Brain Games

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By Emily Glisson

It is one of the most popular games in western civilization, practiced and mastered by students who prefer the sport of taking down a single opponent, as opposed to defeating teams on a football field or basketball court.  The art of this game involves attacking and capturing a collection of kings, queens, knights, rooks, bishops, and pawns.  This is the intellectual’s game, where two players carefully observe their board, searching for the right move.  And every move counts.  Every decision brings forth a different outcome that will ultimately affect the game.  Chess is complicated.  It is a strategic game that requires a tremendous amount of focus.  It is a puzzle that one must solve carefully.  It is a game that requires great dedication before one can truly master.  

In Brownsville, many have mastered this game.  In fact, it’s no secret that Brownsville and surrounding communities have become nationally recognized as the chess capitol of the world.  And those individuals who are quietly sitting behind their game boards are as young as 5 years old. 

During the last 20 years, the game of chess has swept across the Brownsville Independent School District – taking the border town by storm.  Many are familiar with the man who started this legacy.    In 1993, an elementary school teacher, J.J. Guajardo, paved a pathway that would take Brownsville students in a completely different direction.  With the hopes of keeping his students out of trouble and curbing behavior issues, Guajardo introduced the game of chess to them as a means of keeping them occupied.  It was only a matter of time before this game would catch on like wildfire.  

Today, nearly 1,300 students within Brownsville’s school district are competing in chess competitions.  The students range in age groups starting from kindergarten all the way up through high school.  What began as a simple diversion to keep kids entertained eventually turned into a trend that even the film industry couldn’t ignore.  An independent film titled “Endgame” recently wrapped in Brownsville, staring Rico Rodriguez, better known as Manny on the popular hit ABC sitcom, “Modern Family.”  The writer, producer, and director of this film, Carmen Marron, said that the chess movement in South Texas blew her away. 

“When I started to do my own research for the film, I was floored and inspired beyond words,” said Marron, who continued “my top priority was to make this film, once I realized that this was really happening in Brownsville.”

Marron describes her film as an inspirational story about a young boy who joins a chess team, and from it, grows as a person and ultimately reunites with his family.  chess_3WEB

“Directing this film was the most inspiring event of my entire life,” said Marron.  “Meeting these kids and their families, and then hearing about their adversities and how the game of chess pulled them out of it, I couldn’t help but think that these kids are like little heroes in Brownsville.”

This story is all too familiar for those who work within the school district’s chess program.   BISD’s chess coordinator, Corina Caballero, has witnessed, firsthand, the benefits of chess playing for students.

“The nature of the game involves critical thinking and problem solving,” explained Caballero.  “You have to be able to see and understand logically how certain moves will affect the game and the opponent.  So when students are playing this game, they are building their critical thinking skills.  They are evaluating and analyzing every aspect of the game.”

Caballero, who is now in her third year of coordinating the program, has watched chess transform a number of kids, both academically and socially.  She has also observed noticeable differences in children who play the game – noting that some of the life skills they develop from chess are passed on to other skills in their day-to-day lives. 

“This game builds character, creates opportunities to play different age groups, and encourages the kids to be part of a team,” said Caballero.  “I’ve seen it build friendships and socialization in these kids.  They spend every afternoon together, practicing three to five days a week.  Not every child is athletic, but I think chess is fulfilling and nurturing these students academically.  This game fills a need.  And they’re developing life skills that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives.”

In fact, some BISD teachers and chess sponsors have noticed that students who play chess have developed an increased ability to focus and concentrate inside the classroom.

“I’ve seen their study habits improve,” said Eric Muller, who is the chess sponsor at Veterans Memorial High School.  “They either maintain good grades or they improve their overall GPA.  But I’ve definitely seen these students excel academically.”

Muller is considered the up-and-coming chess sponsor in Brownsville.  He started the program at VMHS this past year, and students who have never played the game before have shown tremendous promise.  Muller’s goal is to not only teach these students how to play the game – but he also wants to enhance their love of the game.  “It’s a fantastic way for them to learn and get to know themselves and others,” said Muller.  “It’s also a great way for these students to expand their horizons.  It’s not all that different from football actually.  They are still competing.  It may not be physical, but it’s still a stressful game that demands a great deal of dedication and focus.”

As for the scholastic benefits of the game, research has proven that chess aids students in their academic achievements.  In 2000, a breakthrough study was published by J.P Smith and Bob N. Cage, showing that students who studied, practiced, and played chess scored higher in a variety of academics, including math, spatial analysis, and non-verbal reasoning. Chess players’ test scores improved by 17.3 percent compared to non-playing students, whose test scores improved by only 4.6 percent. 

Adult and Child Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Karen Bierman in San Antonio, has noted a variety of critical benefits that chess can have on students. 

“At the very least, chess is an alternative to playing video games and having too much screen time,” said Bierman.  “This game requires focus, concentration, strategy, patience, discipline, and conscientious: all predictors of future success in life.”

According to Bierman, there are five crucial benefits that the game of chess can have on a child:

The child is able to develop analytical, synthetic, and decision-making skills, which they can transfer to real life.

