Check Mates

Following in the footsteps of sports greatest rivals, two world-class chess players from Brownsville have been battling each other since kindergarten. They’ve both won state and national championships. They’re both ranked in the top five in the country. And they’re both in the fourth grade.

ONE OF THE MOST REMARKABLE CHESS PLAYERS in Texas is a fourth-grader from Brownsville named Fernando. He was the 2006 national and state co-champion. He was one of only two dozen children under the age of ten in the United States to be invited to last year’s World Youth Chess Championship in Batumi, Georgia, way on the eastern border of the Black Sea, where practitioners are deadly serious about these things. But if you run down that short résumé in the Rio Grande Valley, locals might ask you to be more specific. You say he has short hair the color of dark chocolate crowning his face. He learned to play chess around the age of four from a family member, and he now memorizes complicated chess patterns that appear to the uninitiated like one long equation. His bedroom accommodates such a bounty of auric trophies that his quarters take on the ambience of an Egyptian tomb, with the overflow spilling into the rest of the house. He lives in a two-story brick home on a quiet, wide street in a growing neighborhood. He is the oldest of his siblings, and a newborn was added to his family last April. His father is named Fernando, and so, at times, he is referred to as Fernandito.

And still, locals would ask you to be more precise. As it turns out, two prodigies from Brownsville fit that description.

This coincidence surprises neither Fernando Spada nor Fernando Mendez. Last summer Spada batted his long eyelashes innocently as he spoke in a hoarse voice, and he drew from history to demonstrate that this concurrence was more destined than accidental. “Great players usually have names similar to their rivals’,” he said. “Like Kasparov and Karpov.”

If “rival” seems like an overstatement to describe a relationship between fourth-graders, neither boy hesitates to use the word by its strictest definition. “I don’t know any others tougher than him, even in high school,” Mendez said. “We’re the toughest in the region.”

Like classic foils, Spada and Mendez have almost completely opposite personalities. While Spada is a gregarious giggle box, as animated a ham as anyone in Spanky’s gang, Mendez is tense and reticent. Spada has perfect posture and a face that opens warmly to those he observes; Mendez’s shrinking carriage and skeptical expression indicate a more introverted child. Spada is sensitive. He sometimes cries upon losing and has been known to delay a death blow to a challenger who appears forlorn. Once, he even let an opponent win because she was nice and smiled a lot. Stony-faced Mendez, on the other hand, rarely glances across the board at his competition; even if he is chewing a giant wad of gum, his eyes remain as intense as a relief pitcher’s. After a match, a high school student once told him, “I can never read your poker face. Who knows what you’re thinking?”

The boys attend different elementary schools and rarely speak to each other, yet their talent has forced their lives to intersect for the past five years at various chess events, compelling them to define their roles not only by what they are (supertalented players) but also by what they are not (like everybody else, especially the other Fernando). One way in which they are able to convey their categorical muster as elite players, differentiating themselves from the pack and from each other, is through their sport’s ruthlessly organized rating system based on wins, draws, and losses. Among children in their age group, Mendez is ranked number three in the U.S. Chess Federation, with an 1816 rating, and Spada number four, with an 1805 rating. Their scores are impressive when considering that the USCF Master’s rating begins at 2200. On the superior end, Gata Kamsky, the highest-rated player in the country, chalks up a 2752 rating, and the best-rated player ever, Garry Kasparov, pushed the limit to 2851. Most fourth-graders rate only around 800.

This might explain why a good many children fear the Fernandos. One might not expect to find a breeding ground for chess powerhouses in one of the poorest areas in the nation, but in fact half of the participants in the state’s scholastic tournaments live in the Rio Grande Valley. The area’s schools often place in the top ten at national chess tournaments, beating out major competitors who know little about Brownsville save for the ability of the city’s sweet-faced children to intimidate and crush reputable teams. But even among all this talent, the two Fernandos stand out. As one private chess coach said, “I’ve seen my kids cry and run to the bathroom and wet their pants when they’ve discovered they’ve been paired up against a Fernando. The Fernandos’ level of play takes a certain level of dedication, and I only know of two students in the seven years I have been coaching who have been willing to do what it takes to get there: Mendez and Spada.”

THE TWO FERNANDOS FIRST SQUARED off in kindergarten, and since then, their rivalry has unfolded over more than a dozen matches. Mendez had never lost until second grade, when Spada beat him at a regional tournament. Mendez had played a French Advance Variation all wrong, and though Spada blundered too, Mendez couldn’t recover. When the match ended, Mendez had trouble keeping his brave face. He emerged from the room, eyes red. Afterward, he returned home and studied the games of the Grandmasters, and by the time the second-grade state championship came around, he was ready to retake the crown. The game progressed slowly, with each boy carefully moving his pieces, but Mendez had gained the advantage in the beginning, and finally he trapped Spada’s king. In a rare show of emotion, he ran to his father, jumped up to wrap his arms around him, and didn’t let go.

But frustration set in as the 2005—2006 school year came to a close, with their last two matches ending in a dreaded result: co-champions. In February 2006, at

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