FSU's Road to the 2013 Pan Am
By Ben Silva   
December 23, 2013
The writer Ben Silva at the Marshall Chess Club
Imagine you are a big basketball fan, but only a legendary baller on the confines of your own 9ft driveway hoop. Now imagine being able to play in College Basketball’s March Madness against all the top teams in the nation. That pretty much sums up the annual Pan American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship for me. I first became aware of the Pan Am a few years back when I learned that Miami Dade Community College made it to the final four. I wasn’t back in school at that time, but being from Miami myself, I remember wishing that my university had had a chess team too.

Not too long after that, I played in the last Miami Open, which was probably only my third chess tournament . While there I witnessed this smaller kid named Ray Robson completely trash GM Reiner Gonzalez’s Scandinavian defense. Reiner is a real cool guy and a strong GM, who in fact recently helped the Miami Sharks become the overall Champs in the US Chess league, so this sweet game made a huge impression on me and I instantly became a Robson fan. I always make sure to look out for his games in Chess Life magazine and online. Now that he is a GM and in college playing for Webster’s Super strong team, it naturally led me to read about the Pan-Ams, which also determines the Final Four and eventual collegiate championship.
Chess is big at Webster University, though this billboard caused massive controversy!

After returning to grad school at Florida State it somehow took me three years to suddenly have the epiphany that I too could play in the Pan Am. For those of you out there either heading to college or already attending I wanted to outline sort of a “how to” and hope that it encourages a lot of other weekend warrior chess players and schools who aren’t already in the Pan Am to get involved. I decided to break it down into sections so that the reader can consult whichever is most relevant.

The Team
The first thing any school is going to need is a team, and unless you are at Webster, UTD, or Texas Tech (who is hosting the event this year), it is unlikely that there will be any direction from the school itself to form a chess team. Although the Pan Am is a totally legit and prestigious event there are no qualifiers to attend, which is a big merry X-mas and happy Hannukah to our team, otherwise we might not be able to compete. There are no rating requirements and just as in your typical USCF tourneys, there are prizes for teams with average ratings U2000, U1800, and even U1600, so everyone has something to compete for.

Each team should have 4 players with up to 2 alternates. Technically you are allowed to play with three players, but you will be swallowing a loss every round for your invisible board. If you have more than 6 players have no fear because the Pan Am allows multiple teams to compete for each school. The big dogs have teams A, B, C, etc. Four players doesn’t sound too hard right? Wrong. If you are in a typical big state school like FSU, students aren’t always lining up out the door for chess tournaments when there is beer pong to be played.

The first thing to do is see if your campus already has a chess club. The second is to put up flyers around campus, send out email chains and hope to catch the eye of some hidden chess masters. When I started at FSU there was a defunct webpage advertising weekly club meetings, when I finally found the club it was two guys sitting at a picnic table playing without a clock. FSU Chess was fortunate to have a kind of rebirth this year and though the club is basically starting from scratch, there are new members and a new President.   

Now if you haven’t already inferred it from my own participation, I should mention that the Pan Am allows graduate students to participate, which is really, really swell. I optimistically assumed that, with all the smart math and science grads on campus, I should be able to find 3 other somewhat strong players (I use ‘strong’ abusively loosely as I myself am under 2000).

I will tell you right now one of the biggest issues will be the dates. It is a lot to ask for many students to cut into their family time over winter break to go compete against a bunch of much higher rated teams. In the end, FSU will send a streamlined team of four.

The Requirements
Entry into the tournament this year was only $200 for the entire team regardless of whether you have 4 players or 6. Since most of us are the stereotypically starving scholarship students that price tag was most appreciated. The eligibility requirements pretty much come down to you being a full-time, degree-seeking student with at least a 2.0, which in college terms these days is the equivalent of having a pulse.


The rules seemed designed to ensure that there are no ringers disguised as a student with a backward baseball cap and book bag taking 1 credit of underwater basket weaving a semester. There are modified rules for titled players, i.e. IMs and GMs, but that’s all beyond my clearance level. Bring the rules to your school’s office of registrar where each member will need to turn in a signed form allowing the school to release confirmation of your eligibility to the host school.

The Money
Other than actually forming the team finding funding is the other big obstacle. Of course each team member can dig into his or her own pockets, but if you’re anything like our team all you might find is lint and student debt. Note that finding that bankroll will directly be tied to finding teammates so don’t leave this until the last minute (like we almost did). After seriously considering participating in clinical trials we finally contacted the student activities office, which then referred us to the Student Government Association.

