If “chess is the gymnasium of the mind,” as French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal once said, The University of Texas at Dallas is an Olympic training facility.
The championship chess team is one part of the University’s chess program, which includes a chess club and educational outreach efforts, like summer chess camps for children.
The program has grown over the past 15 years, paralleling the growth of the freshman class at UT Dallas. In 1990, the Texas Legislature authorized the University to admit freshman and sophomore students for the first time.
“We saw this as a way to ‘brand’ our undergraduate education program with a different, intellectual pursuit,” said Hobson Wildenthal, executive vice president and provost.
In the mid-nineties, then-president Franklyn Jenifer was speaking to the Faculty Senate about institutional challenges, including a desire for visibility and the need to recruit more students who meet the University’s rigorous admissions standards.
Dr. Tim Redman, a professor of arts and humanities and member of the Faculty Senate, saw the potential for a chess program to meet these needs. Redman, an avid chess player and past president of the United States Chess Federation, thought the University could borrow from the prestige of chess to convey its cultural richness and academic excellence.
At the time, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was the only comparable institution creating a chess program.
“You can’t check out a library book on how to build a chess program,” said Redman. “We built it as we went along.”
The University’s first chess scholars arrived in fall 1996 and the team participated in its first Pan American Intercollegiate Chess Team Championship in Baltimore the same year, finishing in ninth place.
The team won three consecutive national titles by winning the National Collegiate Chess League, played over the Internet, in 1999, 2000 and 2001. In December 2000, the team tied for first in the Pan American Intercollegiate with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, taking the first place trophy on tiebreak. In April 2001, the team won the first-ever President’s Cup, known as the Final Four of Collegiate Chess, by defeating the University of California (Berkeley), Stanford University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in a round-robin match tournament.
Beyond the excitement of collegiate competition, the chess team experiences international travel, thanks to match invitations from around the globe. The team played an expositional match in Havana, Cuba, in Oct. 2009, and competed against the University of Nankai’s team in Beijing, China, in 2008.
“The UT Dallas chess team is a model for intercollegiate competition,” said Executive Vice President and Provost, Dr. Hobson Wildenthal. “Its team members are serious students, admitted to the University under the same rigorous academic standards as the rest of the student body. Upon graduation, they obtain gainful employment in high-tech fields, including engineering, business, economics and arts and technology.”
Redman agrees, noting that chess skills such as strategizing translate to career success.
“Real winning in collegiate chess includes team members earning valuable degrees and succeeding in the workplace,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re just pushing plastic pieces on a board.”
In 1995, students Helen Kheyfets and Sam Craft asked Redman to be the faculty sponsor for the new chess club they wanted to form on campus.
Redman seized the opportunity to share his expertise with the University’s bright students.
“This is something I really owe the students, I thought,” said Redman. “They were so gung-ho, very intent on seeing the club get off the ground.”
With approximately 50 members, the club is open to all University students, as well as chess players in the community. The club has engaged the community in friendly competition during the University’s Sounds of Class event (previous years), ChessFest at the McDermott Library, and annually hosts a visit by the Chess Educator of the Year.
UT Dallas began awarding scholarships for chess achievement in 1997. Scholarships continue to be awarded to tournament winners and master-level players. These four-year, full-tuition-and-fees plus stipend awards, are given at tournaments each year. To redeem their scholarships, students must meet the University’s entrance requirements and keep their grades up after matriculation.
“The idea behind the scholarships is to encourage and reward chess activity while keeping students focused on academic accomplishment,” said Stallings.
The hiring of Dr. Alexey Root in 1999 added depth to the burgeoning chess program. Her background as 1989 U.S. Women’s Chess Champion and experience teaching chess provided the program with an educational component which would take the centuries-old game to a brand new medium.
In fall 2000, UT Dallas received a grant from The University of Texas System to develop two courses, Chess in the Classroom I: Elementary and Chess in the Classroom II: Cultural and Institutional Contexts. Both have been offered since fall 2001, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
In 2004, while Redman was transitioning away from the chess program to devote more time to research, he saw the perfect replacement in Jim Stallings, a fellow board member of nonprofit Dallas-Area-Chess-In-Schools. Stallings, an expert chess player with a background in sales, was chosen for his drive.
“Jim was full of new ideas and new energy,” recalls Redman.
Stallings has taken the team to international prominence; under his guidance, the UT Dallas chess team has won the Transatlantic Cup three times, the Final Four of Chess six times and the Pan American Intercollegiate Championship ten times.
The UT Dallas chess program will continue to recruit top chess player scholars from around the U.S. and beyond. International matches are part of the program’s growth strategy.
“We believe that it is important for young chess players around the world to see that our chess team is engaged in international matches,” said Stallings. “It is equally important for our team members to have these experiences to prepare them for their future on the global stage.”
And where does UT Dallas administration see the chess program in the future?
“I see it creating a legacy of sustained excellence,” said Associate Provost Abby Kratz. “I hope the program continues to attract interesting students.”