The child will learn to engage in deep and thorough chess research, which will help them build their confidence in their ability to do academic research.

Chess will help the child gain insights into the nature of competition, which will help them in any competitive endeavor.

When children play chess, they must call upon higher-order thinking skills, analyze actions and consequences, and visualize future possibilities.

In countries where chess is offered widely in schools, students exhibit excellence in their ability to recognize complex patterns and consequently excel in math and science.

“Right now, I have a client who is winning chess tournaments at the age 13, and he began playing the game at the age of three,” said Bierman.  “He is extremely gifted, bright, and articulate.  I can’t help but think that playing chess has helped him.”

As for students who have excelled not only in their academics, but have mastered the game of chess, Michael and Edith Costa have a lot to be proud of.  Their son, Diego, is currently the 3rd grade state champion, the regional champion, and he is sitting comfortably in 11th place nationally.  Diego, a student at Hudson Elementary, took an early interest in the game after finding a chess set stashed away in his house.

“Diego was intrigued immediately after he found the chess set,” said Michael.  “His older brother played, and I played a little.  So I asked him if he wanted me to teach him how to play.  And once he started learning and playing the game in kindergarten, he was hooked.  It was all so natural for him.  When he found this game at the bottom of a drawer, there was something so natural about him wanting to play chess – something just spoke to him.  Now he has to study to stay competitive, because the other kids who play are just as determined as he is.” 

It wasn’t long before Diego won his very first tournament, practicing and preparing for just under a month.  That tournament took him to state in Houston, where he placed 4th at the time.  Today, he is regarded one of the best chess players in the program.  Right now, Diego is taking a break from chess playing and enjoying his summer vacation, but once chess season starts up again, he’ll go right back to practicing his strategies every day for one hour. 

“I like chess because the game lets me go to different places,” said Diego.  “My skills are tested, and I’m always learning.  It took me a while to learn how to play the game at first, but I just kept practicing.  I practice as often as I can.”

Diego’s mother, Edith, a 2nd grade school teacher, is one of many individuals who has not only seen academic achievement in her son, but has seen it flourish and develop in other students.

“I see how the students are able to become better problem solvers,” said Edith.  “They have a goal in mind, and they accomplish it.  It’s not only beneficial academically, but it’s a life learning experience that helps them throughout their lives.  Being a teacher and seeing how these kids are able to sit and play for two hours and focus and maintain their goal of accomplishing and winning – this translates into the classrooms as well.” 

Diego represents just one of hundreds of students in the Valley who have excelled in the art of chess playing.  Many have gone on to compete in state and national championships.  This past April, Diego competed in the 2013 SuperNationals in Nashville, Tennessee.  Michael and Edith immediately recognized just how great a presence the Valley has in national competitions. 

“This is the biggest chess tournament in the world,” said Michael. “We have been so fortunate to go to nationals with Diego.  And people are amazed that in one region there are so many chess games taking place and so many players competing in chess tournaments.  Out of nearly 700 players at SuperNationals who were from Texas, maybe 300 to 400 of them were from the Valley.”

While winning is always the ultimate goal in the game of chess, the flip side of that is making a wrong strategic move and losing the game.  There is a certain amount of pressure that each student endures while carefully studying his or her board – quietly observing each game piece, while looking for the best strategic move.  Coupled with that pressure is the determination to win and the disappointment of loss.  There seem to be a number of goals that BISD chess sponsors have for their students, but one of the most important goals is helping these students deal with defeat.

“When they lose a game, I always try to help them understand why they lost,” said Muller.  “And then I try to help them do better next time.”

Caballero concurred.  “These kids know that in order for them to win, they must develop a plan or strategy in the game.  At the end of the game, they walk away with self-esteem whether they win or loose.  It’s all a learning process for these kids.  I always say that the letter ‘L’ doesn’t stand for losing – it stands for learning.  And then I’ll ask the students, ‘Did you win or did you learn today?’  And if they didn’t win, then we try to figure out why they lost, and then we try to learn from that experience.  Something good usually comes out of that loss.  With loss always comes a new learning experience.”

Today, BISD boasts 46 campuses, all of which are sponsoring chess programs with a budget of $360,000 per year.  BISD board members initially approved the budget for a chess program in April of 2002, with funds being dispersed the following academic school year.  Prior to 2002, very few schools traveled to national competitions.

There have also been a number of BISD success stories that have spurred from national competitions.  In April of 2012, Hannah High School won the All Girls National Championship for ages 18 and under, and in December 2012, Hannah High School’s 11th graders also took first place for the National K-12 Championship.

Brownsville has carved itself a unique niche for chess playing in the academic world – one that is now nationally recognized.  The University of Texas at Brownsville has also shown great support for this program, with some of their own students competing at the collegiate level.  Surrounding communities, like McAllen and Harlingen, have caught on to this trend, with Brownsville being in the center of it all.  This game has become a staple in the community, shaping and molding some of the best and brightest students in the Valley. 

“Chess is all about strategy and understanding,” said Michael.  “Every move changes the game.  But the heart of the game is problem solving.  That, in and of itself, is a valuable life skill for any child.”