Chess team has hit a 'dry spell'
By Jeannie Rodriguez
Rene Garcia was hopeful as he traveled 1,116 miles from Miami-Dade County to Brownsville, Texas with his chess team for the Pan American Intercollegiate Chess Tournament on Dec. 27-30.
The chess team, consisting of Dario Cruz, Karel Gonzalez, Gilberto Luna, Charles Galofre and Maydelis Quesada, played six matches in an attempt to earn a spot in the coveted Final Four Chess Tournament, where the country’s top four best colleges compete.
With three wins and three loses, the Miami Dade College chess team was sent home with nothing but a pat on the back.
“We didn’t play bad but it wasn’t good enough,” said Garcia, the chess team advisor. “The team has a little bit of a tradition of making the Final Four, so it’s always a disappointment when it doesn’t happen.”
Since its inception in 2002, the MDC chess team has qualified for the Final Four six years, battling the likes of University of Texas at Dallas, Stanford University, New York University and Harvard University, among others.
And in 2004, the U.S. Chess Federation named the squad the chess team of the year.
“We came out of the blue and surprised the hell out of everybody,” Garcia said. “So much so that one of our competitors, the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, offered one of our players a scholarship to join their team.”
MDC has beaten schools such as Yale and the University of Chicago, placing as high as 3rd place in the Final Four.
Recently, however, the team has hit what Garcia calls a “dry spell.”
Over the last two years, the team has lost five players who have graduated or transferred from MDC on a team that consists of about seven to eight members.
“That’s a big loss,” Garcia said. “Our rating is a 2112. This is definitely one of the more modest teams we’ve had, especially when we’re up against schools with a 2400. Sometimes it takes a little while to get going again.”
The MDC chess team does not have the resources and funding to recruit like some of the major powerhouses they compete against.
These universities often recruit players by providing stipends and scholarships valued at about $30,000, and attend half-dozen tournaments a year.
With the exception of a few campus and high school tournaments, the MDC team depends on word of mouth and the publicity they’ve received in the past.
“We don’t recruit players, they find us,” Garcia said. “We just try to answer the phone in case someone interested calls. I wish we could recruit like other schools. I envy them.”
Recruitment isn’t the only problem the chess team is facing. Finding time to meet and practice together has become harder as the team expands across different campuses.
The current team has members from Kendall, Doral and Hialeah campus. Garcia said many of them not only come to school, but have work and other responsibilities too.
“I know when people think of a team, they can’t help but think of what happens in athletics,” Garcia said, “where everyone gets together and run plays again and again. Chess is a little different.”
Renier Gonzalez, former MDC chess team captain and chess Grand Master, coaches the squad through the International Chess Club (ICC), a popular chess site that allows users to play live with different people.
With the ICC, Gonzalez can assign objectives and tactics for the chess team to work on.
“It’s tough playing against these schools,” Gonzalez said. “We have software that can help prepare them but in most cases, you don’t know who you’re going up against. It’s more important to be mentally prepared for whatever comes your way.”
Gonzalez, a former member of the Cuban national chess team, has been playing chess since he was 10 years old. He is one of only two GM’s residing in Florida and was ranked No. 30 in the U.S. by the U.S. Chess Federation in 2006.
Playing collegiate chess was the last thing Gonzalez had on his mind when he started attending MDC to learn English.
“I’m grateful to have been involved with the chess team for seven years,” Gonzalez said. “Coming into the team was lucky. Now that the original players have graduated, we have to get lucky again. I think right now we have the best team possible with what resources we have.”
The chess team will be making an appearance at the 2010 Pan American Tournament in Milwaukee, and will try to attend the International Chess Tournament in Las Vegas in June.
“Even if we don’t qualify, I’ve always felt really proud of our team because I understand the challenges that all MDC students face,” Garcia said. “In this case, our team is going up against folks who have it a lot easier and often not only do they hang in there, they beat them. I think that’s pretty cool.”