Chess Masters at UT-Brownsville

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

Born in Paraguay, the 18-year-old sensation is UTB's only Grand Master, a title reserved for fewer than 1,000 chess experts on the planet. Bachmann started playing with his father, a hydraulic engineer, when he was four and began entering tournaments at ten. Unlike many chess masters who receive heavy doses of coaching, Bachmann learned the game mostly online, where he would spend five or six hours a day playing and often beating top opponents from all over the world.

A little more than a year ago, UTB chess player Daniel Fernandez, who grew up in Boca Raton, Florida, told Harwood about Bachmann. Fernandez was familiar with the boy from Paraguay from when they played in some of the same South American tournaments together. Soon, Bachmann and Harwood were e-mailing each other and Harwood offered up a full scholarship — worth $12,000 a year — to play and study at UTB.

But it was not an easy decision for Bachmann. He had a girlfriend at the time, and had already set his mind on going to college in Argentina, a far easier commute back home than from Texas.

Nadya Ortiz and her teammates must practice at least five hours a week together as a group.
Photos by Brad Doherty
Nadya Ortiz and her teammates must practice at least five hours a week together as a group.
Axel Bachman, from Paraguay, the team's only Grand Master, is enjoying life as a student on a U.S. college campus.
Brad Doherty
Axel Bachman, from Paraguay, the team's only Grand Master, is enjoying life as a student on a U.S. college campus.

"I thought it would be hard and it won't be good," Bachmann says in his broken English that is increasingly becoming more fluid. "It was my parents who told me to give it a chance. They said that if I didn't like it, I could come home, but go check it out. So I did."

Bachmann has since adjusted nicely, embracing the freedom that all 18-year-olds away from home for the first time relish, and is now the top player on a UTB chess team that boasts a high-octane roster of international players. Of the 12 team members, seven come from Mexico or South American countries while all but one of the remaining players hail from Brownsville. With the exception of Fernandez, who is an International Master, only the foreign students have the impressive and difficult-to-earn chess titles.

"Now it is true that the Brownsville kids have been doing very well and winning national championships," says Harwood, "but most of the success has been at the lower age groups and in the elementary schools. But as the kids got older, they would plateau out. And for a top-notch college team, there's a big difference between where these kids are rated and where the top college teams' players are rated. And even with great coaching and doing nothing but training chess all day every day, it would be almost impossible to make up the gap with just local players. So, it was obvious to me that if we wanted a shot at the Final Four, we needed outside players."

One of the first keys to successful recruiting, as anyone in college sports will attest, is having a good coach. So, in September 2006 Harwood hired Gilberto Hernandez. Most people may never have heard of him, but if you play chess, particularly in a Spanish-speaking country, odds are you have.

Hernandez, of Mexico, earned the title of Grand Master at 25 and has been his country's top player for all but one of the last 12 years. In Mexico, he is the Michael Jordan of chess. During that time, he made his living as a professional chess player, residing in Spain and Argentina. Hernandez happened to be in Chicago playing a tournament in 2006 when Harwood persuaded him to swing by the university on his return to Mexico.

Hernandez says one of the draws for him to coach at UTB was the fact that it was so near in geography and culture to his own country, meaning the shock of moving to America would be minimal. After all, most Brownsville residents are Hispanic or of Hispanic descent and a majority of the population speaks Spanish. This fact has also greatly helped bring in top international players from Spanish-­speaking countries.

"It makes it much easier for me to come here," says Nadya Ortiz, a Women's International Master from Colombia. "It makes it much more comfortable."

Another plus in having a famous Hispanic coach is that he understands the natural instincts and rhythms of his players and how they came to and approach the game of chess.

"To be Latin American," says Hernandez, "if you are a good player it is because you have talent. We don't have the knowledge and coaching of many Russian people, for example, who work with Grand Masters since they are children. As for how we play, I think we take more risks. Latin American instincts are to go for more."

Hernandez coaches in English in an attempt to help his kids learn the language, but he and his players often slip into their native tongue when dissecting the finer intricacies of the chessboard.

Further making the team unique is the emphasis Harwood places on recruiting female players in a sport dominated by men. At the 2007 championship tournament, UTB's "A" squad, composed of four players, boasted two women. No other foursome in the field could say the same.

"One of the things I noticed was that in elementary school, half the players were girls," says Harwood, " but as they got older we'd lose about 80 to 90 percent of them. I really wanted to try and recruit some female players, thinking it might help encourage the female players at the scholastic level if we had some on our team as role models."

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