The Final Four is here!
Oh, you thought I meant basketball? Nope. This weekend just outside Washington, D.C., a different group of student-athletes will compete for college supremacy ... in chess.
Forget Wichita State. Forget Louisville (but please get well soon, Kevin Ware). Forget Michigan and Syracuse. This weekend, it's all about Webster University, University of Texas - Dallas (UTD), University of Illinois, and University of Maryland - Baltimore County (UMBC).
The teams will be competing for the President's Cup, the most prestigious award in college chess. Since 2001, teams from universities around the country have competed for the title, with UMBC having won the title 6 times (and every year they didn't win, they still placed in the top 3).
While unfortunately not an NCAA-sanctioned sport, college chess still has all the thrills and upsets of the traditional Final Four of college basketball. In fact, previously irrelevant Texas Tech has won the last two President's Cups, breaking UMBC and UTD's streak of the only two teams to have won the coveted title.
But Webster University could be the dark horse heading into this year's tournament, as all 6 members on the team are grandmasters. Grandmasters are the best chess players in the world, and only world champions as recognized by the World Chess Federation have bragging rights over them.
Even UMBC chess director Alan Sherman thinks Webster will win this year.
"Anything can happen, because it's a competition," he said. "But I'm predicting Webster will be the clear winner."
This statement is absolutely striking not only because of UMBC's dominance in the sport, but also because of its devotion to chess and the players. It was the first university in the country to offer scholarships for playing chess, thus accumulating rosters full of grandmasters.
Speaking of grandmasters, Webster's chess coach, Susan Polgar, is the first woman to earn the men's grandmaster title. She coached the Texas Tech chess team to their 2 recent Final Four victories and then left for Webster, her players joining her there on their own volition.
"We were hoping to get more support for our program, but unfortunately that didn't happen," she said about her decision.
Not surprisingly, college chess faces some of the same issues as NCAA sports. One of the main ones has to do with recruiting. Because there are so few college chess teams, the race to recruit the best players from all over the world is dirty — and expensive.
"There's a danger in each school spending more money and not getting any better," said Sherman. "I think Webster just decided they wanted to win and if they invested more money, they could just outdo the others."
But Polgar isn't worried about money or Sherman's critique; right now she is more concerned with the fact that Texas Tech failed to return the President's Cup for this year's tournament:
Aside from the powerhouses above, you have Illinois — a different story altogether. The team consists of a group of freshmen and sophomores, all paying for their own education, and appearing in the Final Four without a coach.
Illinois is a Cinderella team. Teams qualify for the Final Four by placing in the top four in the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship, and they just happened to tie for first place — with the other 3 teams appearing in the Final Four.
"Our expectations were just to have fun and maybe pull off a few upsets, but we were definitely not expecting to tie for first place," said Eric Rosen, the only ranked player on the Illinois team. Interestingly, he turned down a chess scholarship from UTD in order to study computer science at Illinois.
This weekend's event promises thrills, upsets, and lots of fun. It's also free and open to the public.
Now, how much were your basketball Final Four tickets again?