WICHITA, Kansas (Dec. 30, 2004) - The University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) continued its reign as college chess champion Thursday afternoon by winning the Pan American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship, the top tournament of its kind held each year in the Western Hemisphere, for the second consecutive year.
The UTD "A" Team amassed 5 ½ points and did not lose a match during the prestigious, four-day competition, which was held Monday to Thursday at the Hilton Hotel and Conference Center in Wichita, Kansas.
The decisive turning point in the tournament occurred Wednesday morning when UTD's Magesh Chandran Panchanathan, 21, a junior majoring in telecommunications engineering, shocked everyone present by swiftly and convincingly disposing of the highest-rated chess player in the United States (and one of the top 50 in the world), 29-year-old Grandmaster Alexander "Alex the Invincible" Onischuk of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), UTD's arch-rival, long-time chess powerhouse and the pre-tournament favorite. What made International Master Panchanathan's sudden, dramatic and thoroughly unexpected win over Onischuk so remarkable was that not only is Panchanathan's chess rating considerably lower than Onischuk's, but Panchanathan was playing black, which routinely is at a disadvantage in the opening.
"Seeing their best player go down - with white, no less -- put tremendous pressure on the three other UMBC players to win their games. They couldn't just settle for draws if they were going to win their match with us, and they knew that," said Jim Stallings, associate director for chess and education at UTD.
That pressure - along with UTD's intense preparation for the Pan Am at an international tournament of its own held two weeks ago on the university's campus in Richardson, Texas -- no doubt played a significant role in UMBC's undoing. Shortly after Panchanathan defeated the highest-rated player in the U.S., two of UMBC's other star players - one a national champion, the other a grandmaster -- went down. UTD's Peter Vavrak, 22, a senior majoring in business administration, defeated the Canadian national champion, International Master Pascal Charbonneau; and International Master Amon Simutowe, 22, a sophomore majoring in economics and finance at UTD, dispensed with UMBC's second grandmaster, Pawel Blehm. As a result, UTD emerged from its head-to-head meeting with UMBC with a resounding - and highly improbable -- 3-1 win.
In what may have been the wisest decision of the tournament and the one with the greatest impact -- perhaps as daring in its way as any of the moves made on the chess boards -- UTD Coach Rade Milovanovic had held Panchanathan out of the team's match Tuesday night against the University of Toronto to allow him to rest for the following morning's game with Onischuk and to recover from some back pain. Without Panchanathan, UTD beat Toronto, but by the narrowest of margins, 2 ½ to 1 ½.
Twenty-four teams from the United States, Canada and South America competed in the 50th Pan Am Tournament. In addition to UTD, UMBC and Toronto, among the schools represented this year were Stanford University, Kansas State University, Yale University, Howard University, Miami (Dade) Community College, Emory University, the University of Chicago, Waterloo University and Catholic University of Peru.
UMBC finished second, as it had last year, with five points. UTD's "B" team, with four points, tied for third with Waterloo, the University of Toronto "A" team and Miami (Dade) Community College.
Last year was the first time UTD ever had won the Pan Am outright. UTD tied for first place - with UMBC, of course -- in both 2000 and 2001. UMBC won the Pan Am outright in 2002. The Pan Am team competition began in 1947 as a biennial event and became an annual event in 1965.
As it has done for several years, UTD sent two teams to the four-day tournament.
UTD's "A" team was represented in Wichita by three International Masters -- Panchanathan, Simutowe and Vavrak -- along with Michal Kujovic, 22, a senior majoring in statistics, and Andrei Zaremba, 22, a graduate student in electrical engineering who is known for performing extremely well in important matches. Playing for the UTD "B" team were Ali Morshedi, 21, a senior majoring in electrical engineering; John Sneed, 19, a sophomore majoring in biology; Ryan Milisits, 18, a freshman majoring in computer science; and Anh Nguyen, 20, a junior majoring in computer science.
UTD and UMBC will meet again in the spring. The four U. S. universities whose teams finished highest in the Pan Am qualified for the "Final Four" of Chess competition, which will be held in April of 2005. UTD won that tournament in 2001 and 2002.
Because the UMBC team included two grandmasters and an international master and because the highest-rated player on UTD's 2003 Pan Am championship team, Grandmaster Marcin Kaminski, graduated last summer and was no longer part of the team, UTD was given very little chance of repeating as Pan Am champion this year. To make matters worse, two other UTD players had taken the semester off and, thus, were not eligible for the competition.
According to Dr. Tim Redman, a professor of literary studies in UTD's School of Arts & Humanities and founder and director of the university's nine-year-old chess program, three things saved the day for UTD at the Pan Am this week.
"First, our coach, International Master Rade Milovanovic, did an excellent job motivating and mentoring the players and generating a great deal of team spirit. Second, the players themselves were prepared and determined, and they rose to the challenge of being the underdogs. And third, they got an excellent tune-up for the Pan Am with the UTD Grandmaster Invitational we held on campus earlier this month," Redman said.
Four grandmasters, including former UTD Chess Team Captain Yuri Shulman, participated in the international tournament, which was held from Dec. 7 to 15 and was rated by the world governing body of chess, FIDE (Federation Internationale des Echecs). The competition was believed to be the strongest held in Texas in more than three decades, and it gave the UTD players a chance to "practice" against superior competition for nine straight days. Panchanathan and Simutowe tied for fourth place in the UTD Grandmaster Invitational.
UTD is the only American university ever to hold an international competition sanctioned by FIDE.
In the past five years, UTD and UMBC have emerged as unquestionably the two best college chess teams in the United States and have developed a rivalry that is as competitive as any in intercollegiate competition.
UTD's chess team is part of a much broader chess program at UTD that includes, among other things, on-line chess instruction for teachers and studies on the use of chess in the classroom as an educational tool.
Redman said that as they had done after last year's Pan Am victory, he and Dean for Undergraduate Education Dr. Michael Coleman planned to take the UTD teams out to a "celebration dinner" when they returned to Dallas.
"It's becoming a tradition," Redman said. "I like that."