The 2017 Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championships saw St. Louis teams prevail yet again. The tournament was held in Columbus, Ohio, Dec. 27-30. Sixty teams from all over the U.S., Canada and Mexico took part in the six-round Swiss tournament.
The traditional chess collegiate powerhouses, Webster University, University of Texas Dallas, Texas Tech, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and Saint Louis University, all came with reinforced teams, while many top universities, like Harvard, University of California Berkeley and Columbia University brought strong representation.
The favorites in the event quickly rose to the top, convincingly winning the first two matches. By round three, they were already facing each other, with many grandmaster vs. grandmaster duels on the top boards. The tension in the beautiful playing hall was palpable; in such short tournaments every single point is of utmost importance.
Today, there is a huge initiative for recruiting and giving scholarships to strong grand masters who are interested in studying in America. This trend started with the University of Texas at Dallas and University of Maryland, Baltimore in the late 1990s. The schools saw it as a win-win scenario: chess players on scholarship tend to earn some of the highest grade point averages, and the schools are represented internationally in many different events, including the Chess Olympiad and World Cup.
In the 2017 Pan-American, it was possible to find former World Junior Champions, an Olympic Gold Medalist and many, many titled players. Universities could send as many teams of four players (with up to two alternates) as they wanted. UTD sent five teams. The reason for this was that even though winning the event is the ultimate goal, it is important to maximize chances to reach the top four spots because those qualify for the final four move onto the championship to be held in New York in late March.
The St. Louis area was represented by four schools: Saint Louis University, Webster University, Washington University and Lindenwood University. The key matchup of the tournament was in round five, between SLU and Webster's A-squad, the only teams with a perfect score. With draws on boards one, two and four, the duel between Yaroslav Zherebukh (SLU) and Ray Robson (Webster) was all that was left. Robson offered Zherebukh a draw at one point but, sensing he had winning chances, he played on. This backfired as Robson won in a beautiful sacrificial fashion to catapult Webster to 5.0/5. With a draw in the last round against UTD, Webster secured another first place. SLU recovered in the final round with a victory over Harvard, securing second place in the tournament. Rounding out the final four are Texas Tech and UT Rio Grande Valley.
This is Webster's second year in a row with the first place trophy, and they hope to continue to show their dominance at the Final Four, which they have won five consecutive times. Competition is getting stiff, and it will be anyone's tournament in March.
Alejandro Ramirez earned his grandmaster title by age 15. That achievement set Ramirez as the first Centro-American to earn the elite GM title. Ramirez lives in St. Louis and is the coach of the Saint Louis University Chess Team.