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.

February 2007By Comments

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 the Texas Scholastic Chess Championships in Houston, their game ended in a stalemate. “We were in the tenth move but couldn’t budge,” Spada remembered. “The pawns were all zigzagging. We took, like, an hour on those ten moves but didn’t know what to do. I don’t like to draw. But I traded a queen for two rooks, and I didn’t take the advantage.” Mendez was frustrated to find himself forced to tie against his rival at a major competition. But what else could he do?

Three months later, in the Burt Lerner National Elementary K-6 Championship in Denver, they once again ended up as co-champs even though they didn’t face each other. It was a one-in-a-million outcome: Nine kids tied in their final matches, resulting in a slew of first-place winners, including the Fernandos. For such competitive players, the whiff of equality caused a sort of sportsman’s claustrophobia. They would likely have to wait until November before they’d be paired up again, at the state championship in Brownsville.

ONE DAY IN JUNE OF LAST YEAR, Mendez was taking a break after a tournament to watch a FIFA World Cup soccer match, scarfing the Skittles he playfully refused to share with his little sister. His hair formed a slight peak on the top of his head, and his stick-skinny legs rarely stopped bouncing. Though he seemed to hate being interviewed and mumbled one-word answers, he confirmed the following as accurate, vital information: He loves his Nintendo GameCube but doesn’t play it half as often as he practices chess. He likes cheeseburgers plain, dry, with no ketchup; he hates ketchup. His best subject is “language arts.” His favorite movie is The Benchwarmers, and he believes the worst is Racing Stripes. His best friends are twins, but one has a mole and the other doesn’t. He is also greatly interested in obscure traditions that prove resilience in the young. “On Ripley’s Believe It or Not! they said that if you want to be a man in South America, or somewhere, you had to wear a mitten of fire ants,” he said looking down, as if addressing the carpet. “If you’re a girl, you have to pull out all the hair on your head.”

His own upbringing has been more orthodox. Mendez has been fortunate to prosper under parents who are supportive but demanding and push him to consider all the possible dreams that his 10-year-old mind can conceive. His mother, Griselda, is a 33-year-old first-grade teacher with a dazzling smile, shoulder-length light-brown hair, and large round eyes that can flash from compassion to admonishment—and back—within two seconds. His 33-year-old father, an elementary school administrator who has a build that faintly suggests his former high school football physique, met her when he was 19 years old and married her a few years later. They both grew up in Brownsville, but because of generational ties to Mexico, Mendez Senior thinks a lot about the term “pursuit of happiness” as it applies to his neighbors to the south. “There’s no education for some of them over there,” he said. “If you’re born poor, you stay poor.” He decided long ago that Fernandito would use every available opportunity and make use of his bicultural background.

The same could be said of Spada. Like his rival, he speaks Spanish capably. And in most ways he is similar to other confident nine-year-old boys. Asked if he has a favorite color, he replies decisively, “Yes. Orange.” His most treasured possession is his miniature schnauzer, Drupi. He has a crayfish, which he prizes, though not enough to name it. His favorite TV show is Nickelodeon’s animated series The Fairly OddParents. Interests outside chess include soccer, math, piano, and video games. One of his closest friends is fellow chess enthusiast Elizabeth Vasquez, a girl his age who mischievously enjoys reporting on Spada’s flirtatious behavior with girls at their school. To prepare himself for future challenges, however, he spends much of his time studying titles such as Chess Tactics, Play the 2 c3 Sicilian, Pandolfini’s Endgame Course, and Starting Out: Sicilian Najdorf. All of these books sit notably close to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War on his shelf.

Where some people might find such study excessive, 34-year-old Fernando Spada and his 33-year-old wife, Claudia, believe it is prudent. “I think the Brownsville chess program will pay off,” said Spada Senior, a shy, polite engineer who manages microchip factories in Matamoros and Victoria. “They’ll get great leaders. Most hand labor is going somewhere else. If we don’t work on the minds, the U.S. will no longer be a superpower.”

