In the United States, major professional sports are largely fed by college athletics, where top competitors are then drafted onto professional teams (or begin individual profession sports like tennis or golf) after their collegiate careers. Of course, this isn’t exactly how chess works, but the importance of collegiate competition helps explain why the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship has become a relatively high profile event on the US chess calendar.
Normally hosted in December at a United States university, the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship – also known as the World Series of College Chess – is a six-round, team Swiss System tournament where the team that scores the most team points (one point for a team win, a half-point for a drawn match) is declared the winner. The tournament also serves as a qualifier for the President’s Cup, which has become known as the Final Four of College Chess. Any college or university from North America, South America, Central America or the Caribbean can participate, though historically, only schools from the United States and Canada have won the tournament.
History of the Pan-American
The Pan-Am Intercollegiate Championship was first held in 1946 as a small tournament that mostly featured teams from the northeast – particularly those in and around New York City. In fact, the first nine tournaments featured seven winners from New York City (Columbia University three times, CCNY twice, and Fordham University and Brooklyn College once each), with only the back-to-back wins by the University of Chicago in 1956 and 1958 breaking the streak.
Originally held every two years, the tournament became an annual tradition in 1962, around the same time when the fields began to expand. Until that time, about a dozen teams normally competed, but then number doubled on average over the next decade. When Bobby Fischer rose to prominence, those numbers expanded to an even greater extent, with a record 123 teams participating in the 1975 Championship – one that saw the University of Nebraska and Harvard University share the top prize.
In more recent years, schools that offer scholarships to chess players have dominated the Pan-Am Championship. While this trend began as early as the 1970s, it truly blossomed in the 1990s when the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) began offering scholarships to outstanding chess players – including those who were not of the age of typical college student-athletes. Today, schools including UMBC, the University of Texas at Dallas, Webster University and Texas Tech field teams of titled players. While rules have been tightened to encourage college chess teams to field squads that better represent their student populations, these scholarship programs have still led to the creation of powerhouse teams for those few schools that do recruit chess talent.
Through 2012, UMBC and UTD share the record for most times winning or sharing first place in the Pan-Am, each having achieved the feat ten times.