Federation.

``UMBC has been very much a motivating force in collegiate chess the last few years,″ said Eric C. Johnson, the federation’s assistant director.

A few years ago, Sherman said, the school was just trying to attract good players. Now it is looking at some of the best in the world.

``Now we’re talking about the differences between strong and weak grandmasters,″ Sherman said. Just to qualify for the team, players need to rank as senior masters, the top 1 percent of all chess players.

Even UMBC’s second team is intimidating. It includes Erez Kleim, a 20-year-old New Yorker who once studied with Bobby Fisher’s coach, and Oxana Tarassova, a 21-year-old Russian who, like the other team players, studies chess books and games for hours a day.

``I like to win,″ she says. ``I like to compete.″

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