For years, studies have tried to affirm the link between chess and more-sophisticated thought processes in young children, with varying amounts of success. After chess programs began popping up in the Valley in the early nineties, the anecdotes signifying the benefits spread and data began to appear. One of the most significant studies for the South Texas area was held during the 2001—2002 school year by Joseph Eberhard, now an eighth-grade social studies teacher at William Adams Middle School, in Alice. Eberhard studied children and chess for his dissertation at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, and, noting that 69 percent of the children in the region qualified for the free-or-reduced-lunch program, he wanted to focus on the way chess instruction for children affected a poverty-stricken area. He found that students in Alice who received chess instruction dramatically increased their test results in nonverbal ability and slightly improved their test results in verbal aptitude. Eberhard also came to believe that children of poverty could benefit from chess since they were more entertainment oriented than achievement oriented and tended to be more spatial in learning style than linguistic or mathematical.

Jose Juan “J. J.” Guajardo, a teacher at Emaline B. Russell Elementary, in Brownsville, is usually credited as the first instructor to tap into the area’s chess potential, providing the initial imaginative thrust for the school district’s current program. Asked by his principal in 1989 to “do something” with a handful of rambunctious boys who had taken it upon themselves to smash a teacher’s square-dancing albums, Guajardo taught them to play chess. The principal was so impressed when she poked her head in the classroom and witnessed the once-unruly youths hunched over their boards that she asked Guajardo to work with them every school morning at seven o’clock. He did. Guajardo wasn’t an expert, but he believed that if he taught them the fundamentals, their natural abilities would take over.

That year, on a whim, he decided to take his little team to state. They lost half of their games, but he continued with the instruction, and in the spring of 1993, Russell Elementary caught everyone off guard and won its first state championship. It won again in 1994. And in 1995. Some of Guajardo’s chess students didn’t speak English. Others had learning disabilities. But all of them were passing their standardized tests and feeling focused and smart. For seven years in a row, from 1993 to 1999, Russell Elementary won the Texas Scholastic Chess Championship.

And the children were treated like royalty. “During that time here in Brownsville, a lot of negative stuff was going on,” Guajardo said, sitting outside a local tournament one sunny afternoon. “There was the drug war in Mexico that was spilling over into the streets of Brownsville. Unemployment was around eleven percent. Our mayor and several city officials had been indicted. I believe chess took off  because the community wanted it. They saw a great future, and they embraced these kids and said, ‘This is good.’ The kids would go to restaurants and everyone would say, ‘Oh, my God, you guys are the chess team!’ They would buy the kids lunch. They were big celebrities!”

By the late nineties Brownsville was holding regional tournaments. In the beginning, only a hundred or so kids would show up, but over the years the numbers swelled to three hundred, then one thousand and more. Students were arriving from Laredo, McAllen, and Edinburg, and other schools started winning tournaments. In the spring of 1999, Morningside Elementary became the first Brownsville school to enter a national tournament, placing second in its age category behind the defending champions, the prestigious Hunter College Campus Schools, from New York City.

The investment seemed to be paying off. And yet, a few adjustments would extend the reach of the chess clubs’ ambitions. The Brownsville Independent School District approved a budget of $400,000 earmarked for chess to help every participating school purchase equipment, pay entry fees and outside coaches, and travel to the national tournaments. Since the BISD adopted the chess program in the 2002-2003 school year, at least one Brownsville school each year has dipped into that funding to attend a national tournament, resulting in at least one school’s being ranked in the top ten annually. In 2003 a former high school chess champion from Brownsville, Clemente Rendon, returned home from a stint on the highly ranked University of Texas at Dallas chess team. Rendon, who is currently the vice president of the Texas Chess Association, noted the dearth of Grandmaster instructors in the area and spotted an opportunity to create a trickle-down effect of training in the community. He persuaded the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College to create a chess team, whose scholarships soon began drawing students from across the globe.

Unlike fortuitous sports victories that leave a community believing that the gods happen to be smiling on its citizens, all of this success made some residents think about what these hard-earned achievements really meant. There is never just talent in the water; something had happened in Brownsville. None of the implications were lost on the president of UTB/TSC, Juliet V. Garcia. “Those chess kids are smart enough to learn the game and win national tournaments,” she said. “This has changed them forever. They want to go to law school or to medical school. They want to become scientists.”

Texas demographics show that if the socioeconomic and education gaps between Anglos and non-Anglos don’t close by 2040, the state will face a dire economic crisis; if they do close, Texas will be ideally positioned for a global marketplace with a young, multilingual, multi-cultural population providing riches along the lines of $300 billion in aggregate household income.

