The Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship, the crown jewel of college chess in the USA, is historically played in the days between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, December 27th to 30th. The competition is open to chess teams from post-secondary schools in North America, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. This year’s Pan-Am featured 230 players competing on 53 teams, a slight decrease from last year’s 58 teams. Each Pan-Am team had four players (called “four boards”) and up to two alternates. At the end of six rounds in San Francisco, four of the U.S. schools qualified for the President’s Cup, to be held April 6th-7th, 2019, at the Marshall Chess Club in New York City: Webster University – the winner of the 2018 PanAms – The University of Texas at Dallas, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and – surprise surprise! – Harvard University!
University of Toronto was represented by our Varsity Chess Team, including Joseph Bellissimo, James Fu, Tanner McNamara and Gary Huang (Average Rating: 2184). The team managed to score 2.5 match points in 6 rounds, winning the distinction of the top International Team of the Tournament! At an individual level, Joseph Bellissimo, the top board of the team, impressed everyone by scoring a splendid 5/6, not losing a single game, and therefore becoming the second best performer of the entire tournament on Board 1. Team Captain and experienced PanAm player, Tanner McNamara, has the report from the games!
Team Results for University of Toronto (Average Rating: 2184 – Placed 33rd)
Round 1: UofT Won 3.5 – 0.5 against University of Utah (Avg Rtng: 1315)
Round 2: UofT Lost 3 – 1 to University of Maryland Baltimore (Avg. Rtng: 2484)
Round 3: UofT Won 2.5 – 1.5 against The Ohio State University (Avg Rtng: 1784)
Round 4: UofT Lost 3 – 1 to University of Texas Dallas D (Avg Rtng: 2385)
Round 5: UofT Drew 2 – 2 against Arizona State University (Avg Rtng: 1835)
Round 6: UofT Lost 3.5 – 0.5 against University College of Los Angeles (Avg Rtng: 2373)
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First off, I can’t write anything about this trip without saying a big thank you to Hart House, the chess club, all the executives, and everyone who helped and supported us from the qualifier through the event. It’s a huge honour to represent the University of Toronto at such a special event as Pan Ams.
As for the trip itself, things got off to a fun start when we had to move hotel rooms on the first day because the temperature was stuck at 24.5°C. But we did move rooms, we got more comfortable, and the tournament started well with a convincing victory over the University of Utah.
Regarding the venue, it was easy to tell we weren’t in San Francisco proper. Sure, the weather was beautiful and we had some nice views of the bay. But going out to look for food, we quickly discovered that Subway, by virtue of being basically the only restaurant not to close between lunch and dinner, would be our lunch spot every single day. Of course it didn’t help that Joseph is addicted to Subway, and then he started playing well and we couldn’t break his routine. And dinner would have to be in the hotel, because the night games ended after every restaurant closed. Seriously, you can’t even get late night pizza in Burlingame.
The chess got much tougher starting in round 2. We played reasonably well, but lost to a strong UMBC team 3-1. I grew up 15 minutes from UMBC, and I started playing chess the same year they won their first (of six!) Final Four. Growing up so close to the college chess scene, it was a dream come true when I was able to compete in Pan Ams for the first time.
But that was actually in 2014, for Carleton College. We had a great event, winning top small school and picking up top team upset for our win over NYU. We had a tough round four, though, paired against University of Toronto. I lost to an on-fire Nikita Gusev (who scored 5.5/6!). Four years later, now I’m in grad school at UofT, and I feel so lucky to have gotten the opportunity to go back to Pan Ams, now representing this school with such chess history, culture, and support.
Getting back to the chess, we had an easier matchup on paper against Ohio State in round 3, but we only barely managed to squeak by with a 2.5-1.5 victory. At times we were in danger of doing worse, but a win is a win, and this set us up for another tough matchup in the next round with the D team from University of Texas Dallas. Despite being a D team, they outrated us by a healthy margin on every board, and we ultimately lost 3-1.
In the fifth round we ended up in the top half of our score group again, and we were rewarded with another matchup favourable on paper against the C team from Arizona State. We just didn’t play well enough to win. After getting three good positions, we spoiled two of them and had to sweat out a saving swindle from Joseph on board one. But, as always in this event, he was up to the challenge. Although we couldn’t win the match, we pulled ahead of our international competition from Mexico with this draw.
With tied matches being uncommon in team competitions, we actually ended up underdogs in our final round against UCLA. For the first time, I saw my preparation still on the board after move three (this time to move 13!), but I rather quickly and recklessly spoiled what was a good position. We put up a decent fight but fell by a wide margin in the end. It must be noted that Joseph went into the final round with a chance for individual gold on board one. His hopes were dashed when Illia Nyzhnyk won for Webster-A, but a draw put him on 5/6 and in second place on board one. Mexico lost in the last round, and we clinched Top International, meeting one of our goals for the event.
We also thought before the start that we should have good chances to win our 2000-2199 rating division. At the awards ceremony, though, we saw a deserving Michigan team walk away with that hardware.
Another participant from the Ivy League Challenge, Harvard, went home with an even bigger prize – a trip to the Final Four in April courtesy of their fourth place finishing following a last round win over SLU-B. It was cool to see them do well, leaving two of the big schools – SLU and Texas Tech – on the outside looking in. Joining Harvard at the Final Four will be Pan Am winners Webster, UTD, and reigning champions UTRGV.
Personally, I failed to meet my standard of chess playing. I played a good warm up event earlier in December at the Hart House Holiday Open, picking up about 30 CFC rating points. I felt good going into Pan Ams, and then I promptly donated about 30 USCF rating points. Despite personal frustrations over the board, it was a fun event, and we stayed upbeat as we had our chances as a team, with the division and top international prizes still in play heading into the last round. Joseph, James, and Gary, thank you all for being such great teammates. I hope you had as much fun as I did.