How to Select a College Chess Team

Alan T. Sherman
Faculty Advisor, UMBC Chess Club
University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Baltimore, MD 21250

October 18, 1999

In 1991, when I first became Faculty Advisor of the UMBC Chess Club, the problem was finding four student chess players willing to travel to compete in the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship (Pan-Am). By 1993, we faced the new problem of selecting two four-person teams from a field of over sixteen hopeful candidates. Over the years we experimented with a variety of procedures for selecting our intercollegiate chess teams. Eventually our procedures evolved into the "coach's choice" system we use today, which has produced Pan-Am titles in 1996 and 1998 (CL 5/97, 3/99).

I would like to share our experiences at UMBC in selecting intercollegiate teams, to discuss some of the issues involved, and to recommend some selection options. This article addresses the problem of selecting a team or teams from the students already present at the university; it does not address the separate problem of recruiting strong chess players to campus.

Team selection is a complex problem that involves a variety of competing objectives. Not only do we wish to select the strongest possible team, we seek a process that is fair, efficient, inclusive, final, and defensible, selecting reliable players who work well as a team and who are committed to play. Years ago we also greatly valued objectivity; later, however, we recognized the dangers of objectively interpreting unreliable data and came to favor the flexibility of subjectivity.

Three Selection Methods

Three common ways to select teams are by rating, selection tournament, or coach's choice. There is no perfect selection process: each has different characteristics, and which is best for a university depends in part on local conditions.

The simplest and most objective process is to select teams by USCF rating. Although ratings contain much information, relying solely on ratings has several serious shortcomings. Some students are under- or overrated. Others are unrated. Ratings do not necessarily reflect players' current strength because they might have been inactive for long periods of time. There are regional variations. Interpreting foreign ratings can be problematic. Scholastic ratings tend to be rather unreliable because many scholastic players are rapidly improving, and many have been inadequately tested against the high level of top collegiate chess. In addition, ratings say nothing about a player's style, sports character, or dedication to a team. Although ratings can be unreliable, selecting by rating is likely to yield strong teams.

For a while we selected our teams solely by the final standings of a mandatory 5-round Swiss system selection tournament. Initially, we liked the objectivity and apparent fairness of this method. We also liked that it required each candidate to demonstrate performance and commitment. Our experience with this process, however, revealed numerous serious problems. Invariably, one of the strongest players would have an uncharacteristically weak tournament performance. Some candidates would miss the tournament for various reasons including illness, research travel, or matriculation in spring semester. Also, some of our top players did not want to play. Although there is great value in requiring a demonstration of performance and commitment, the outcome of a single selection tournament is too variable to select the strongest team reliably.

For those who wish to use a selection tournament, I recommend the round robin format, because round robins are more reliable than are Swiss systems. For enhanced reliability, it is preferable to use the same time controls as those for the team event (e.g. Pan-Am time controls). If many players wish to try out, one could hold an open Swiss system followed by a closed single or double round robin for all team-eligible players attaining at least some minimum score in the open Swiss. Such a procedure, however, is time consuming, inflexible, and still subject to significant variation.

Learning from our experiences, in fall 98, we adopted a more reliable and more flexible (albeit less objective) process that we call "coach's choice." In this process, the coach selects the teams on the basis of all available evidence, including ratings, performance in the required university championship, performance in other tournaments, titles, playing style, prior performance on the team, sports character, and attitude. We find this process has many advantages over the other methods. By considering more evidence, it is more likely to select the strongest team. It is helpful to consider sport performance over several different tournaments against a variety of strong opponents. Coach's choice affords considerable flexibility to accommodate the many special cases that will invariably arise, and it allows the coach to consider playing style, to select different teams for different events, and to select different teams by different criteria. This process, however, requires the availability of a coach or otherwise qualified individual or group to make the selection, and it may lead to grumbles from unselected players of alleged unfair decisions by the coach.

