The biggest crowd of college players in more than 30 years assembled at the Hilton New Orleans Airport Hotel on Tuesday for the start of the 63rd Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship (live games here). Many fled winter chills for the perfect 75 degrees in the Big Easy, greeted by a four-piece Dixieland jazz band and sumptuous Cajun delicacies at the opening reception put on by organizer Cajun Chess, led by Jean Troendle.
More than 250 players formed 60 four-board teams (some with alternates) from 33 universities and colleges—enrolling 60 champions with titles of Fide master and above, including 24 GMs, 19 IMs, one WGM, four WIMs, and three WFMs. Altogether, 35 national federations are represented in the six-round event that will finish Friday afternoon. All the competitors were prescreened by the College Chess Eligibility Subcommittee to confirm that they were students in good standing. Players with the ranking of GM or IM must pass even more stringent eligibility requirements.
Schools can send as many teams as they can muster. Top-rated Webster University sent four squads. Texas-Rio Grande Valley (TRGV), coached by GM Bartek Macieja, and defending champs Texas Tech, coached by former US Champ GM Alex Onischuk, sent five apiece, flying in all their players. But Webster loaded more than 20 players and coaches—including program head GM Susan Polgar, former women’s world champ—on a bus and drove them from its home campus in a suburb of St. Louis to the event. “It saved a lot of money,” Coach Paul Truong said. Saint Louis University is a brand-new scholarship team already loaded with top talent. Coached by popular GM-commentator Alejandro Ramirez, SLU is also definitely a contender for top honors.
Webster-A is top-ranked. Its first four would threaten top Olympiad teams: Vietnamese champion GM Le Quang Liem, on board one with a USCF rating of 2803, and GMs Illia Nyzhnyk, Ray Robson, and Alex Shimanov—all over 2700. TRGV number-two ranked “A” squad also sports four GMs, and so does University of Texas-Dallas (UTD) “A”.
At the midpoint, of the top teams only UTD-A has dropped a half-point for a score of 2 ½ – ½ . But with three rounds to go and a strong B-team that maintains a perfect 3-0, Dallas has plenty of chances to finish at or near the top. And close-to-the-top is crucial. Because, besides winning the PanAms title, the well-funded, powerful teams are desperate to make the cut for the Final Four—the top group of USA schools that qualify for America’s collegiate championship to take place at New York City’s famed Marshall Club on March 24-26.
It’s now Thursday morning, and round four sees the first critical head-to-head team collision of giants. Texas Tech-A, fielding a team averaging over 2600, takes on the Webster-A colossus on board 1.
Of course, there are many teams playing for division championships—trophies that mean a lot to college programs, most organized by students themselves, often with help from student organization funding. A chess trophy in the showcase means prestige for the program and leverage for next-year’s funding.
Texas Tech A’s GM Elshan Moradiabadi, playing against URRGV B’s IM Felix Aponte, makes a masterful decision to enter an imbalanced endgame, giving up his queen for a dominating position.
Webster A’s GM Le Quang Liem must take on another “Webster”—Kyle Webster of University of Michigan-B. The 1900-player puts up a real college-try fight before finally slipping against his world-class opponent.
Playing Black, UTRGV-A’s GM Anton Kovalyov makes a game-winning combination on move 24 and relentlessly brings home the point.
In round three, UTRGV-A’s GM Stukopin ignites some tactical fireworks against Senior Master Aaron Grabinsky.
Follow live games at http://swchess.com/PanAms2016/tfd.htm