The titanic trophy-cup in shining gold-tint stood just a bit taller than the four silver cups in its row, any of which looked as if it could commemorate first place for Wimbledon. For four days players and coaches stole glances at the big one.
But the truth is that, at the onset, most of the 52 U.S. teams would have settled for any of the top four trophies because that would put them into the Final Four of College Chess, the April playoff that crowns a U.S. collegiate team champion. And if UT-Dallas could predict that, through its new strategy compiling team rosters, three of its teams would be sitting at the top four tables in the last round, I’d have to think that would have been a welcome glimpse into the future. But as any “Vikings” fan knows, peeks into the misty future offer a distorted view.
Unlike the World Series, the PanAms is truly international. In fact, this year half a dozen teams from outside the U.S. traveled to the event hosted by Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, to challenge recent U.S. dominance. Two teams came from Mexico. Four from Canada, including Toronto Hart House, a six-time champ, but not since 1982. The 58 four-board squads played team-on-team, paired under the Swiss system. Universities can enter more than one team.
Round 4: Big time games
The top teams begin squaring off Friday morning. Top-rated Webster University “A,” with an average rating of 2724, can’t be budged from Table 1 as it beats University of Texas-Dallas “A’s” all-GM team. Meanwhile, second-seed Saint Louis University (SLU), the only other team with a US Chess average rating above 2700, triumphs by the narrowest margin, 2 ½-1 ½ , over Texas Tech “A,” and University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley “A” manages to beat Webster “B.”
Round 5: Top two teams on Table 1
Round 5 finally sees the top two seeds, Webster U. and SLU, both at 4-0, face off on Table 1. Oddly, SLU settles for expeditious draws on Boards 1. 2, and 4. That leaves its third-board GM Yaro Zherebukh with the black pieces against GM Ray Robson, a U.S. Championship competitor in his sixth year at Webster and playing in his final PanAms. Now in graduate school at SLU, Zherebukh lost a long, tough game in Round 4 to GM Pavlo Vorontsov of Texas Tech, so the decision to bank it all on Yaro Z has some scratching their heads. Spectators and coaches closely follow Robson-Zherebukh. It’s a key game. But it’s also compelling because it is perhaps the most difficult game to assess in the whole event—an imbalance of pieces and pawns.
So much tension at @USChess 2017 PanAm InterCollegiate Championship. Board 1, 3, and 4 between @websteru and SLU already drew. It is now up to @RayShayRobson & Zherebukh for 1st place going into final round! @websterpres pic.twitter.com/mg8IHUntDl
— Susan Polgar (@SusanPolgar) December 30, 2017
“It was the most important game of this PanAm for our team, and a brilliant game by Ray,” Webster’s Paul Truong said.
Round 6: Has UT-Dallas cracked the code?
Webster remains camped on Table 1, the only team with a perfect 5-0. UT-Dallas “B” stands in clear second with 4 ½, having given up a draw against UT-RGV “B” in Round 4. Any of a college’s teams can win the Final Four spot for its school, or even first place, as Webster “B” once did. So UT-Dallas “B” could certainly play for the top spot.
Eight other teams are a full point behind Webster “A.” Six of the eight are scholarship powerhouses. The final pairings with average US Chess ratings:
Table 1: UT-Dallas “B” (2560) v. Wester “A” (2724)
Table 2: SLU (2702) v Harvard Crimson (2422)
Table 3: UT-Dallas “A” (2593) v. UT-RGV “A” (2650)
Table 4: Webster “B” (2634) v. UT-Dallas “C” (2529)
Table 5: U. of Illinois “A” (2088) v. Texas Tech “A” (2615)
So in the final round, three(!) UT-Dallas teams are still in the running for the Final Four, and one team still has a shot for first-place at the PanAms. That encouraging scenario was a result of UT-Dallas’ Program Director James Stallings’ new strategy. Instead of loading up one team to have the highest rating, he put together three teams within a few points of each other. “That way we’d have three chances to qualify.” And that approach reinforces the mindset that qualifying in the top four is the first priority. Just a bit like Bobby Fischer’s dictum to first equalize as Black.