“All of the negative characteristics you attribute to the growing Hispanic population—what if we changed that?” Garcia asked. “What if a Hispanic, being bilingual and bicultural, becomes a very productive member of our society? You imagine you’re the teacher of Fernando Spada. What do you think of his potential? Or his siblings’?”

AS THE TENTH ANNUAL Texas Grade and Collegiate Championship approached, the boys had been co-champions for an intolerable six months. They knew they would be facing off against each other at the largest statewide tournament in the Valley. What they couldn’t have foreseen was the showdown that would occur three weeks earlier, on October 14, when they were randomly paired up at the less prestigious Besteiro Middle School Scholastic Chess Tournament.

The relaxing August had brought fresh interests into their lives, allowing them to be typical kids for a few weeks. Both boys had declined the invitation to the World Youth Chess Championship and taken a little bit of a breather: Spada had gotten into robotics, karate, swimming, and soccer, though he continued to memorize games with a software program equipped to engage a player in more than 1,200 games; Mendez signed up for a peewee football team and gave chess a rest. “It was taking a toll on his brain,” said Mendez Senior. But the leisure came at a price.

Spada easily recounted the play-by-play at the Besteiro tournament. “He took knight to c3,” he said, using the chess notation that marks where a piece moves along the board’s columns and rows. “What I found out in that game is, if you exchange queens with him, he collapses. He doesn’t know what to do. I found that out after I attempted to get him to trade my queen four times—he never took it until he was forced to, and then he collapsed.” Clearly this was a thrilling discovery, but he was careful not to give himself too much credit, because Mendez always played knight c3. “I expected that opening,” he said. It was Spada’s first victory against his rival in two years.

“My son was rusty,” Mendez Senior explained. “Grand Prix is my son’s main opening against Sicilian; he has destroyed Spada with that opening. But Spada got him right from the start. It’s difficult to emerge from a hole. You can’t climb back. And Spada made him pay.”

On the Friday afternoon before the state tournament, Spada darted into the UTB/TSC chess office for his lesson with Daniel Fernandez, a college student with a 2463 rating, a sleepy laugh, and a penchant for teasing. Spada’s hair was all over the place, and he was breathing hard. The room was so clean and spare it might have looked more like a small, new post office if not for the framed photos of the chess team on the wall and desktops with checkerboard mats. Spada laid down his backpack of chess gear and took a seat next to his tutor. “I won seventy-five dollars at an open tournament in San Antonio!” he said.

“Did you buy a car?” Fernandez asked, straight-faced.

Spada grew wide-eyed. “Can you buy a car for seventy-five dollars?” he asked.

“Maybe not a BMW,” Fernandez replied.

Spada scanned Fernandez’s face for a smirk and finally called the bluff, embarrassed but smiling. “Nah!” he said.

Spada swiveled in his chair and ran his hands through his hair nervously as Fernandez downloaded one of Spada’s games from the tournament in San Antonio the previous week and began his critique as the board appeared on the computer screen. “Hmm. Do you want to play two rooks to two rooks?” Fernandez asked. “It’s bad.”

“Look!” Spada said, clicking the mouse to rearrange the pieces. “What about this move?”

Fernandez countered and said, “You’re pinned.”

“Oh, gosh!” Spada said, leaning back in his chair and laughing. As Fernandez began shifting the pieces once again, Spada became impatient. “The first five moves I know by memory. I mean, come on!”

“I’m not screaming at you. Figure out your plan. What happens is, you play e5,” Fernandez said, “and they get rid of your knight and bishop. You’re losing here. This keeps happening. Do you see if you don’t change, you’re suffering the whole game in a bind? You block it sometimes and get lucky. But as you play better players, you won’t be so lucky. What are the three steps?”

Spada grimaced sheepishly.

“I’ll tell you,” Fernandez continued. “Number one: Find out what your opponent is thinking, what he wants. Number two: Ask yourself, ‘Are his wants dangerous?’ Number three: If they are, how do you stop him?”

“If someone wants to give me a million dollars, I say, ‘Okay!’” Spada said with a big laugh.

“Your position here is difficult,” Fernandez said, surveying the board. “You need to stop thinking tactics.”

“I’m not!” Spada said, rolling his eyes. “Tactics.” He had heard this criticism before. Fernandez had told him that if he were rated on tactics alone, he would be at 2200; what he needed to learn was something chess masters call positional play.

