The eyes of the sporting world turn to the college national championship.

The competitors have trained most of their young lives for this event. Hour after hour of rigorous repetition until their plays, their moves are all but muscle memory.

Teammates will rely on each other: You do your job, I’ll do mine.

Coaches set strategy. Plays and tricks are intricately designed, meticulously planned; counterattacks considered. But at some point, things will go awry. The best-laid plans will lead to improvisation.

We are, of course, talking about the PanAmerican Intercollegiate Team Chess Championships, a four-day event concluding this weekend in downtown Seattle.

It is the nation’s most important college chess tournament with 84 four-person teams competing from 48 schools. The competition, which began in 1946, drew more teams this year than any year since 1976, the height of the Bobby Fischer-inspired chess boom.


Twelve teams this year feature players with average ratings above 2400, placing them among the elite of the elite.

Despite the similarities, there are some differences between the collegiate chess national championship and the College Football Playoff National Championship, which will be played Monday.

The football game between the University of Georgia and TCU will be played in a raucous, 70,000-person stadium. The chess tournament is being played in a whisper-quiet hotel ballroom.

It would be tough, in fact, to find a crowded ballroom as quiet as the one at the downtown Seattle Westin this weekend.

It is packed with hundreds of people. Not one of them speaks. The only sounds are the occasional cough and the hushed click of dozens of digital chess clocks being gently punched.

Over the course of roughly four hours Friday morning, into early afternoon, 336 college students played 168 simultaneous games of chess.


Players sat at the boards, rapt in concentration. Others milled about, clearing their minds as their opponents pondered. They looked at other games, letting their minds shift wavelength, searching for inspiration.

Each player had 90 minutes to complete their moves, plus 30 seconds added every time they made a move. A player’s clock only ticks when it’s their turn.

In the foyer, out of earshot, players discussed their matches, rehashing where things might have gone differently. They searched for blunders, sacrifices, skewers, passed pawns.

Like any sport, with play-action passes, pick and rolls, power plays, chess has its own lingo, indecipherable to outsiders.

“I had to play F6, it’s the whole point of my position.”

“There might be an issue after G2.”

“I was down material but threatening to fork everything.”

They discussed openings: Alekhine’s Defense, the King’s Indian Attack, the Caro-Kann.


Players go in with a plan, a much-studied opening sequence that can take them 15 or 20 moves into the game. But a strategy will only take you so far.

“Everybody has a plan,” Mike Tyson once said, “until they get punched in the mouth.”

There are, an old saying goes, more possible games of chess than there are atoms in the universe.

“You get to a new position, then you have to start thinking,” said Liem Le (favorite openings: Catalan, Queen’s Gambit), coach of the chess program at Webster University in St. Louis.

Webster, one of only half a dozen or so schools in the country that gives out chess scholarships, is as close to a favorite as there is at the tournament.

“People ask me all the time, how many moves can you calculate,” Le said.


More than most.

Le, who emigrated from Vietnam to play chess at Webster, took over as coach two years ago. He is a super grandmaster, an informal title distinguishing such players from regular old grandmasters, the highest formal title in chess.

He is the 22nd-ranked player in the world, one of only a few dozen in history with a ranking higher than 2700, and a former speed chess world champion.

He plays chess with his students every day, but before one of his own tournaments, he studies for weeks, looking for weaknesses in his own game and his opponents’.

As in football, teams scout each other, searching online databases of old games, looking for patterns, tendencies.

Nick Pedretti (favorite opening: the London System), a player from California State University, Northridge, said players will scout their opponents using records from, the leading site to play online. Some players, trying to outmaneuver each other before the game even begins, will change their usernames, trying to make their game history inaccessible.

“I wouldn’t say it’s dirty to scrub your account, but it’s kind of weird,” Pedretti said. “My opponent scrubbed his account.”


But his opponent also expressed surprise when Pedretti switched up the order of his moves from the way he’d played in past recorded games.

“You have to be versatile,” he said. “I’m doing less theory, trying to be more intuitional.”

Another way it’s different from football: Chess uniforms are a bit haphazard. Some teams have matching garb, some do not.

The University of Chicago had matching maroon and white letterman jackets, each player’s name stamped on the back: Balakrishnan, Chandran, Zinski. Stanford’s team had microfiber fleece jackets; their Friday opponent, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley — a perennial powerhouse — had polos and hoodies.

Others wore tie-dye, a Barcelona jersey, sweats.

Ingus Stegis (favorite opening: the Ruy Lopez), a sophomore at the University of Southern California, stood out in a trim gray plaid suit, white shirt, black tie. It’s the biggest college chess tournament, he reasoned.

“It felt right to wear a suit and be nicely dressed, it felt appropriate,” he said. He also won his first two games, Thursday and Friday, wearing the suit. “Maybe it’s an intimidation factor, a psychological thing.”


The University of Washington sent four teams to the tournament.

Pranav Senthilkumar (favorite openings: the Sicilian, the Benoni), a UW junior, was taught chess by his grandmother and has been playing for about a decade.

It’s both stressful and allows him to relax. It’s competitive but also enjoyable.

“It teaches you a lot of different skills,” he said. Resilience, time management and “being able to calmly evaluate situations.”

Much like the college football national championship, the collegiate chess championship is broadcast live.

You can watch a select few matches, between some of the highest-rated players, streaming on Twitch or

Cassidy Sparks (favorite opening: the Stonewall attack), a Howard University junior majoring in political science and sociology, started playing chess when she was young, abandoned it in high school but rediscovered it recently. This is her first big, in-person tournament.

She is well-positioned to parse the differences between contact sports and chess. She’s also on the Howard rugby team. The differences, she said, are obvious.

But the similarities are there.

“The aggressiveness of the opponent, the team aspect, just the tenacity you have to have,” Sparks said.

She’d held her own, but lost her Friday morning match.

“Honestly,” Sparks said, “it felt like getting tackled out there.”