With three of his teams within the roped-off four tables on Saturday morning, Stallings’ plan seems to be working—especially as UT-Dallas “B” is first to nick Webster “A” with a drawn match. With 5 ½- ½, Webster “A” finishes in clear first regardless of other results. And UT-Texas “B” closes out the event with 5-1, the only other undefeated team. All cause for cautious optimism.
On Table 2, SLU is up against a serious non-scholarship challenger, Harvard, a school with a prestigious chess history. But it hasn’t been in the Final Four since the second one in 2002. GM Darwin Yang plays Board 1, backed up by IM Richard Wang, FM Varun Krishnan and NM Bryan Hu.
The all-GM SLU team manages a 3-1 victory over Harvard Crimson. SLU joins the 5-1 group.
In a Texas shoot-out on Table 3, UT-RGV “A” hands UT-Dallas “A” a 3 ½ – ½ shellacking. UT-D’s best is out of the running. The Rio Grande Valley team joins the Hopeful Fives.
Texas Tech “A” draws the long straw in its final round matchup against the University of Illinois “A,” but it’s a forced pairing. Illinois squads had qualified for the Final Four in 2013 and 2014, vaulting over some well-funded chess scholarship programs. So the Illini squad is never to be taken lightly. This year, its lineup of a NM Duncan Shepherd, Experts Cale Denby and Nathaniel Kranjic and A-player Allen Guo had solid results. But the four couldn’t stand up to a Texas Tech “A” team hungry for the tiebreaks that lopsided scores yield. Tech finishes with a 4-0 sweep in Round 6. Tech joins the Hopeful Five.
Texas Tech “A’s” GM Pavlo Vorontsov, who had earlier defeated SLU’s Zherebukh, a former U.S. Championship participant, finishes with an uncommon, and almost unthinkable, 6-0 on a qualifying team—and the only perfect score in the event. “Pavlo has gained a hundred rating points since reporting to Texas Tech,” Program Director and Coach GM Alex Onischuk said.
In the last round, Vorontsov shows his willingness to go for the king, even as Black.
Kelly Bloomfield ran one of the best thought-out and executed PanAms in the long history of the event. The playing hall was spacious, with wide aisles between the tables. There was no chair-bumping here, even at the lowest tables. Coffee and tea greeted players at the start of every round, provided by new sponsor Akuna Capital. The kick-off reception, partially sponsored by the U.S. Chess Trust, gave players a chance to meet one another while munching on great food and viewing projected photos of past PanAms.
And Bloomfield is a gutsy promoter.
You’d have to say organizing the PanAms is a gutsy move by itself. But consider his suppressing the final standings until the formal closing ceremony at 3 p.m., hours after the last OTB handshake. The directors of four poshly-funded chess scholarship programs with teams tied for 2nd-5th knew one of them had to be left out of the Big Show in April. They weren’t used to waiting to find out. Eager to email their college brass—and to know whether a final drink at the Hyatt Regency bar would be celebratory or sorrow-drowning.
But Kelly knew that’s what the closing ceremony is for, convinced more people would attend if the announcements were news. He turned out to be right. The playing-hall-now-auditorium brimmed with the biggest crowd ever seen for the final formalities—at least 200 of the 258 players.
Then, of course, Kelly made the announcements in reverse order, awarding the many other division and special awards while five program directors held their breath. Only Webster’s GM Susan Polgar knew her defending champs had finished first and were safely in the championship playoff.
In the end, UT-Dallas was the hard-luck story of the 2017 PanAms. Despite three teams contending for glory in the final round, despite its “B” team finishing as the only undefeated squad other than Webster “A” and being the only team to draw Webster “A,” UT-Dallas placed last of the five 5-point teams on tiebreaks. Perhaps only the University of Central Florida’s 13-0 football team’s not being in the playoffs surpasses the frustration. (And by the way, since UCF sent two teams to the PanAms, I’m backing its gridiron claim to being number one.)
