October 29, 2013 | Borough of Manhattan Community College
Howard Prince, then associate dean for academic affairs at BMCC, was in his office when the call from Deland, Florida, came through. Library Science Professor Vicente Revilla was on the line.
“We won, Howie,” Revilla said. “We won the whole thing.”
It was mid-afternoon on December 30, 1993. BMCC’s four-person chess team, piloted by coach Revilla, had just accomplished what no community college had ever before done: Finish first in the Pan American Intercollegiate Team Chess Tournament.
“I threw up my hands and shouted, ‘Wow’,” recalls Prince, who recruited the members of that championship team and encouraged them to enter the fray.
“The Pan American Tournament began in 1946 and was always dominated by teams like Harvard and the University of Texas. It’s the oldest and most prestigious college chess tournament in the U.S.”
When the Mets crushed the Orioles
To pull off its impossible victory, BMCC outplayed vaunted teams from Yale, Princeton, MIT and, in the final match, Harvard University, the reigning champion. It was an upset that brought to mind David’s beat-down of Goliath, and the Miracle Mets’ victory over the Orioles in the 1969 World Series. Lest skeptics consider the win a fluke, BMCC repeated it in 1994 and added a third championship in 1997.
Players from those fabled teams will reconnect on November 2, at a BMCC 20+ Reunion at Fiterman Hall. The event will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the team’s 1993 victory as well as the 50th anniversary of BMCC’s founding.
All four members of the 1993 team, as well as their coach, were foreign-born. “Growing up in Peru, I played chess all the time,” says Revilla. “I continued playing a lot, with Howie and others, when I joined the BMCC faculty in 1985.”
He and Prince were playing speed chess on campus with some students in the fall of 1993 when Gennady Sagalchik strolled by “and asked if he could have a game,” Prince recalls. “He wiped the floor with us.”
BMCC had a chess club at the time, but it was Sagalchik’s quick work of the players that day that pointed to greater possibilities. Soon, other talented players were recruited from BMCC’s student body, and a few weeks later, they were competing in the Pan American Tournament.
“We didn’t know how we’d do, but we thought it was worth trying,” says Prince. “Up till then, the Tournament had usually been won by schools like Harvard and Yale. No community college had ever placed even second or third.”
Filling out the team were Philipppine-born Cassidhee Santos, a relative newcomer to chess; Oleg Shalumov (from the former Soviet Union); and Nikola Duravcevic, who grew up in Montenegro and emigrated to New York with his family in flight from the Bosnian War.
“Although I was a faculty member at the time, I was relatively young and related easily to the players,” Revilla says. “It wasn’t a typical professor-student relationship. We all shared the experience of being foreign-born. The chemistry was amazing.”
Face-off with Harvard
The team won all its matches on days one and two of the four-day tournament, playing to a draw against NYU on day three. BMCC then beat the University of Toronto and found itself in its historic face-off with Harvard for the championship.
For Revilla, the November 2 reunion will be a treasured occasion to “remember a moment in time when all the right pieces seemed to fall into place.”
He expects the event to be tinged with a bit of sadness too, “since our victory is part of the past. We’re all in different places now and have our own lives.” But BMCC’s 1993 victory will live forever in the annals of underdog triumphs, and Revilla is looking forward to sharing the memories with his players.
“It will be a beautiful moment,” he says.