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The Phenomenon of Chess in Brownsville

Bartek Macieja Apr 12th 2021
blog

WHEN CHESS IS A SOURCE OF PRIDE FOR THE COMMUNITY!

In any sport it is success that the fans appreciate most. However, chess successes rarely get the same level of public recognition as other more popular sports. Nevertheless the following story proves that ‘rarely’ doesn’t mean ‘impossible’ when the right people are in place to skillfully and patiently construct a strong scholastic base which will eventually lead to deserved recognition and pride among the wider community.

By GM Bartek Macieja, American Chess Magazine

2012 witnessed huge changes in my life. This was principally due to getting married and deciding to change my career from professional chess player to chess coach. At that time I had received information that The University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) was looking for a chess coach and I decided to apply. Moreover, after a few rounds of a hiring process I was chosen as the main candidate. In August 2012, I arrived in Brownsville, presented myself and my vision of the Chess Program development to the UTB leadership, and soon after I was offered a job. While waiting in Europe for my visa, I played in my last official event for the Polish national team. This farewell performance went better than expected, as I won a silver medal on Board 5 at the Olympiad. Then, in December 2012, I returned to Brownsville, ready to start work.

Scholastic Chess – A Strong Base For Further Developments

After my arrival I was amazed! I had not previously known hardly anything about Brownsville, and yet my new city turned out to be a chess dream. Almost every elementary, middle, and high school had a chess program. During an academic year, every second week a scholastic tournament was being organized with hundreds of participants. And this wasn’t an exceptional year at all. Massive scholastic tournaments continued in the following years (special kudos to Ms. Corina Caballero!). For instance, in the 2017/18 academic year, the average number of participants in local scholastic tournaments organized by the Brownsville Independent School District was 603. Not bad for a city with a population of about 185,000.

I was even more amazed when I realized that in more important events, like regional or state scholastic championships, the number of participants would easily cross 1,000.

I decided to give it a try, and in 2017 I led a team that organized the South Texas Scholastic Chess Championships. 1,426 participants showed up, and a similar number of parents, teachers, and coaches. Yes, this amounted to about 3,000 extra people on Campus!

So it is perhaps not surprising that with such popularity of scholastic chess, and the successes of a collegiate program at UTB, Brownsville was named “Chess City of the Year” by the U.S. Chess Federation in 2014.

And that’s not all. In February 2013 a ruling was handed down by Judge Dietz concerning the unconstitutionality of public school funding in Texas. This will long be remembered for many reasons, but from our own perspective chiefly because his remarks began with the story of chess in Brownsville.

The fact that the Rio Grande Valley is one of the poorest regions in the United States, and playing chess is relatively inexpensive, may partially explain the popularity of chess in Brownsville. Moreover, according to the census of 2010, Hispanic or Latino of any race represented 93.2% of its population – mostly of Mexican origin. In fact, although I had already had the pleasure of personally witnessing huge numbers of people attending principal chess events in Mexico itself, I understood that without dedicated personnel enthusiastically engaged in developing local chess, nothing on that scale would have happened here in the U.S.

There are a few people who had a strong influence on the chess boom in Brownsville. Mr. J.J. Guajardo is often credited with bringing chess to the Rio Grande Valley. In 1989 he started a chess program at the “Emaline B. Russell Elementary”. Starting from 1993, his team had won 7 consecutive state championships. Chess was really becoming a source of pride in the local community. That, along with the combination of factors mentioned earlier, started the boom. In 1997 another scholastic chess program was launched at the “Morningside Elementary”. Within two years, mainly due to efforts of Mr. Russell Harwood, it also became extremely successful, bringing additional popularity to chess in Brownsville. Two very young boys, Fernando Spada and Fernando Mendez, dubbed “The Two Fernandos,” were even the subject of considerable press attention, even featuring in Texas Monthly and on the CBS Evening News. Later on, Mr. Russell Harwood repeated his success by building a strong scholastic team with “Dr. Americo Paredes Elementary”.

Collegiate Chess Program

The existence of a collegiate chess program in Brownsville can be considered a natural consequence of the fact that students finishing high school often want to continue their chess adventures. The University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) launched its chess program in 2001. It started small, but soon started to grow thanks to the efforts of Mr. Clemente Rendon and the huge support of the UTB President, Dr. Juliet Garcia. In 2003 GM Roman Dzindzichashvili was hired as the first coach, in 2006 GM Gilberto Hernandez as the second, and in 2010 GM Ronen Har–Zvi as the third. I am therefore the fourth coach in the history of the collegiate program in Brownsville. The program also needed an additional staff member whose principal role was to deal with the huge amount of important administrative tasks. In the fall of 2005, Mr. Russell Harwood, already mentioned above, was hired. He worked till the closure of UTB in 2015.

