Chess Masters at UT-Brownsville

An open-admissions university has become a national powerhouse in the collegiate game.

Then, in 1993, Guajardo's pupils stunned everyone by winning the state championship. The win would mark the first of seven straight state titles Russell Elementary would take home.

"In Texas, people tend to look down on the Valley," says Russell Harwood, director of the UTB chess program and a former elementary schoolteacher and chess coach. "It's a pretty poor area, it's primarily Hispanic, but chess was really becoming a source of pride for the community. And that's very important because I think that's one thing that really led to the boom in Brownsville."

A second-grade teacher at Morningside Elementary during Russell's run of championships, Harwood and several colleagues started a squad at their school in 1997. Two years later, Harwood became the first Brownsville school chess coach to enter his team in the national championship tournament. They placed second, behind the venerable Hunter College Elementary School in New York City, considered by far the best year-in and year-out scholastic chess program in the nation.

The UTB "A" squad beat Yale and Stanford at the 2007 National Championship tournament, tying for fifth place overall.
Courtesy Axel Bachmann
The UTB "A" squad beat Yale and Stanford at the 2007 National Championship tournament, tying for fifth place overall.
Grand Master coach Gilberto Hernandez was hired to take his team to the top of the college chess world.
Photos by Brad Doherty
Grand Master coach Gilberto Hernandez was hired to take his team to the top of the college chess world.

With the success of Russell and then Morningside elementary schools, chess in Brownsville was on a tear and becoming more popular than anyone could've ­imagined.

Coaches like Harwood nurtured this popularity. He encouraged students to play and made it special by honoring not only the winners but every student who participated by announcing their names at school on the P.A. system after a tournament. The local media also helped, running stories about the successful teams and thus reinforcing chess's importance to the community. With all the positive attention, chess became something kids wanted to do. Rather quickly, says Harwood, "while in a lot of areas chess is considered a nerdish activity, in Brownsville chess became the cool thing."

Harwood also has a theory on why Brownsville students were performing so well at the game with only amateur ­coaching.

"I firmly believe there's a connection between being bilingual and learning chess," he says. "Both chess and any new language have their own vocabulary and their own set of rules. So, I think that their brains are already wired and it's easier for them to learn chess. And when you look at all the top players around the world, most of them are from Europe and speak four or five different languages."

To date, schools in the Brownsville ISD have won 14 national championships and too many state titles to count, says Stephen Shull, who runs the program for the school district. All but three of the district's 48 elementary schools, middle schools and high schools have chess teams, and the program is budgeted at $400,000 a year, says Shull. The city is also home to two of the top ten-year-old players in the country, Fernando Spada and Fernando Mendez, who, dubbed "The Two Fernandos," have been the subject of considerable national press, including features in Texas Monthly and on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. There is little debate that in Texas, Cameron County is Chess Country.

It was about nine years ago that UTB president Dr. Juliet Garcia began to notice how well local students were doing in chess, and the trickle-up effect began taking place.

It started out slowly. In 1999, she invited Harwood's Morningside team that played at nationals to campus for a visit, and in 2000 the college put on a fund-raiser for the team.

"Dr. Garcia was very impressed that these kids were able to compete against the best and brightest in the country," says Harwood.

Then in 2001, chess star and former state champion at Brownsville's Hanna High, Clemente Rendon, who at the time was chess team president at perennial college chess powerhouse University of Texas at Dallas, went to Garcia with the idea of starting a program at UTB. For Garcia, it was an easy sell.

"There were all these chess babies around," says Garcia, "and they were winning all these national and international tournaments. And these babies were growing up and needing a place to take that to the next level. It was just an automatic that we needed to start our own chess team."

For the first couple of years, the team did not have a coach and relied solely on local talent graduating from the school district. In 2003, the university hired a coach from former Soviet Georgia to train the team, and the squad continued to improve. However, after three years, he decided to leave UTB. It was in early 2006 that Harwood entered the picture, accepting an offer from Garcia to be the team's program director.

By then, Harwood had built two national champion-caliber programs at Morningside and Dr. Americo Paredes elementary schools and knew some things would have to change at the university if it wanted to take the next step and legitimately compete as one of the elite chess teams in the country. The Brownsville players were good, but they wouldn't be enough. Harwood knew he needed to bring in some help and look outside the city's borders and far beyond the Rio Grande.

Like so many stars, Axel Bachmann seems to shy away from the spotlight. He speaks in quick bursts, rarely looks directly at you and hides behind the shaggy, unkempt hair that flops down over his forehead. He blushes and dismisses it as nonsense when asked about his popularity with the girls on campus. About the only things that immediately draw attention to him are the twinkle of his diamond earring, the flash of his charismatic smile and his renowned brilliance at chess.

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