Now I must confess as far back as middle school I always thought of student government as a joke, but allow me to stand corrected because they swooped down and came to our aid like the Justice League dealing out much needed dollar sign shaped hope. We filled out a request form detailing the exact cost of the trip then presented a proposal to a committee. At FSU it was the Resource for Travel Allocation Committee (RTAC for short).

Before presenting the request there are a few preliminary steps that are important: 1. You need to a recognized student organization (lucky for us the chess club was at least that), 2. The club treasurer and president must be “financially certified” which involves passing a quiz based on the financial handbook, and 3. You submit the request to the SGA Accounting office and wait to receive a time and date to go before committee for approval. The main thing your request needs to show to succeed is that the trip benefits the school and student body, and that the costs are reasonable. We whittled our costs down to asking for 5 nights in one hotel room for 4 guys (don’t ask about sleeping arrangements, but head to toe and the flo’ I’d imagine), gas money, as we are crazy enough to attempt the 19-hour drive, and the tournament entry fee, for a grand total of $998.73.

I didn’t know what to expect when I met the committee, but I came shirt and tie as instructed to the senate chambers and saw 8 or so RTAC members at the front of the room sitting like judges in court. Luckily I presented 3rd after seeing something called “the Big Event” (whom everyone except me in the room seemed to know) and the Meteorological Society. Well, both groups proceeded to ask for over $2000 to my surprise, and both clubs seemed to get all or most it! It was then that I realized that we had seriously low-balled ourselves. The happy ending is that when the committee heard how little money we were asking for in comparison they paused, blinked, tried to hold back their amusement and graciously granted it with very few questions asked. These guys are seriously my heroes, so I want to be sure to give a big shout out to FSU RTAC. You guys rock hard.

The Training


I never figured out the proper way to study chess and therefore I never really do, but at the same time having been funded by the school and having our teammates relying on each other we thought it best to take this serious. We are fully aware that we are big time underdogs but that has only motivated us more. By the time we actually got a team together and started the ball rolling on getting the funding, we only had about a month and half left to go before the tournament started.

Only two of our members were actually USCF rated and had any tournament experience. So the first thing we set out to do was remedy that. All of our unrated players immediately purchased membership and we got in touch with the local Tallahassee Chess Club (TCC) of which I am also a member. From the stories I hear, these old gents have been playing chess even since their scholastic days and almost all of the club’s members are rated anywhere from 1200 to 2200.

We decided to set up a rated team tournament for our unrated FSU players verses some of the Tally members. I got the idea from reading about the “Youth vs. Experience” tournaments they sometimes hold in the professional ranks.

The Tallahassee Chess Club is single handedly run by Steven Cullifer, who has been really supportive of our new chess team and even allowed us to play the tournament at his worksite, which are the amazing offices of Associated Industries of Florida (check out those sexy thousands of dollars in leather chairs). We made sure not to throw the FSU rookies to the lions just yet, and matched them against the hungry wolves instead, players in the 1400-1600 range. Not surprisingly, the experienced players prevailed but not without some upsets.

In this first game FSU’s board 3, Zach Herbst, temporarily sacs a pawn to set up a nasty opening trap that seemingly goes unnoticed resulting in him winning him a queen and the game.



This second game features some killer tactics as FSU chess club president, Matt Kolcz, forces a draw in style verse his much higher rated opponent. This game was perhaps the gem of the tournament and I almost didn’t want to spoil the moment by telling Matt after the game that he could’ve won with 23. Qg6+, as opposed to Re1+ as in the text. Nonetheless if you are going to draw, this is the way to do it!


Outside of this event we all have chess.com accounts with which we play correspondence games against each other and all comers. These accounts are not to be used for anything but correspondence or classic time controls (so no blitz), and they have been a nifty way of making sure that each player is at least analyzing real game positions daily as opposed to just booking up. I make sure to monitor the accounts of the team to make sure no one is putting ‘Bullet’ holes in their game.

TexasTechChecklead.jpgWe also meet weekly to cover topics like our opening repertoires, analysis of positions/endgames, and mini impromptu rapid tournaments. We make sure to communicate frequently regarding our own personal study routines, which ranges anywhere from intense hours long opening, endgame and tactical puzzles for our board 2, Roderick, to sitting on my couch eating gummy bears whilst watching the live stream of the London Chess Classic.

Next Up, PART2: Team Meets Tourney

We follow the team to see if they survive the car ride and how they fair against the top teams in Big Texas. For more details on the Pan-Am (December 27-30) see the official website and check out a radio interview with Texas Tech program director and CLO & Chess Life contributor Al Lawrence.