Fla. community college checkmates Ivys
By SARAH LARIMER, Associated Press Writer
Thu Mar 22, 7:33 AM ET
MIAMI - Don't underestimate the grocery store deli worker, the security alarm salesman or the 34-year-old computer science student who anchor the Miami Dade College chess team. The community college undergrads have already faced Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, Northwestern and beaten them all.
By finishing fourth in that Pan American Intercollegiate Chess Tournament, Miami Dade qualified for this weekend's finals of collegiate chess, facing powerhouses University of Texas-Dallas, Duke University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"They're formidable players," said Jim Stallings, University of Texas-Dallas' director for chess and education. "You can't just take anybody for granted in this tournament, because they are the top four U.S. teams."
Miami Dade, with 160,000 students, may have few admission requirements, but it has made the Final Four five consecutive years. It is seeking its first title, after finishing third in each previous try.
Five years ago, no one was watching the Miami Dade team, mainly because it didn't exist.
Professor Rene Garcia says a group of students wandered into his office, said they had formed a team and informed him he was their new adviser.
"Not only was it a surprise to me that apparently we had a team, but their performance in the tournament was remarkable," said Garcia, who teaches statistics and psychology at the college.
Garcia begged the college for uniforms -- first T-shirts, now blazers -- so players didn't have to compete in their flip-flops and unmatching shirts. The team had to tell him to keep his emotions in check during competitions because he was just too excited.
"I think the one advantage that we've had is that these are players who have a real love for the game and they've played since they were very little," Garcia said.
Renier Gonzalez, a former Cuban national player and the current Miami Dade captain, said the four-person team has earned its opponents' respect with tough play and a fierce competitive spirit.
"We always tried hard. Even those matches that we lost, we fought hard. We had a good team," said Gonzalez, the computer science student. "Sometimes they respect you because of the attitude you put in the game, not only because of what you are able to do. And that's what we did since the beginning."
Liula Cardona -- who also used to play for Cuba's national team and now works in a grocery deli -- said she aggressively approaches each game with a team mentality.
"I always think of the team, first of the team," Cardona said. "When I play with the team, I always play first for the team then for me."
Of course, Miami Dade has had its share of setbacks. Maryland-Baltimore County lured one of its best players away with the promise of a scholarship. Several players have to fit in practice between English lessons, family obligations, jobs and classes. The team can't afford to compete in more than three tournaments a year. And its recruiting efforts are lackluster, at best.
"We try to answer the phone, in case anybody calls," Garcia said.
Still, the U.S. Chess Federation dubbed Miami Dade College the Chess College of the Year in 2004, beating out 120 schools jockeying for the distinction. This year, in another honor, the college will host the Pan American Intercollegiate Chess Tournament.
Texas-Dallas and Maryland-Baltimore County have dominated the tournament, but Garcia said this year could be different. Duke looks tougher, he said, and though his team is no longer easily dismissed, its players still feed off their underdog status.
"It's almost like, 'Yeah, go ahead. Underestimate me," he said. "Maybe I'll give you a lesson down the line."
Associated Press writer Suzette Laboy in Miami contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Miami Dade College: http://www.mdc.edu/home