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December 29, 2006 [feather]
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Margaret Soltan tirelessly chronicles the lengths to which universities will go--and the amounts they are willing to pay--to field winning sports teams. But athletic competitions aren't the only kind that schools will go to great, unethical lengths to win. Today's Washington Post has a fascinating piece on the little-known world of intercollegiate chess, where the dominant teams are not the ones you might expect, and where attempts to game the system bear a strong resemblance to those surrounding intercollegiate sports:


It was still early in this week's competition at the downtown Washington hotel, and already the pecking order was taking shape.

The squads from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County thumped Yale and Northwestern in the first round and Harvard in the second. The University of Texas at Dallas trounced Emory. Miami Dade College clobbered New York University.

This is the arcane and cutthroat world of collegiate chess, which shakes up the news magazines' annual ranking of colleges. Over the past decade, a growing number of public colleges have developed major chess programs with paid coaches and scholarships worth more than $100,000 for star recruits, many from abroad, to burnish their academic reputations.

The result is an unlikely inversion of privilege and prestige. The Harvard and Yale teams scrape by on tiny budgets, with some players arriving in Washington in the discount Chinatown bus and staying in hostels or on friends' couches. Players from UMBC and other well-funded teams stay in the comfortable tournament hotel, wear sleek team jackets and blazers and, with only a hint of a smirk, take pleasure in laying low the Ivies.

[...]

Cheerios and brownies are stacked beside them for sustenance in matches that run as long as four hours. Some listen to iPods. The top schools' coaches look on and exchange whispered asides in Eastern European accents. The cockier players get up to stroll about when it's not their turn, as if they don't need to focus on their own game. The only sound is the whir of the air conditioner and the clicks of players punching their time clocks after each move.

The room is thick with tension and intrigue, born partly of the controversy that has surrounded some of the more excessive recruiting practices. As recently as three years ago, several teams, particularly UMBC and UT Dallas, were paying full scholarships, plus cash stipends, to grandmasters as old as 40. Players had nominal course loads and took as long as eight years to graduate.

The overlords of collegiate chess introduced reforms, including a rule against grandmasters over age 25, a six-year limit on competing and a requirement that players maintain a grade-point average of at least 2.0 and at least a half-time course schedule. But UMBC and UT Dallas have stayed dominant by recruiting players from countries including Russia, Poland and India. UMBC's top two players are over 25, grandfathered in under the old rules.

Some players still think the game is rigged. "It's just buying players and championships, and that's not appropriate," said Johnny Sadoff, a Harvard student from Silver Spring.


One crucial difference between college chess and college sports is that the chess players tend to realize they aren't likely to make a living playing their game. Many consequently turn down attractive scholarships in order to attend better schools. The odds of a college athlete making it in the pros are also devastatingly low--but that doesn't stop a great many players in big name sports from betting that they will be the exception to the rule. Their educations--and their future prospects--hang in the balance.

posted on December 29, 2006 12:38 PM








Comments:

One crucial difference between college chess and college sports is that the chess players tend to realize they aren't likely to make a living playing their game. Many consequently turn down attractive scholarships in order to attend better schools. The odds of a college athlete making it in the pros are also devastatingly low--but that doesn't stop a great many players in big name sports from betting that they will be the exception to the rule. Their educations--and their future prospects--hang in the balance.


Huh? I'm not even going to ask where you get the first assertion from. (It's certainly not in the article.) But what makes you think that college athletes passing up Ivies in favor of scholarships in hopes of a pro career (none of that even makes sense!) is a significant problem?

Posted by: JSinger at January 2, 2007 1:45 PM



The first assertion certainly is in the article: "For all the perks at the flush programs, not all promising players leap at the scholarships, figuring that they are better off getting the most prestigious degrees they can since few can make a living from chess." And no one said anything about college athletes passing up Ivy league educations in order to play ball. My point was simply that many college athletes in big-time sports aren't in college to get educations--as has been exhaustively documented elsewhere. As I noted up front in the post, Margaret Soltan has been exhaustively documenting the corruption in college athletic programs where education has fallen by the wayside.

Posted by: Erin O'Connor at January 2, 2007 2:07 PM