November 13, 2007


Rah! Rah! Block That Rook!: Small, no-name colleges have suddenly become powerhouses in intercollegiate chess. By whipping Harvard and Yale in the thinking-person’s sport, they are cleverly trying to build reputations to attract top-quality applicants and alumni money (Luke Mullins, November 9, 2007, The American)

Were it not for chess, Ray Robson might be just another boy genius. After completing sixth grade last year, the spindly 12-year-old began pursuing higher learning at his home in Largo, Florida, studying Mandarin with his mother and discussing literature with his father, a professor at St. Petersburg College. But by upsetting a slew of middle-aged chess opponents, Ray has distinguished himself from even the most exceptional American prodigies. “He directs his own chess studies; I can’t help him there,” says Gary Robson, Ray’s father.

Ray began playing chess at age three, after his father brought home a plastic chess-and-checkers set from the local Wal-Mart. Expecting his son to take to checkers, Gary was surprised when Ray easily grasped the complicated maneuverings of chess, and downright shocked when, a year later, Ray beat his old man for the first time. “I never let Ray win at anything,” Gary Robson says. “You should see our ping-pong battles. They’re ferocious.”

Since that time, Ray has worked tirelessly to improve: mastering state-of-the-art computer chess programs, amassing a library of 500 chess books, and studying under three different professional instructors. The hard work has paid off. With seven scholastic titles under his belt, Ray has finished in the top ten of the World Youth Chess Championships for the past three years, and tied for first place at the Pan American Youth Chess Championships for the past two. And just last year, Ray became the youngest player in history to qualify for the United States Chess Championships.

“He’s coming along well,” says James Stallings. Few people are more interested in Ray’s development than Stallings, who is director and head recruiter for the chess team at the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD). In April 2005, when Ray was ten years old, UTD awarded him a four-year scholarship. Ray had just won the scholastic Super National chess tournament in Nashville. “Ray Robson will cut you up and destroy you,” Stallings says today. “He’s probably the top talent in the U.S. right now.”

For his part, Ray—who sleeps under a blanket emblazoned with robots, space stations, dump trucks, tractors, and choo-choo trains—says he hasn’t spent much time reflecting on UTD’s offer. “I don’t ever think much about where I’m going to college,” Ray says. Still, when Stallings caught up with Ray and his father at the U.S. Chess Championship

in Stillwater, Oklahoma, this past May, he took the opportunity to tick off the reasons why Ray should matriculate at UTD—whenever he is ready for college. He’d have the chance to play with other world-class chess players, Stallings told him, live in on-campus apartments available exclusively to the chess team, and enjoy UTD’s excellent academic programs. Full tuition and fees, of course, are already taken care of.

"He's a real salesman," says Gary Robson.

Just like private businesses, American colleges and universities need familiar, reputable brand names to bring in revenue. But with elite academia already crammed with well-known institutions like Harvard and Stanford, smaller, regional universities must work hard to establish identities of their own. Over the years, in an effort to achieve national exposure and boost reputations, American universities have tried everything from hiring Nobel laureates to building championship basketball teams. Today, however, a small but growing number of colleges have come up with an unconventional brand-enhancer: building a winning chess team. Yes, chess.

There was a funny bit on a recent Chuck, where one of his old Stanford profs turns out to have been a CIA recruiter and when the bad guys attack on campus Chuck calls on what turns out to be half the student body for help.

Posted by at November 13, 2007 8:34 AM