Chess Masters at UT-Brownsville

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

"It's not quite like people would think," says Harwood, "that they're automatically going to be great students. Some have been more focused on chess than academics, especially the stronger players, because they're working on titles. Most are good students, but they are not necessarily great students."

During the summers and even somewhat during the school year, players such as Bachmann play numerous tournaments abroad, the only way to keep their rankings high. Plus, they play on their countries' national teams, competing in the chess Olympiad every two years. Like any college athlete, they miss classes from time to time to compete and dream of one day turning pro.

But to be fair, Harwood says, the team's overall grade point average does hover around a 3.0.

Nadya Ortiz got a chess scholarship to play in the U.S.
Brad Doherty
Nadya Ortiz got a chess scholarship to play in the U.S.
UTB Chess Director Russell Harwood is building a top-flight chess team one piece at a time.
Brad Doherty
UTB Chess Director Russell Harwood is building a top-flight chess team one piece at a time.

Overall, though, experts look at top-flight chess teams as win-win for both players and the schools.

"The universities are targeting students they'd want anyway," says Jerry Nash, scholastic director for the United States Chess Federation, which oversees college chess. "But the added benefit is that now they have a team, a means of acquiring national and international attention that they wouldn't have achieved otherwise. Let's face it, UTB or UTD is not going to ever have a nationally ranked football team. But at the same time, UTD was mentioned in Sports Illustrated, and UTB has been recognized in national educational circles and on the national news. And how expensive is a chessboard? Not that much. And the injury rate is a lot lower than in football."

When UTB president Juliet Garcia sits down at a University of Texas System conference, she lands smack dab between UT Austin and UT Dallas alphabetically.

"Dallas's entering freshman have to have higher SAT scores than Austin's," she says. "They're the nerd school. And then there's Austin with all the Nobel Prize winners. Well, guess who we compete against in chess? I can't be bigger than them, I'm not going to be else would this little university get on the map?"

Garcia looks at her school's chess team as far more than just a way to get some attention, though. For her, it's an opportunity to talk about much larger issues.

"People don't expect this population — South Texas, Hispanics, first generation, free-lunch and all of these things that are considered negative characteristics — to succeed at chess," she says. "It's counterintuitive. So what I've discovered is it's a powerful mechanism for talking about diminished expectations. And if it can signal to our country and to our state that there's nothing wrong with the human capital in Texas, you don't have to be afraid that a demographic shift is occurring. Because, guess what? If you educate the Hispanic population, they can do as well if not better. After all, we did beat Stanford and Yale this year."

Nadya Ortiz remembers being 14 and standing on the street corner in front of her house in Ibague, Colombia, when she heard a gunshot ring out. Growing up, this was not an unfamiliar sound; drugs and violence were always not far away, but this time the noise seemed much closer than usual.

When she turned the corner, she saw that someone had just executed a taxi driver in broad daylight.

Like many scholarship players on the chess team, for Nadya Ortiz, going to school at UTB was far more than just a chance to play chess. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Ortiz grew up in a city of around half a million people, located in central Colombia in a picturesque valley between two mountain ranges, about a three-hour drive from Bogotá. Her family, like many in her country, was poor, and could not afford to move to a less violent neighborhood. Her mother worked as an accountant's assistant, but did not have a college degree and never earned much money. When Ortiz was young, her father, now a math professor, was a humble chess coach.

Ortiz began playing chess with her father when she was five. She loved spending time with him and was a fast learner. They played every day. Plus, as Ortiz says, "ever since I was small, I liked to attack."

When Ortiz was a little older, she wanted to compete in tournaments. But it wasn't that simple. Her family didn't have the money for the entrance fees, so her father went around town to various companies asking them to sponsor his ­daughter.

At nine years old, she was able to enter the country's national tournament for girls under the age of ten. She won. And she kept on winning, taking home the national titles for her age group at 12 and 14 as well. Then, still 14 years old, she won the women's tournament for all ages. She was now the best female chess player in all of Colombia.

"When I was young," she says, "my father told me, 'You have to think, what do you want, and you can go and get it. Just because we have problems and not much money, just concentrate on what you want and you can get it.' He explained that of course money is important, but it is not the limit of your dreams."

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