One advantage of coach's choice is that different selection criteria can be applied for different teams. For example, in selecting three teams for the Pan-Am, our Coach, Igor Epshteyn, gives primary consideration to sport performance for the first team. Typically, ratings (USCF and FIDE) carry the most weight. But for the second team, he also considers dedication, improvement, and potential. For the third team, Epshteyn additionally weighs significant service contributions to the club.

In selecting a team, it is important to consider playing style. In contrast with individual play in Swiss systems, team play favors steady competitors who can avoid loss. To place first in an individual Swiss tournament, it is usually beneficial to the individual to avoid draws and to take risks to win. To win a team match or team Swiss competition, individual draws are relatively much better than in individual Swiss systems; team score is the overwhelming factor. Coach's choice affords the ability to select in part on the basis of playing style.

Experience at UMBC: Issues and Solutions

The UMBC Club requires that, for any team to be recognized or funded by the club for any event, selection must take place in an open fashion following our coach's choice procedure.

We require all team candidates to play in the open section of the 5-SS UMBC Championship, held early in the fall semester (TLA, CL 9/99). Since 1998, we have opened this tournament to everyone; it is not restricted to UMBC students. In doing so, we create a stronger tournament and afford our players with the learning experience of playing a greater variety of opponents, where large cash prizes motivate our top players to participate. Moreover, it is usually possible to make a modest profit on such tournaments. Playing in the open section of the championship is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being selected on a team-though placing very high in the championship will likely earn a position on a team.

Our experiences with the UMBC championship demonstrate the need for flexibility. For example, International Master Valery Atlas (and his twin brother FM Dmitry) missed the championship because they matriculated to UMBC in spring 1997 from Vaduz, Liechtenstein. This September, Senior Master Eugene Perelshteyn did not play because he was in Armenia representing the USA at the World Junior Championship, where he placed tenth. Anyone with a valid compelling excuse for not playing in the championship must notify the faculty advisor prior to the championship and must play in the open section of the next major local tournament.

Requiring team candidates to play in the championship not only forces a comparison of playing strengths, it also identifies undedicated and unreliable players. For example, every year a few new candidates boastfully proclaim their interest in the team and ability to perform for the team yet fail to complete the tournament, forfeit games, or score zero points. If, in the championship, a candidate cannot show up to play his or her rounds on time, we will not later risk the team's outcome on such an unreliable player. If a candidate is unwilling to put forth the effort to play in the championship, it is unlikely that the candidate will act with dedication to the team during the season. The championship helps us identify and filter out undedicated and unreliable players before the first match of the season.

Our experiences also demonstrate the need to select reliable players. For example, we lost one match in part because an expert-strength player stayed up the previous night attending a rock concert and then, for reasons unknown to me, decided to experiment with an opening he barely knows or plays. We lost another match in part because one of our players missed his ride to Johns Hopkins after forgetting to reset his alarm clock for daylight savings time. Discipline is important, and the team captain can play a significant role in ensuring that all team members are present, on time, and ready to play for each round.

To accommodate the wishes of exceptionally strong players, we allow (but discourage) anyone rated at least 200 points above the field to skip the selection tournament, provided he or she plays a timed simul against the top six UMBC finishers. For example, in fall 1995, Grandmaster Ilya Smirin (then 2627) elected this option: he won all games using less than 20 minutes on any clock and spent much of that time reading a book about Al Pacino. Originally, this rule applied only to Grandmasters and International Masters. Later, at the objection of a highly rated non-titled player, we modified this rule to apply solely based on ratings.

Briefly, we instituted a playoff system to deal with anomalous results in the selection tournament by holding a round robin tournament among those finishers in the selection tournament who were closely competing for some team positions. We also considered allowing challenge matches between individuals. At the strong advice of Coach Epshteyn, we discontinued these experiments because they did not produce reliable results and they threatened to create animosity among the players. Playoffs and challenges also create additional logistic complexity and prolong team selection. Nevertheless, for training, we still encourage but do not require all selected team members to play in a multi-section round-robin tournament (with Pan-Am time controls) played one game per week throughout the fall term. We also expect each team member to play in the open section of at least one strong local tournament between the championship and the Pan-Am.