“You’re waiting for him to come to you, and that’s not your style,” Fernandez said. “The best counterplay, if he’s attacking you from the wings, is to attack in the center.”

Spada grew solemn. “My dad got mad because I played too fast,” he said.

“So we know what went wrong here,” Fernandez said, wrapping up the session as his next student walked into the office. “You played too fast. You made some opening positional mistakes and found yourself in a position you didn’t understand.” With a big sigh, Spada began packing up his gear, promising to do better during the weekend tournament.

A few hours later, across town, Mendez was sitting down with his father to practice one last time before the weekend. Since August, he had been training for football with his dad from five-thirty to eight in the evening, Monday through Thursday, but the past week and a half he had been back at the chess board for at least an hour and a half a day, anticipating the rematch. In non-scholastic tournaments, the Fernandos can play college students and adults who provide more challenge; during the upcoming weekend, however, they would be restricted to their grade level, and inevitably, the showdown between the rivals would take place on Sunday, in one of the final rounds between some of the top fourth-grade players in the state.

Practice got off to a bad start. Father and son sat across from each other at their six-chair dining room table as if facing off in a tournament. Mendez Senior wore a white undershirt and tapped on his laptop as he loaded chess software to assist with practice. Then he arranged the pieces on a board to re-create a trouble spot in a game his son had recently played on the Internet. Fernandito, buttressing his chin with his left hand, waited for instruction in his SpongeBob SquarePants pajama bottoms and a brown T-shirt, looking bored. The two stared at the board together, and Mendez Senior, who is a keen enough player to understand what had gone awry, began his critique.

“This is where you lost nationals,” he said. “Bishop c4. Everybody clobbers you here. What do you do?”

“Tempt the king,” Fernandito mumbled into his hand.

“How?” Mendez Senior said, slamming the pieces down as he rearranged them on the plastic board.

“Castle a5,” Fernandito replied.

“That takes too long!” Mendez Senior said, raising his voice. “This isn’t gonna cut it! What happens here?”

“It never works out,” Fernandito said.

“Why?” his father asked.

The son was silent, and his face began to turn red.

“If you’re going to do something,” Mendez Senior said, “do it one hundred percent or don’t do it. Sit up! Get your hands off your chin! Go wash your face!”

Fernandito ran into the bathroom and shut the door to compose himself. When he emerged a few minutes later, he sat down, expressionless. His mother, who was chafing at the loud volume of instruction, handed her son a Hi-C drink box, which he clasped close to his chest as he sipped its contents out of a straw. As practice recommenced, Fernandito became more confident in his answers and sat up straight, withstanding the test just like the tough kids from South America he had described from Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, though perhaps he would have preferred, at this moment, the legendary mitten of fire ants.

“When are you not okay?” Mendez Senior asked.

“When you’re not attacking,” his son replied.

“Once you start defending, you’re not in good shape,” Mendez Senior said. “Look at the pawns here: Nunca cruzando, because you’re attacking. Perfect. You can play this against any Grandmaster. A lot of players your age will crumble with any kind of pressure, but Spada isn’t going to do what you want him to do unless you force him.”

He stared at the board for a moment, clearly proud of the position.

“When do you take risks?” he asked.

“When you’re down,” his son replied.

“What’s the difference between this game and the sixth round at nationals?” he asked.

“I applied pressure,” his son replied.

“That was the most awful Sicilian I’ve ever seen, but this is good,” he said. He looked up at his son, before dismissing him to relax upstairs, his tone ringing more hollow to reveal a softie playing the part of a relentless coach. “Fernando. This is like a job or anything in life. If you want it, will they send you an invitation?”

His son shook his head.

“You need to go get it,” he said. “Will they call you and say, ‘Fernando, you want this job?’ You need to find out what you want and get it.”

ON SATURDAY MORNING, November 4, at the statewide tournament at Dr. Américo Paredes Elementary School, in Brownsville, panic might as well have been served as a spice in the foil-wrapped breakfast tacos. As parents browsed through items for sale in the corridors—king and queen key chains, USCF pins, T-shirts, pencils, notation books, roll-up boards, paperbacks with titles such as Play the Sveshnikov!—the children gulped as they stood on their tiptoes and stared at the pairings posted on the painted brick walls along with the players’ ratings.

