Budget cuts may have taken more than $30 million out of the Brownsville Independent School District’s budget for the next two years, but administrators say they are working to preserve financing for one key pot of money: the chess budget. This academic year, it totals $400,000.
“I don’t think there’s any other school district in the nation that puts dollars of any consequence into chess,” said Jay Harris, who coordinates the district’s program.
But for Brownsville, a border city that is one of the poorest in the nation, the “royal game” serves as an avenue to success and a source of pride that many believe is worth the investment.
This year, roughly 4,000 students have signed up to participate in the district’s chess offerings, which include regular tournaments. Harris said it was typical to see 500 to 800 students at an event.
It is a far cry from two decades ago, when J. J. Guajardo, then an elementary school teacher, showed students how to play chess as a way to ward off behavioral issues. It struck a chord.
In 1993, Guajardo’s team won its first state championship, a feat it repeated every year through 1999, establishing Brownsville as a chess powerhouse.
But his students had to drive as far as Houston or even Dallas to compete, so he also began organizing local tournaments. In the early days, he said, there was no budget, and each tournament attracted only 30 to 40 players.
“I even had to convince administrators not to count my kids absent when they went to tournaments,” Guajardo said.
He credits parents with recognizing the value of the game and pushing for financing. “It was part of an academic endeavor,” Guajardo said. “When they were doing chess, they were doing weightlifting for the brain.”
For many, the effort has paid off in the form of scholarships to colleges and universities. “This might be stretching it a bit,” Harris said, “but nearly 100 percent of our kids who get involved in chess continue their education beyond 12th grade.”
Chess has also become part of the core identity of the University of Texas at Brownsville, which is in the process of establishing itself as a stand-alone four-year institution. “When you hear UT-Brownsville in the future, it will be physics, soccer, volleyball and chess,” said Juliet García, the university’s president.
Russell Harwood, the director of the university’s program, which was established in 2001, said chess was “the only arena in which UTB competes at the highest level.” The team now includes players from as far away as the Czech Republic and Peru and has claimed several major victories, including this year’s state championship.
Domingo Santoyo, a native of Brownsville and a sophomore at UTB who plays on the chess team, began playing in middle school. He was born without arms, and chess was one of the few activities available to him.
Santoyo said the game enabled him to travel the country playing tournaments in cities like Nashville and Denver.
And “chess taught me to be patient,” he said. “It taught me that you can make mistakes, but you have to bounce back.”
His younger brothers now play chess in the Brownsville ISD program. Santoyo’s advice to them and their peers: “Keep playing, work hard and you can do anything through chess.”