College Chess: Death to the Pan-Am!

So recently there has been some buzz on the USCF forums about college chess (a discussion you know I can’t keep my big nose out of). I want to go on record as saying that I played college chess and saw firsthand the difficulty that the current situation creates.

It’s important to go into a bit of history about college chess (information I was unaware of before doing this research). College chess begins and ends with the “Pan-Ams” which is (was?) the premier college chess event in the US. It surprised me that the first Pan- Am started in 1946 (according to Wikipedia). Wikipedia outlines some issues that I have with college chess (not the best article to be honest).

According to Wikipedia before 1986 the “The Intercollegiate League of America (ICLA)” organized the Pan-Ams. I had never heard of this organization before but it appeared to operate independent of the USCF. The article notes that after the USCF took over managing the Pan-Am’s the organizational standards dropped and fewer teams competed (this is where the article gets a bit dicey). From the actual Wikipedia article:

After the USCF took over, organizational standards dropped, and this was followed by a gradual decline in the number of teams competing. One huge issue was the use of scholarship players. When South Florida, RI College and Yale offered scholarships to players, the players were legitimate college students just graduated from high school. However, the USCF made no effort to control colleges enrolling many very strong players in their 30s and even 40s, for the main purpose of winning the tournament. In chess, players can reach their peak in their 30s or later. A few colleges loaded up their teams with many older European GMs and IMs. Many other schools, figuring that they had absolutely no chance of completing, and feeling cheated, no longer showed up for the tournament. The attendance record clearly reflects this problem. However, recent rule changes have addressed this issue.

Some of you may take exception to the phrase “legitimate college student”. The point remains: you shouldn’t be able to pay professionals to play on your college team. This is where things get a bit sticky because there are many more college aged people with FIDE titles now. In a sense these people are “professional” chess players. They are professionals because FIDE (the international chess federation) has awarded them international titles. As you can see the whole thing becomes sticky.

The question raised on the forums was, “…if you have to be a full time student to compete in the ‘Final Four’ of chess?” The answer was yes but that you could be a graduate student as well. This accounted for the large proportion of older players this year. The conversation took on a bit of a different shape when I called for different “Divisions” of college chess (think like the NCAA D1 and D3 leagues). My thought process continued to evolve and I came to my current idea which is that we should put an end to the Pan-Ams.

burn her

The general consensus on the USCF forums when I mentioned ending the Pan-Ams.

End the Pan-Ams? You’re not talking about ending a tradition that has become an institution for the last 50+ years? My thought process goes as follows; it’s difficult to obtain the kind of funding that the Pan-Ams require (travel expenses, food expenses, lodging etc.). So why not create  a structure that works like the NCAA? My plan would involve four regions. The tournament venues would rotate every year. This would allow some of the schools with smaller clubs/programs a chance to compete for a bid to the final four. Each region would produce one winner which would grant them entry into the final four. This map shows the locations of many of the schools with chess programs/clubs.

As you can see the location of the vast majority of chess clubs/programs are in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. So we could have a tournament in NYC/New Jersey (Princeton comes to mind). This tournament would be our “East” bracket. The next region would be in Indianapolis or Tennessee (Crossville comes to mind); which would be our “Midwest” bracket. The next region would be in Houston or Dallas which would encompass our “South” bracket. The final tournament would be on the West coast near San Francisco the “West” bracket. I believe this solution would help to generate more enthusiasm and greater turnout than the Pan-Ams. Each location would be easier to get to and would allow more teams to participate.

The tournament itself would have higher fees for teams participating that are from the area (ie. if the tournament is in NYC then NYU and Columbia would be paying more to enter the tournament because their travel fees would be less burdensome). This would help to subsidize the cost of the tournament and allow for more teams to participate.

I understand there are a lot of unanswered questions but I believe this solution will help to cut costs and increase turnout. Additionally if anyone has an interest in helping to organize/sponsor/host a NY State College Team Championship please let me know. I’d love to hear your opinions on the matter; I know some of you have quite strong feelings about this so feel free to leave a comment below.




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