In these days of painful labor shortages, growing companies need nothing less than a grand master of recruiting to hire the best programmers. So believes Roy Singham, president of $28-million software developer ThoughtWorks LLC.

Faced with having to turn down lucrative Web-consulting jobs because of a manpower shortage, Singham enlisted the help of director of human resources John Hundreiser to devise a savvy offensive strategy. The idea was to get on the good side of a group of people known for their analytical talents -- award-winning chess players -- by sponsoring university chess tournaments. The tactic would help ThoughtWorks brand itself as "a company that deals with smart people," says Hundreiser. And no one would complain if in the process some of those future Kasparovs decided to start their postgrad careers as ThoughtWorkers.

In July, the Chicago developer announced a king's gambit: it would sponsor the University of Chicago's chess team. Touted by many as one of the country's top contenders, the team was rife with top-notch players but low on cash. A university alum and current ThoughtWorker suggested the unusual endorsement.

For the company's executives, it was an easy sell: the tab for four summer tournaments would be a mere $10,000 for entry fees, meals, T-shirts, and travel. What's more, the company could log some highly visible miles on its 34-foot Winnebago, known as the ThoughtMobile, by carting the players around.

The cushy corporate sponsorship turned the heads of players competing against the University of Chicago's team, says recent grad Mark Young. It also turned Young's head, and he applied for a job with his sponsor. "This sort of thing never happens to chess teams," he says.

That may be in part because such an arrangement will most likely do little to address a company's immediate staffing needs. The team's members may not be programmers in the making. Salar Jahedi, the team's president, says he doesn't mind playing the role of publicity pawn but concedes that the sponsorship isn't enough to sway his professional ambitions.

At press time ThoughtWorks hadn't yet hired any University of Chicago chess players. But Singham believes that the move has already paid off. "The two wins are being branded with a brainiac sport and revalidating for our staff the fact that we do cool things."