Sports | March 18, 2018 9:45 am

Before UMBC Shocked College Basketball, School Was Known as Chess Power

No. 16 seed University of Maryland-Baltimore County checkmated No. 1 seed Virginia in March Madness shocker.

The UMBC Retrievers bench reacts to their 74-54 victory over the Virginia Cavaliers during the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Spectrum Center on March 16, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Sixteenth-seeded University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) basketball team proved that a pawn could upend a king on the court when the Retrievers defeated No. 1 seed Virginia, 74-54, in the biggest upset in March Madness history.

But the school has shown a penchant for winning strategy before — on the chessboard.

Now, the UMBC chess program is getting the type of Sports Illustrated treatment usually reserved for more physically athletic champions. The magazine has a profile of the UMBC’s chess team, which rose from finishing 26th out of 27 teams at the 1990 Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship to dominating that tourney six years later. That would prove the first of ten titles for the team over the next 10 years.

Dr. Alan Sherman, director of the school’s chess program, sees parallels between his squad and the Retrievers basketballers who checked Virginia’s offense at every turn. “It’s kind of like a novice beating a grandmaster at chess. It rarely happens,” He told SI.

To build his vaunted program, Sherman started out thinking like a good athletic director: Recruit the best players possible, like a grandmaster for Israel who helped turn the chess team’s fortunes around in the mid-’90s. Sherman also secured scholarship funds.

What both teams have in common is they thrive when they’re underestimated.

“One advantage the underdog sometimes has is the higher-rated player sometimes underestimates them,” Sherman told SI. “In chess and all sports, you have to balance the reality of what’s on the board with what the probabilities are before the games started. If you overestimate your position and underestimate your opponent, you can get in serious trouble.”