Chess Masters at UT-Brownsville

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.

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.

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.

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Chris Vogel
Contact: Chris Vogel