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Chess takes root in Central Valley farm town, blossoms into a state title for Latino boys high school team

In the bigger chess world, Mendota High's championship is nothing striking. But for people living in a world of packing houses and field labor, the town's success in a game of intellect and imagination has resonated.

May 19, 2011|By Diana Marcum, Los Angeles Times
  • Tony Marquez, 8, and his brother Aaron , 7, started playing chess after watching their foster brother Chrispen Reyes on the chess team.
Tony Marquez, 8, and his brother Aaron , 7, started playing chess after watching… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Mendota, Calif. -- The Knucklehead Code of Honor always included honesty and kindness. Humility is a recent addition.

"We never had to worry about gloating before because we never won before," said Vaness French, coach of the Knuckleheads, otherwise known as the Mendota High School chess team.

The nickname refers not to human blockheadedness, but to the cylinders on vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycle engines known for their durability.

Drought-weary Mendota — a Central Valley town of stilled machinery and packinghouses surrounded by industrial agriculture — is the kind of place that requires durability just to survive. Out here, even sunlight seems hard.

Each week, at least a third of the town's families receive a bag of fruit and vegetables — and, if it's a good day, a chicken — provided by churches and food banks. In this city of 10,000, unemployment hovers around 45%.

So when a group of high school boys, each with his own world of worries and yearning and coached by a man in ill health, brought a state championship home, the reaction was joyous astonishment.

Councilman Joseph Riofrio owns a small market on the main street and knows how many chess team members count out pennies to buy a snack. At a City Hall ceremony honoring the team, he could barely keep his voice from breaking.

"In Mendota, we're known for the wrong things: not having water, being such a poor community. We're surrounded by abundance — we're the cantaloupe capital of the world. But still, it's dust, it's dirt, it's hard out here. And for the Mendota chess team to be the best in the state after playing affluent communities — kids with private chess tutors — it's unfathomable," he said.

The 12-member team has been toasted by the Fresno County Board of Supervisors and invited to throw out the first pitch at a minor league baseball game. On Monday, the students traveled to Sacramento, where they were honored on the Assembly floor for placing first in the Premier Division at the CalChess State Championships. For many of them, it was the farthest they had ever traveled from Mendota.

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French, 45, is a black man who doesn't speak Spanish. When the 100% Latino team acts up, he yells in French. He thinks it's a good way to get their attention.

He is, by his own estimation, a middling-at-best chess player. The last time he was around tournament chess before coming to Mendota, he was in junior high.

He wasn't at a high point in his life when he arrived 10 years ago. He was so broke a friend had to pay for gas for him to drive 40 miles from Fresno to volunteer in a class taught by chess master Artak Akopian, then Fresno's highest-ranked player.

Within a year, Akopian left for Los Angeles, and the school district asked French to take his place. He took the position on condition that the chess club would become a team and compete against other schools.

He had an ally: 67-year-old Ernie Lozano, a retired shop steward at the now-closed Spreckels Sugar plant, who had taught eight nieces and nephews to play chess. Lozano was soon "Tio" (uncle) to everyone on the team.

French, who had spent most of his working life as a bookkeeper and manager at his uncle's Fresno golf course, had never been a teacher, coach or mentor.

"But this sad-joyful thing happened: I stopped being selfish. I was willing to sacrifice to give them the time and attention they needed," he said. "I never married or had kids. I think of them as my own kids, and they have responded."

It never occurred to him the team could place first at the state tournament. But looking back, he thinks he should have seen it coming. Something had been building, week by week, in the small trailer on the elementary school grounds where the chess club meets Fridays after school.

Without many chess books or easy access to computers, team members turned to each other — rehashing games, comparing strategies, playing endlessly. They even showed up Mondays during the elementary school chess class to help French teach the younger children.

Kevin Romero, 15, went from perennial loser to checkmating opponents in three moves. His was one of the four high scores that nabbed the state prize for Mendota.

A big, St. Bernard puppy of a boy, he has been suspended from the team for the rest of the school year for "behavior unbecoming a Knucklehead." French left it up to the entire 40-member team — first-graders through high school — to decide whether Kevin had broken their code of honor and to determine punishment.

"I don't teach chess, exactly," French said. "I teach character."

Kevin considers his sentence just.

"I was — how shall we say this — a tad, a mite, a teeny bit over-exuberant," he said. "I was sort of a 10-plus on the boasting scale."

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