College football has Alabama. College basketball has Duke, Kansas and UCLA.
College chess has ... UT Dallas?
UTD snuck into the final spot in the 2017 President's Cup, also known as "The Final Four of Chess," with a victory over UT Rio Grande Valley in the next-to-last match of the Pan Am Team Chess Championship in December. After missing the 2016 Final Four, making the cut this year marks the 15th appearance for the Comets in the event's 17-year existence.
Six grandmasters recruited to UT Dallas from all over the world by program director Jim Stallings have led the team back to chess' version of March Madness with a chance at a sixth win at the Final Four, a round-robin style event that this year pits UTD against Texas Tech, St. Louis University and Webster.
There were 1,541 grandmasters worldwide on the World Chess Federation's (FIDE) November 2016 ratings list, so six is a pretty good number.
"More and moreso we're looking for grandmasters, because the level of competition has gotten so strong," Stallings said. "When I first began here about 12 years ago, if we had one or two grandmasters on our team, it was considered a very strong team and capable of winning almost any championship. Today with six grandmasters, it's a real dogfight."
The Comets have won the thing or tied for first five times, but this year are seeded fourth of the four teams. Meanwhile, Webster, a private school located in suburban St. Louis, has run off the last four President's Cup titles.
UT Dallas' last win came in 2008, and the Comets have placed second twice during Webster's four-year run at the top.
As a school of a certain size (23,095 enrollment in 2014) that has never been in the national spotlight because of its athletic programs, UT Dallas' chess program has become a point of pride on its Richardson campus.
"It's sort of this really apt branding," Stallings said. "We think of this intellectual prowess at this university, and what chess involves. Chess at UT Dallas really represents the university moreso than a football team at some other places."
UTD is the kind of campus that sends its chess team off to the Final Four with a pep rally fit for a nerd king, and the Comets will get that treatment for a 15th time when the team leaves for New York on March 23 to play two days' worth of the most mentally draining chess of the year at the New York Athletic Club.
But these are still college students when it comes right down to it. When The Ticket radio station paid UTD a visit in April 2016, the morning show's Gordon Keith asked the team's top-rated grandmaster, Denis Kadric (FIDE 2595), whether Keith might one day beat Kadric should he practice enough and study Kadric's game enough.
Kadric paused and thought before replying, "You could. And then you would wake up."
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