St. Pete Pupils Prove Pedigree

ST. PETERSBURG -- For one winner, victory meant getting money to save up for future studies. For his teammate, it meant earning cash by selling one of his prizes. And for their coach, it meant his parents finding out he smoked.

But whatever the wins and losses of the three St. Petersburg State University students and their coaches at an international computer programming competition last month, one thing was clear: Russian programming and mathematics skills are still top of the line.

Nikolai Durov, Andrei Lopatine and Oleg Yeterevsky - all second-year students at the systems programming division of the university's mathematics and mechanics department - beat a total of 60 teams at the 2000 International Collegiate Programming Contest held on March 18 in Orlando, Florida.

Another local group, from the Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics, finished fourth, meaning that St. Petersburg repeated its feat in the last competition of having two teams finish in the top 10 of the event.

This is an even more impressive exploit considering the competition, sponsored by IBM, included teams from Harvard University, Stanford University, California Institute of Technology, Beijing University and many other of the world's leading hothouses for computer whizkids.

And the 60 teams were whittled down from 2,400 universities from all over the world.

Teams from St. Petersburg State University have reached the final three times in its history, and have always finished in the top 10.

Each team was allotted a single computer, on which it had to solve eight programming problems as fast as possible, with a maximum time limit of five hours. The university team was the quickest in solving seven of them - they said they misunderstood the eighth one - followed by the University of Waterloo in Canada (also with seven solved), and the Albert Einstein University ULM of Baden-Wurttemburg, with six.

"We were really tired after this competition, both mentally and physically," said Yeterevsky, 19. "Nikolai [Durov] walked and walked around the room, while our coach sat the whole time, unable to stand."

While the university group knew they were ahead for most of the competition, all participants were kept in the dark about their rivals' progress during the last hour - a deliberate ploy by the organizers to increase the tension.

"I was really nervous," said university coach Maxim Shafirov, also a graduate of the department. "Every five minutes I went outside to smoke, and some newspapers wrote about me smoking, which is how my parents found out. It was a little uncomfortable when I got home."

Apart from the St. Petersburg participants, a team from Moscow State University finished 15th, while Novosibirsk State University shared the 22nd spot with the Southern Urals University and eight other international contestants.

So what is it about St. Petersburg students that gives them the edge over the rest of the planet?

For one, says Shafirov, there is significantly more focus on mathematics in their department than in a similar Western university.

"Unlike a Western education, which is more oriented toward programming, [the emphasis on] math teaches our students to think and to solve problems," he said.

Another contributing factor is the students' high school education at the eminent St. Petersburg Physics and Mathematics School No. 239, located in the city center.

The school, equipped with modern computers and highly qualified instructors, provides one of the best learning experiences a computer genius could hope for.

The three winners each received $3,000 in prize money, a laptop computer and presents from President-elect Vladimir Putin, who gave them and their coaches each a computer.

Yeterevsky said he might sell one of his computers and buy a new one that fit better with his programming interests. Durov, however, said he will keep all his computers and save the money for future educational opportunities - probably in mathematics rather than programming - in Western Europe.

And victory may also mean the end of the students' job worries: In addition to intern offers from IBM, the contestants said they had already been approached by some Russian companies, mentioning Alfa Bank as an example.

On the other hand, they may end up with a very different future, as coach Natalya Voyakovskaya explained.

"Out of the [university] team of 1998, one is still finishing his degree, another is a graduate student at Stanford, and the third got kicked out of university for low academic achievement," she said.