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Chess champ pulls an oar in Head of the Charles regatta

Senior Elina Groberman, a world-class chess player, joined the MIT crew 18 months ago after she was captivated by the sport as a spectator at the Head of the Charles regatta.

She was drawn to the teamwork, camaraderie and group sense of purpose, which contrast dramatically with the singular experience of a chess match.

"In chess, although I can prepare for a game with others, I am the sole person who is responsible for determining the moves in a game," said Groberman, a senior in computer science and engineering and in economics. "In crew, it takes the entire team to succeed, but a single rower's mistakes could lead to disappointing results. In crew you must develop a strong connection with your teammates and be able to work in harmony and trust them to give their all when it counts."

Groberman competed in Sunday's Head of the Charles with MIT's lightweight women's eight, which finished 13th in a field of 15, covering the three-mile course in 18:55. The team focused on technique rather than time, and Groberman was not displeased with the showing. "We had a better row than at any of the practices," she said, noting that crew is like a sprint while chess is more of a marathon, but that both require enormous concentration and a competitive nature.

"Even a long race like the Head of the Charles takes under 20 minutes to complete," said Groberman, a native of Moldova who moved to Brooklyn with her family in 1995 when she was 12 years old. "In chess, a single game can last up to six hours. Although rowing is much more physically exerting, chess requires more mental and physical endurance."

After a match or a race, Groberman engages in a personal post-mortem with an eye toward future improvement.

"My goal is to have no regret," said Groberman, the U.S. women's chess co-champion in 2000 and three-time New York State titleholder from 1996-98. "In chess, I always go over my games and analyze what mistakes my opponents and I have made and improve on those. I do the same for crew--analyze my own performance and the performance of others on my team and think if there's something we could have done better.

"During the course of a race, I try to find two things that I need to concentrate on. Usually those are things in my technique that help the boat feel better. Whenever I start feeling tired I think of my teammates--how I'd feel if they weren't doing their best--and push myself on."

While she grew up with chess, which she has been playing since she was six, competitive rowing has added a dimension to her college experience. "Crew has become an important part of my life," she said.

Other MIT results: Women's four, 21:28, 34th place; Men's lightweight eight, 15:55, 23d place. Complete results are available at

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 22, 2003.

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