Already in 2007 the U.S. Chess Federation named UTB “Chess College of the Year”. In 2009 UTB qualified for the President’s Cup (Final Four of College Chess), repeating its success of 2010 and 2011.

Unfortunately, by the time of my arrival in December 2012, the Chess Program was in deep crisis. The only remaining grandmaster graduated just half a year later, and the team was left with no player rated over 2400 FIDE. By comparison, Webster University already had a super star team with Wesley So, Liem Le Quang and other 2600+ grandmasters. There was still a long way for us to go!

Facing A Challenge – Getting Over The Crisis

Following my meeting with UTB leadership, we decided to rebuild the chess team slowly. For the fall of 2013 I recruited two grandmasters (Anton Kovalyov and Holden Hernandez), and one more for the fall of 2014 (Andrey Stukopin). Therefore it took us a while to be seriously competitive even at state level (University of Texas at Dallas and Texas Tech University are our main state rivals), but in the longer term that strategy paid off. We avoided a scenario where all students would graduate at the same time, leaving the university without a strong team again. Then, already in the fall of 2014, we won the Texas Collegiate Championship and this was followed in the spring of 2015 by claiming the Southwest Collegiate Championship. Parallel to these achievements, we launched many initiatives to develop chess among the local community. In fact, already in 2013 the UTB President invited me to her office and asked if I could find a way to teach all UTB students how to play chess. In Brownsville, chesswise, we think really big!

After my arrival in the USA, I realized that compared to Europe there were very few round–robin tournaments. So I endeavored to change this, at least a little, and organized a few IM/GM Norm tournaments. After each of these, we prepared a video and published it online. For example, you can hear what some participants thought of one of the norm tournaments on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vFBHXpa4Ww.

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley – When a Serious Chess Program Gets Results and Public Recognition

In the fall of 2015 semester, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley was officially launched, as a merger of two local universities: The University of Texas at Brownsville and The University of Texas Pan–American (with the campus in Edinburg). IM Alfonso Almeida became my work partner at the chess office for almost one and a half years. After his departure, GM Aleksander Mista became my work partner in September 2018. His responsibilities include administrative work, travel arrangements, organization of events, promotion of chess on campus, and development of chess in the Rio Grande Valley. In particular, he organizes training for the most talented RGV teenagers and weekly chess meetings for local community members that are absolutely free of charge, and widely praised.

Dr. Douglas Stoves has been overseeing the Chess Program ever since 2008. After the merger, the number of students at my new/old university increased to almost 30,000. I was shocked again to realize that chess was popular not only in Brownsville, but in the whole Rio Grande Valley. Already in the first academic year of its existence, over 150 students joined the Chess Club at UTRGV, which is a student organization run by students. Not bad for any collegiate student organization, especially a chess one!

The popularity of chess at UTRGV has had a certain impact on academics as well. The UTRGV plans to use chess as an educational tool. Already chess has been incorporated into one of the Programming Fundamentals courses for Engineers. Moreover, a Mathematics of Chess 3–credit–hour upper level course will be offered to our students in the Spring 2020 semester, as the result of a successful cooperation between the Math Department and the Chess Program. To my knowledge only Harvard University has offered a comparable seminar.

Program has been actively cooperating with other departments as well. In particular “The Perfect Authentic Cadence as Checkmate” article, in cooperation with the Music Department, was accepted by the Program Committee for presentation at the 29th South Central Regional Conference of The College Music Society at the University of Arkansas, Fort Smith, March 2014.

When I was getting used to the popularity of chess in Brownsville, and generally in the Rio Grande Valley, there was another shocker waiting for me - I could never have imagined how much exposure a public university could give to chess, and how much exposure a public university could get because of its chess successes. After qualifying for the 2016 Final Four, even a local bus (“Vaquero Shuttle”) that transports students between the Brownsville, Harlingen, and Edinburg campuses of UTRGV, was chess–painted! The décor has remained unchanged till now.

In fact, after each outstanding success of the Chess Team, we are on the UTRGV front page. After winning the Final Four of College Chess in 2018 we were displayed for a week on the front page of the whole University of Texas system. In the 2015/16 academic year, the UTRGV Chess Program was honored by The Texas State Senate Proclamation and by The Texas State House of Representatives Resolution. Our successes were widely reported in local and national newspapers. In particular, The World magazine, which has 80,000 subscribers, dedicated 4 pages to the phenomenon of chess in the Rio Grande Valley.

Read More in American Chess Magazine