You might not expect today’s teenagers to be attracted to the refined and thoughtful game of chess in the age of social media and fast-paced handheld gaming. But in Brownsville, it’s not uncommon to see tables covered with plastic checkered gaming mats, and students staring silently and patiently contemplating their next move. The South Texas border town has a long and storied history as a chess powerhouse. It all began in the early 1990s when elementary school teacher J. J. Guajardo tackled classroom behavioral issues by showing his students how to play the classic two-player strategy board game. In 1993, Guajardo’s team won its first state chess championship, a feat the team repeated every year through 1999. Since Guajardo’s chess dynasty, national trophies have continued to find a home in Brownsville. The chess players in Brownsville are so good that the school district’s program was featured in a 2010 episode of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. The Valley chess magic even caught Hollywood’s attention. In 2015, the film Endgame, about a Brownsville student who helps his school’s chess team reach the Texas state finals, was released.
BISD’s lead resource teacher for advanced academics, Corina Caballero, is also the district’s chess coordinator. She says today’s regional and state tournaments host between 900 and 1,200 kids. Compare that to Brownsville ISD’s 10 yearly local tournaments, each hosting between 700 and 900 students at the local level alone. Although Caballero doesn’t play much chess anymore, she has been a chess sponsor and whole-heartedly believes in the power of the pawn. “I feel that competition is good for kids. If they don’t have a good game, that means they have to work harder until next time. That’s just part of life.” Caballero also believes chess teaches life skills like critical thinking and problem solving.
Fernando Montanaro sees the consequences of every move on the chess board and already understands the importance of his moves in life. The high school freshman is enrolled in the Science Technology, Architecture, and Medical Professions (STAMP) College Preparatory Program at Hanna High School, and plans on becoming a pharmacist. He says he’s primarily focused on academics, but he quickly adds that he’s focused on chess, too. He’s been playing since the first grade and is now ranked in the top 10 percent nationwide in the US Chess Federation’s junior classification. He’s competed in seven national tournaments. ATPE News sat down with Fernando to talk about the appeal of the classic board game.
Why should school districts promote the game of chess?
It’s a good idea to start a chess team because chess improves focus and concentration and helps students set goals. And, overall, it helps students think more critically. It helped me focus a lot more because, with chess, you have to concentrate. A game can last as long as six hours. Plus, sometimes you focus on one move for as long as 20 minutes. Chess is also a lot like life because you have to plan, set your goals, and work toward them. Sometimes you make mistakes. You just have to try harder and not give up—just like life.
How has playing chess benefited you personally?
Most of my life, I’ve been very quiet, reserved, and shy. But chess has helped me grow my confidence because it’s a one-on-one game. You’re not really the center of attention. You are focused on your own game and you have time to think. At the same time, you get to enjoy being around people you grow to know. It’s really helped my confidence. And it’s taught me to never give up. Even if you’re getting destroyed in the game, one move can change things from a loss to a win. And with chess, I don’t think you really lose, you just learn from it. You just gain information that you can use later so you won’t make the same mistakes.
Is an individual or team trophy more important?
I think individual trophies are important because they help your self-esteem to know that you practiced enough to win. But a team trophy is also important because you win with your teammates. Especially during regionals, to qualify for nationals, it has to be a team effort.
Is anyone else in your family involved in chess?
My mom was a second-grade teacher and became the sponsor of the chess team. I guess she wanted to look out for me. She was at all of the tournaments I went to and was really involved. She’s my biggest fan. My dad knows how to play but never played competitively. When I first started playing, he’d play chess with me. He used to beat me, but now I can easily beat him. My chess coach was Victor Flores, and he married my sister after meeting at nationals. I always tell her that if I hadn’t gone into chess, she wouldn’t have met Victor. I may not play competitively for the rest of my life, but I’ll definitely play as a hobby. I have two nieces and a nephew, and I plan on teaching chess to them.