Chess Masters at UT-Brownsville

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

Harwood says he does not envision a time when the team will be entirely built of international players; he wants the local kids who love to play to feel they will always have a home at UTB. But the future, he says, is based south of the border.

There is an inescapable irony in the fact that the school with the team that is knocking academic giants off their gilded pedestals by using the talents of Hispanic international students is smack in the middle of the ­border-fence controversy.

In February, the Department of Homeland Security filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking access to the university's campus to survey and ultimately build its border fence. According to news reports, the government's original proposal was to construct an 18-foot-tall fence on campus, placing the Fort Brown Memorial Golf Course and historic Fort Texas on the south side, literally splitting the campus in two.

The university chess team makes regular runs into the community to build interest in the game.
Brad Doherty
The university chess team makes regular runs into the community to build interest in the game.

However, in mid-March, the university and the government reached an agreement to hold off on any definite plans. The DHS will be allowed to survey the school grounds and secure control of the border on campus, but will work with the university to look at other alternatives to erecting a physical wall. As part of the agreement, the lawsuit was dismissed.

"I am worried," says Harwood. "I mean, it's not like our chess team players will be swimming across the river to get here, but I do worry that we won't be as desirable a place to come as we have been."

Clearly, it's no accident that UTB is surging to the top of the college chess world.

The university in Brownsville is one of only four colleges in the country that recruit players, have full-time coaches and dole out full scholarships to chess players. Not surprisingly, the other three — the University of Texas at Dallas, the University of Maryland Baltimore County and Miami-Dade College (which brought in Cubans) — all either finished ahead of or tied with UTB in last year's national championship ­tournament.

At most schools, such as Yale, Harvard or Stanford, chess is still a club sport. If a top chess master happens to enroll, wonderful; they have a good shot at fielding a competitive team. If not, no one at those universities is likely to lose much sleep.

But at UTB and the three other schools, chess is treated like the Holy Grail of big-time college sports.

"Instead of recruiting basketball or football players," says Susan Polgar, a Grand Master and head of the Susan Polgar Institute of Chess Excellence at Texas Tech University, "they've been putting an emphasis on chess."

Harwood wholeheartedly agrees, saying there is very little difference between the way he goes after chess players compared to how other, larger schools recruit point-guards and 300-pound linemen.

"Chess is a big part of our identity here," he says. "At UTB, we're not even NCAA in sports, we're NAIA. We've got volleyball, soccer, baseball, golf and that's it. And chess is the only area where we can compete at the highest level."

When the average person thinks about college jocks, broad stereotypes of meatheads smashing beer cans on each other's head and prima donnas too dumb to read can come to mind. When picturing a chess team, it would be understandable to envision a bunch of straight-A math geeks and introverted wimps who've never gotten laid toting around ivory chessboards everywhere they stray. But at UTB, at least the latter stereotype appears to be untrue.

It's about 1 p.m. on a Tuesday in Axel Bachmann and Daniel Fernandez's dorm room and all the window shades are drawn. Dirty laundry is strewn all about and covers virtually every surface in the room. Bachmann is standing next to his bed, which sports only a top sheet, while he tosses clothes and papers off a small table, revealing a seldom-used plastic chessboard. No fancy alabaster chess set here; the only thing these players carry with them might be a laptop computer. Across the room, Fernandez, a senior, is rolling around in bed wearing nothing but a pair of boxers. He is trying to sleep one off after a rough night out. Okay, he may have been out drinking with an Uzbeki chess player from the University of Maryland Baltimore County who was in town for spring break, but still, he was out party­ing nonetheless.

It seems like just another morning in the life of these two average college kids who happen to be great at chess.

"One of the perceptions of chess players is that they are out of this world," says Bachmann. "We have a problem with that in this sport, because our main players, the most important players in the sport, they are really crazy. So we have the image, but we are very different from that. We're pretty normal. We don't sit there talking to ourselves all alone and all of that."

Another perception that is somewhat untrue is that all chess players are terrific scholars. And in this respect, Harwood and coach Gilberto Hernandez share the same concerns of any Big 12 or ACC athletic director. They all deal with students who love to play their sport and don't always put their studies first.

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