Master of the game

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Chess grandmaster wins final match of U.S. Open tournament with lightning speed in five minutes

In the final tiebreaker of the 2014 U.S. Open chess tournament, the two opponents concentrated, sizing each other up and determining their winning strategies.

Ignoring the audience sitting all around the match area, they began moving their pieces at lightning speed, clocking in their time after each play. After playing only for five minutes, the champion was indisputably declared with a firm handshake — UTD’s own Conrad Holt.

Holt, a high-achieving physics senior from Kansas, holds the title of chess grandmaster. His most recent win in the U.S. Open this past August adds to his numerous accolades from national and international chess tournaments over the years.

“Most (chess) games take a few hours. Only the tie breakers work like that,” Holt said of the swift ending to his championship match.

Holt prefers these rushed matches, called blitz matches, because though they do not offer much time for strategy processing, they allow players to garner several consecutive wins or losses in a short period of time.

“I like blitz a lot, though there are no tournaments in blitz, only small side events,” Holt said. “I like either blitz or long games, not the ones in the middle. They are like 30 minutes per game or something.”

Holt’s performance in both chess and academics naturally give him a place in UTD’s competitive chess team, a team known for recruiting elite players. In order to maintain a chess scholarship and position on the team, students must make a 3.0 GPA. Any potential member must be able to cope with their classes before focusing on any chess-related activities.

Jim Stallings, director of the chess program, said there is a strict policy of “school first, chess second.”

The team comprises of both undergraduate and graduate students hailing from countries all around the world like Bosnia, Hungary, the Philippines, Russia, Canada and the United States.

Stallings recruits chess players based on ratings by FIDE or the World Chess Federation.  Ratings are based on a player’s performance in official tournaments against other players and the ratings increase with consistent wins and can also decrease with repeated losses. The ratings have statistical significance with players being likely to win 2 out of 3 matches against players with ratings 200 points lower. Players are evaluated foremost by their rating and second for their academic standing and age.

On the World Chess Federation rating system, Holt has a score of 2566, which makes him an official chess grandmaster.  In order to qualify as a grandmaster, players must earn a FIDE rating of 2500 and two favorable results in international tournaments involving other grandmasters.

Holt earned his grandmaster title during his career at UTD, seven months after joining as a freshman.

“(My favorite moment) being on the UTD chess team was earning my two grandmaster norms by tournaments held by UTD and our best team result winning the Pan American tournament,” said Holt.

Coach Rade Milovanovic says Holt’s growth is undeniable and is due solely to his passion and dedication to the game.  He characterizes Holt as a devoted player and integral member of the team, saying many a time during team chess tournaments, Holt’s efforts were vital in saving the team’s ranking when prospects of winning were low.

As part of the chess team, players must attend practices that involve learning chess strategies, playing online games with preset piece formations and playing each other.  These practices are held twice a week, a one-hour one-on-one session for each player and a three-hour groups session.  Many players, including Holt, put in well over this minimum four hours of practice per week.

Other than usual weekly practices, Holt spends extra time before major competitions studying his upcoming opponents.

“People usually have certain openings that they prefer and you can predict their moves,” said Holt, “I always play the same thing all the time.”

Holt’s interest in chess began at age nine when he first learned the rules of the game.  He played his first tournament by age 11.

“I really started getting interested in chess when I joined an Internet chess club and I would have an endless supply of opponents” he said.

Through the university chess program, players attend team tournaments and are allocated a training budget to attend individual tournaments.  In 2012, Holt used part of his tournament stipend to attend the US Championship Invitational, which happened to be during finals week.

He recalls having to balance studying chess and studying for exams, ending up taking one final at the tournament with a chess team official acting as a proctor and taking another final immediately upon his return to school.

Even though he has gained the title of Grandmaster, Holt thinks there is room for improvement.  He said though there is no title when you reach a 2600 rating, it is still an accomplishment, equivalent to moving from international master to grandmaster.

Apart from playing chess, Holt, a self-proclaimed nerd, enjoys participating in programming contests and reading.

Currently, his goal is to earn a 2600 Chess Federation rating by the time he graduates in May 2015.  Professionally, Holt is not sure of his path but knows that he wants to enroll in a graduate program at UTD so that he can continue playing chess.

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