Two teenagers pointed to the top of the fourth-grade chart, at the Fernandos’ names, and one said, “Look at that kid’s rating!”

“Nasty, dude,” the other teenager replied.

“He’s nine years old, and he’s better than me.”

All these kids are better than me.”

Even if the tournament had allowed competition among a wider range of players beyond each grade level, the Fernandos would have been in good standing. Of the 714 participants from across the state, kindergarten through college, only 19 players were rated better than the Brownsville prodigies, and 13 of those were college students.

Paredes Elementary was an appropriate venue for the esteemed gathering, having become a chess powerhouse since the school opened in 2001, with four top-five national titles and four top-ten state titles under its belt—one reason why Spada transferred there last fall. Ten percent of the student body is involved in chess in some way, as can be noted when cruising the halls. Below one self-portrait, a boy named Andrew had written that he fears bees and wasps, never gives up, does well at chess, and wants to be a tornado chaser. The handmade poster for a girl named Samanta, who is eight years old, states that she was born in Querétaro, Mexico; she loves God, her family, and her teacher; she likes to dance, decorate, and play chess. The library looks like a prize factory, with four-foot-tall trophies creating a blinding golden sheen across the tops of the bookshelves.

The principal, Jay Harris, towered over the children and tousled their hair as they scurried past. “Welcome to chaos!” he said. Harris seemed at a loss to explain the kids’ success. “None of us adults can play,” he said with a shrug. “These kids are self-taught, or their brothers and sisters teach them.” Certainly, expensive private tutors weren’t the explanation. “Our school here includes one of the poorest barrios, Cameron Park,” he said. “Some families belong to the Brownsville Country Club, but in general, over ninety percent of our kids are poor.” Because of the level of poverty, only 60 percent of the Brownsville kids who were participating at this event will travel to the state tournament in Dallas March 17 and 18, considered more prestigious for its broader categories of play, despite the tough competition left behind in the Valley.

At the end of the day on Saturday, both boys had beaten their opponents in four rounds of matches, a fact that didn’t calm the nerves of Spada Senior. “The trouble here is getting cocky,” he told his son. “Don’t play the rating. Play the game.”

“Mendez isn’t doing so well,” his son said with a Cheshire grin. “He’s winning, but just barely.”

“Oh, ya!” Spada Senior said, poking his son in the stomach with a tickling finger. “I’m sure.

Fernandito had a tendency to “blank out” when he got nervous, but a mantra fed his sense of self-assurance, shoring up his reserves before going to battle: “I beat Mendez before, and I can beat him again.”

ON SUNDAY, just before the decisive match between the Fernandos, Mendez was in a small classroom visiting with chess mates from his team. Like the other kids from his school, he wore a mandarin-orange T-shirt emblazoned with the name of his elementary school, Garden Park, in dark capital letters. To set himself apart from the pack, however, he wore a burnt-orange long-sleeved Longhorns shirt underneath, a sporty look punctuated by a dark-green baseball cap. He was intense, as usual, sucking down the nectar from a bottle of  Mountain Dew. Whatever longings or misgivings he had were guarded safely somewhere down deep. “I’m nervous” was all he said before darting down the hall to the cafeteria-turned-tournament-room.

At ten o’clock, the director and a handful of staffers in red T-shirts who had been milling around shooed all the parents out of the cafeteria, and the games began, leaving the room of more than three hundred pairs of players totally silent save for the chinking of plastic pieces and the occasional squeal of folding chairs against the white tile floor. At the far end of the room, fluorescent lights illuminated the gold-and-blue trophies of varying heights arranged on the stage, reflecting a gilded brilliance that shimmered like coins in the pot at the end of a rainbow. Stage left, a painted portrait of Brownsville’s native son Américo Paredes, sporting a black beret, looked on.

Whatever trepidation Mendez felt manifested itself in his blue-and-silver Sketchers, jiggling out of control as he sat down at the game board opposite Spada. Spada’s freshly washed hair was still wet, and he glanced up only once in a while to see if Mendez was looking at him. He wasn’t.