Team candidates are welcome to meet individually with the coach to provide the coach with additional information, such as discussion of recent games. All candidates are encouraged to attend the weekly coaching sessions.

In 1997, the USCF College Chess Committee (CCC) liberalized the rules governing alternates from any school that fields two or more teams in the Pan-Am. Now, any player on any team may advance to play on any higher team, provided certain conditions are met. This rule affects team selection for the Pan-Am. At UMBC, we exercise different policies governing the selection of alternates depending on the playing strengths of the individuals involved. If there is an alternate candidate for the first team who is approximately the same strength as the fourth board player, then we select exactly one alternate and treat this alternate as an active team player; this alternate will not simply stand idle as a spare player in case someone cannot play. Doing so allows the top four players to skip a round for rest if desired and helps promote team spirit by nurturing each team as a separate unit. If the best alternate candidate is weaker than the fourth board, or if there are two or more alternate candidates for whom no one clearly stands out as best, we prefer to defer the selection of any alternate until one is needed during the event. Then, if an alternate is needed, the coach can consider the performance of the candidates from among the second team during the event.

Always, our primary consideration is the sport performance of our first team. We also value our other teams, whose members can expose their talents and learn from their team experiences. Lower teams can assist the first team by scoring points off rival teams; they might even win the tournament, as almost happened when first place in the 1996 Pan-Am was determined by a match between UMBC's A and B Teams in the final round. We never, however, weaken our first team to strengthen our second team, even if that results in using a very strong player as first alternate to the first team.

In some years, some of our players would not firmly commit to playing on the team. This situation created morale problems and serious logistic difficulties in making travel arrangements. Beginning in fall 98, we instituted the use of strongly-worded "commitment forms." For each team event, we publicize a commitment date and a selection date. On the commitment date, we hold a mandatory team meeting to explain the team-selection process, to discuss team issues, and to present awards. On the selection date, the coach selects the teams for the event from among all team-eligible candidates who submitted signed commitment forms by the commitment date. I strongly recommend the use of such commitment forms.

Unfortunately, I have endured a few experiences with difficult players who have tried to demand or even extort special conditions or higher scholarships, or who refuse to put the team's interests above their selfish individual interests. There is no easy solution for dealing with such unpleasant situations, which inevitably arise in competitive teams, and which can undermine team spirit. In some cases I have accommodated the player's wishes (e.g. booking a private hotel room); in other cases I have steadfastly refused. Our commitment form includes a mandatory pledge "to act in the best interests of the team." In addition, students on chess scholarships, in addition to maintaining high grade point averages, are required to try out for and play on a UMBC team and to participate in the community service activities of the club. Among the many challenges faced by the coach and advisor are to support and nurture the players and to keep them happy.

Our championship also determines the university champion, who is given a large perpetual trophy to keep for one year. This trophy bears the names of all previous champions. We also award class title certificates to the top UMBC students in various rating groups. To promote chess among beginners, we concurrently hold a beginners championship. The top UMBC student in the beginners championship, while ineligible for team selection, is also awarded a large perpetual trophy and is given the title of "UMBC Amateur Chess Champion."


At UMBC we find that our implementation of coach's choice reaps the benefits of a selection tournament while maintaining necessary and desirable flexibility. Team candidates must demonstrate performance and commitment by playing in the university championship, yet the coach can reliably select the strongest possible team by considering all available evidence, including ratings and playing style. We realized the limitations of completely objective methods (e.g. selection by ratings or tournament only) and came to appreciate the benefits of our more flexible and reliable-and necessarily subjective-approach. Universities without a coach could perform the selection process by a small committee of high rated players in consultation with the faculty advisor and club officers, or they could use a round robin selection tournament.

Dr. Alan T. Sherman is Faculty Advisor of the UMBC Chess Club and a member of the USCF College Chess Committee. A condensed version of this essay will appear in the December 1999 issue of Chess Life.

10/18/99 7:25 PM