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Chess Masters at UT-Brownsville

Nadya Ortiz got a chess scholarship to play in the U.S.
Brad Doherty

Nadya Ortiz's natural instinct is to attack. But for the moment, she must bide her time.

Ortiz briskly taps her finger against her lip as she studies the chessboard. She is playing black, an immediate disadvantage because the white team always moves first. It is several hours into the match, and from the get-go she's been on her heels.

Ortiz began with what is called the "Sicilian Defense," one of the oldest strategies. The idea is to withstand her opponent's advances while slowly gaining control over the middle of the board. Then, when the moment is right, go for the jugular.

Ortiz's opponent, a young man from Eastern Europe, has been concentrating his pieces on one side of the board, so Ortiz has had to do the same, staving off wave after wave of attack. But his failed attempts to break through Ortiz's line of defense have weakened him just enough. Now, with her opponent's king left unsecured, Ortiz can finally move in for the kill.

"It's like a war," says Ortiz. "And once he finishes his attack, it's my turn."

Ortiz sneaks a pawn into the center of the board. And at this high level of chess, a puny pawn can slay giants.

It only takes a few more moves for Ortiz to gain the upper hand. Her opponent does not wait for a checkmate. After battling for more than four hours in the second round of the 2007 college chess national championship tournament in Miami, he extends his hand and retires, conceding the match to the freshman.

Afterwards, Ortiz is beaming. So are her coach and her three other victorious teammates that day on the "A" squad of the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College chess team. And with good reason.

After all, it's not every day that kids at UTB can say they wiped the floor with students from Yale University.
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The UTB campus is an oasis of palm trees and tranquil resacas flowing through what is otherwise an unsightly, poor border town. Standing near the school's entrance, students can stare straight down International Boulevard and see an army of federal agents less than 350 paces away checking passports and occasionally rummaging through cars at one of the check-points along the Rio Grande, guarding the United States' border with Mexico.

The city is every bit on the front lines of an increasingly trigger-happy immigration and drug war. Historically, UTB has been a place to get away from all the surrounding madness, but recently even the university has gotten sucked into the mix, as its president and chancellor battle the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in court as the government tries to build its border fence directly through the campus. It is truly a world away from the halcyon Ivy League.

Largely a commuter school of just over 17,000 students, UTB has an open admissions policy and does not require SAT scores. It may never make the prestigious U.S. News & World Report list of America's top schools. But over the past couple of years, UTB has defied the odds and all expectations, finding a place on the national stage and a way to beat universities such as Yale and Stanford like a dusty old rug.

For more than a decade, the Brownsville Independent School District has consistently boasted some of the top chess teams in the country, winning numerous state and national championships. The university is now following suit, at first leaning on the local talent and now recruiting and offering full scholarships to international and Grand Master chess players, like Ortiz, from Latin America and South America with the same fever customarily reserved for the rare firmament of football programs at schools such as UT-Austin or Ohio State.

In 2007, the U.S. Chess Federation named UTB Chess College of the Year. In the national championship tournament, the team finished ahead of schools such as Duke, Dartmouth and Northwestern, and beat Yale and Stanford head-to-head, tying for fifth place overall, the best result ever in the school's history.

"Even though we're a small school that not many people in the United States have heard of," says Ortiz, "when it comes to chess, we can play with anyone."

Located in one of the remotest and poorest outposts in the country, UTB on paper is the last place anyone might think to find a national chess powerhouse.
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In Brownsville, the story of J.J. Guajardo is the stuff of legend. He is the one most often credited with bringing chess to the Rio Grande Valley.

In 1989, Guajardo, a teacher at Emaline B. Russell Elementary, was asked by his principal to try to help out a handful of troublemakers. As the story goes, a few kids had just gotten caught smashing up a teacher's square-dance record, so Guajardo decided to teach them how to play chess and began meeting with the students early in the mornings before school started.

 

Guajardo was no master by any means, but the students enjoyed playing and learning the game, and later that year he entered them in the state championship. They did not do particularly well, but Guajardo had planted a seed and for the next few years, he kept on teaching an ever growing number of interested students.

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.

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.
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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.

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.

"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."

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.

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.

"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.

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 richer...how 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."
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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."

After graduating high school in 2002, Ortiz wanted to pursue a career in chess, so the following year she moved to Spain, where she lived off and on over the next several years. In Spain, she played constantly against some of the world's best. She won sometimes, but not always.

"I learned how to lose," she says, "and it really helped me mature. I also learned how to live independently from my family, which prepared me for my next step in life."

Back in Brownsville, Daniel Fernandez was playing a game of chess on a Web site called Internet Chess Club, where many top players compete against each other in real-time matches. His foe that day in October of 2006 was Ortiz, who at that point had returned to Colombia. The two began chatting on the Web site and Fernandez mentioned the team at UTB and Coach Hernandez, whom Ortiz had met when they both happened to be playing professionally in Spain at the same time. When Fernandez dangled the idea that Ortiz could qualify for a full scholarship, she decided to write a letter to Harwood expressing interest in coming to South Texas.

"In life," she says, "you have opportunities and you either take them or you don't. And that's it. I was really looking to play chess and study, and this was the only place. There are people in my family who cannot go to university because they don't have the money. Growing up, I never thought I'd go to university in the United States. I think it's incredible, this opportunity."

When Ortiz first arrived at UTB, her English was not strong, so she took two semesters of nothing but language classes. This spring, Ortiz will finish her first full year of degree classes. She is a straight-A student majoring in computer science.

Ortiz wants to make a career for herself combining computers and chess, though she says she's still working on ­exactly how.

"I got this opportunity because of chess, and doing my degree here will allow me to do other things with my life. It's not my dream to make a lot of money because I grew up without much money, but I can use my education to do what I really love."

 

For the moment, that's continuing to study, play chess and always attack.

Ivy Leaguers and others, beware.

chris.vogel@houstonpress.com


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