Mendez had first move over Spada, and play commenced under vigilant time supervision provided by special digital chess clocks that counted down the remaining seconds. Not that all children felt under the gun. Though the students were allowed an hour of play each, kids who had finished their games began leaving the room within the first twenty minutes. As tiny kings began tumbling left and right, the winners raised their hands, and tournament staffers confirmed the results, then wrote the scores on a small piece of paper to be given to the record keeper. Whenever the doors to the hallway opened, a crowd of parents would crane their necks to see inside.

Mendez and Spada kept their eyes on the board. After 25 minutes Mendez advanced his queen, a move that caused Spada to appear ill. He hesitated to write down the move on his chess notepad before advancing a pawn. Mendez began blinking quickly, as if spurring himself on to think about the pawn approaching, but when Spada looked up at his opponent, he could see little underneath the brim of Mendez’s cap.

Forty minutes into the game, half of the participants had cleared out. Mendez made a move called “castling” early, and it was serving him well to protect his king, but Spada hadn’t been so lucky. His king was standing all alone, helpless as it surveyed the oncoming onslaught. Fifteen minutes later, after the queens had been exterminated, Mendez moved his knight within trampling distance of Spada’s king and said quietly, “Check.”

Spada didn’t flinch as he pulled back his king. Even as Mendez’s aggressive moves quickened the pace of the game, Spada remained composed to the final decisive stroke, when Mendez slid his rook across the board to checkmate Spada’s lonely king. Afterward, conceding defeat immediately, Spada knocked over his own king without saying a word.

As Spada began to pack the board, Mendez, slinking away, looked at him for the first time. “Good game,” Mendez whispered as he left the table. When Spada opened the tournament room doors and spotted Claudia front and center, ready to hug her son, he was able to hold it together only till the moment she cooed, “Don’t cry.”

Back in Mendez’s group room, the small participants in their orange shirts gathered around Mendez to hear him recount the game. He suddenly seemed as comfortable as an NFL player on Monday Night Football. “I made a mistake right away in the second move: knight f3,” he said. “I was supposed to move it to c3. That’s my opening. But I moved to f3 by accident. That made me nervous because it begins an open Sicilian game, and I have been playing closed Sicilian since second or third grade. I think it caught him off guard. He made a little bit of a mistake, and I got a free pawn. He couldn’t take the pawn back because he was being attacked by another piece, and somewhere around the end he made another mistake and I got a free piece. The piece and the pawn were too much to recover. My rook came over to his territory—he had a wide-open file—so I checked him and came back with my rook and pinned him.”

Spada didn’t take long to gain his composure. In the hallway a few hours later, he slapped himself on the forehead as he laughed and explained, “I blanked out! That’s always what happens when I play against him. The last time I played him in state he played knight c3, and I know what to do against that. But knight f3? I know how to play it, but I had prepared for knight c3! All that practice for nothing!”

WHEN THE WINNERS’ names were announced that afternoon in the crowded cafeteria, the students roared and pounded their fists on the table. Mendez raced up to the stage to accept a trophy that was almost as tall as he was, holding it by both bottom rungs while the camera flashes sparked, the slightest trace of a pursed-lipped smile on his face. Though the match he played after his victory over Spada had ended in a draw, he finished half a point ahead of the others—enough for victory. This was, most likely, the last chess tournament he’d play for a while. He’d participate in major tournaments, but his dad said he wanted Fernandito to become more well-rounded. “I don’t see chess as a career,” he said. “It’s too time-consuming. I’ll always have him play, but more limited.”

Spada had caught wind of this rumor and seemed torn at the prospect of losing his rival. Spada may not have wanted to pursue a career in chess either, but he did want to become a master in the next few years, and no other children in his area propelled him to study like Mendez. “Only adults like Daniel,” he said, sadly. “That’s bad for me. He’s not going to play chess; he’s going to play football?” Without all the practice and tournaments, the Fernandos might not be on equal footing for long, and as Spada considered a world without a nemesis, he grew wistful.

Finally, he perked up. “I suppose it’s okay,” he said with a sigh. “There’s a kid my age from Plano—Darwin Yang is his name.” Yang had played Spada in the past, but that was before his rating had skyrocketed to 1981, giving him a solid chance to beat either Fernando. After reflecting on his new rival’s standing, Spada straightened up. With a smile on his face, he looked coyly out of the corners of his eyes, and his confidence bubbled inside of him. “I hear he’s afraid of me,” he said.

Photographs by Jeff Wilson

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