Qualifiers for the Final Four can send a team made up of any players they choose, so rosters of the U.S. collegiate hopefuls aren’t known. But here are the four schools, with the players that clinched the spots for their schools:
–GMs Alex Shimanov, Jorge Cori, Ray Robson, Vasif Durarbayli
Saint Louis U.
Texas Tech U.
University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley
Thus Webster adds to its impressive string of chess victories. Since 2013, it has won every PanAms in clear first except for 2015, when it tied with the winner on tiebreaks, Texas Tech. (But top score groups are considered co-champions under U.S.Chess rules.) Webster has won every Final Four since the first it could compete in, 2013. Before that GM Polgar guided Texas Tech to Final Four victories in 2011 and 2012.
“The goal of our team, especially the A team,” Webster Universities Paul Truong said, “is never to be out of Table 1 for any round. And the goal of the B team is never to leave the area of the top four Tables. As long as we are there every round, we have a chance to win or at least make the Final Four.”
Division and other team winners
The PanAms award a lot of impressive hardware to take back to campus. And division prizes are hotly contested.
Arizona State University “A” (2153) took Division II honors, finishing an impressive 13th overall. University of Maryland-College Park (1952) won top Division III. Ohio State University-Scarlet (1785) took home the Division IV brass. Queen’s University (Ontario, Canada) won Division V.
University of Toronto “A” (Hart House) continued a long and prestigious history of PanAms honors, winning the Top International award. Texas Tech “B” was Top All-Women Team. Washington University in St. Louis was Top Mixed Doubles team.
Northwest U., from Kirkland, Washington, took Top Small College, defeating Oberlin College, who had owned that title for the previous four years. Phiona Mutesi, whose early chess career despite living in the slums of Uganda was the basis for the 2016 film “Queen of Katwe,” contributed a key win in that crucial round for Northwest, where Phiona is a scholarship student.
Oberlin, who had reigned for four straight years as Small College champ, didn’t go home empty handed. Coach Constantine Ananiadis left with the Biggest Team Upset award.
Top Board Winners
GM Tanguy Ringoir of University of Maryland Baltimore County was top Board 1 with 5 ½ – ½.
IM Safal Bora of University of Michigan “A” was Top Board 2 with 5 ½.
GM Pavlo Vorontsov of Texas Tech was top Board 3 with the tournaments only 6-0 score.
IM Evgen Shtembuliak, also of Texas Tech, was Top Board 4 with 5 ½.
Peter Gabrielides brought the Biggest Individual Upset prize back to Oberlin by defeating a player more than 900 points higher.
A storied history and many to thank
The Pan-Am Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship, held every year since 1946, is open to any team comprising four players and up to two alternates from the same post-secondary school in North America, Central America, South America, or the Caribbean. Before 1964, the event alternated between an individual and a team college championship. But the popularity of playing for your team easily won out. Reuben Fine and Gata Kamsky are only a few legendary players who have fought for their teams at the PanAms.
The Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Championship is a national championship sanctioned by U.S. Chess. This year’s championship was hosted and sponsored by Ohio State University with additional sponsorship from the U.S. Chess Trust and Akuna Capital of Chicago. The 2018 PanAms will be held in San Francisco.
Chief Director and former U.S. Chess Executive Director and CFO Grant Perks ran an on-time event with the help of Bloomfield, who was Chief Assistant TD as well as Organizer, Kathy Lin, Ben Tancinco, Al Valentine, and Aryan Balyan.
He is a two-time winner of the Chess Journalist of the Year award (2000 and 2016) and a former Executive Director of the US Chess Federation. He currently serves as the Managing Director of the U.S. Chess Trust.