Chess Champs Rise From Migrant Worker Community
TONY COX, host: Now to the story of an underdog from California's dusty farm-driven Central Valley. The town of Mendota is not far from Fresno in the middle of California. It's known in some parts as the cantaloupe capital of the world. But it's also home to an unemployment rate of about 45 percent - a continuing struggle for water, a significant migrant worker community and now it's home to the first-place trophy for the premiere division of the CalChess State Championships.
Mendota High School's chess team rolled into the 100-team tournament, knowing that the competition came from better-funded schools with many players boasting of private chess tutors. And then players like Kevin Romero made all the right moves to beat the higher rated competition.
KEVIN ROMERO: So he put his queen. I moved my knight and checked his king. So he got to move this king and when he moved his king I took his queen. Just like any other chess player, he made a mistake and I took advantage him.
COX: Now joining us from the studios of Radio Bilingue in Fresno is another player of the ultra successful 2010-2011 team and a captain of next year's team. Also with us Vaness French, the coach and mentor a team. Welcome to both of you and congratulations first of all.
VANESS FRENCH: Well, thank you for having us, sir. And thank you for all.
CHRISPIN REYES: Thank you.
COX: Vaness, I'm going to begin with you as the coach. Tell us who are these guys that you put together on this team? What sort of background did they have and how did you decide that these are the guys that are going to take us to the state championship?
FRENCH: Well, actually, we have an open door policy. At the beginning of the year, all students at Mendota Unified are welcomed to join our team. We don't kick any players off. They actually end up leaving because they find the work difficult. So by time of the end of the year the cream of the crop is already there.
COX: Now let me ask you Chrispin, because I have been close to Mendota, maybe not right in the middle of town. But it is not a place, I think it's fair to say, you would necessarily associate with playing chess. Was that something that you got into, and how was it that you got into it?
REYES: Yes. I got into it when I was really young. I was probably fifth grade. At first it was struggling but it took me a while and I just continued on the process and it just helped me become a better player.
COX: Why did you want to play chess?
REYES: I like to do stuff that challenge my mind mentally and chess is one of those activities.
COX: When you first started playing who did you play with? How did you develop your skill? And how particularly, Chrispin, did you keep from being discouraged because it takes a while to master that?
REYES: I had a tutor, my teacher. But after that he kind of let it go so I just about challenged myself and I had to teach myself the ways of it and I had to focus most of the time.
COX: Vaness, as the coach of the chess team, I imagine you would have to compete with the soccer team at Mendota High School. How did you manage to pull that off? And why do you call these guys the Knuckleheads?
FRENCH: Well, both of those are very good questions. First of all, the chess season goes so long. It starts out in October and ends up in April. So I do encourage my Knuckleheads to actually go out for a sport. They'll take a hiatus from the team sport of chess playing and then return when their season's over.
Knuckleheads comes from what my dad used to call me when I started playing. Every time I made an incorrect move he said that's not it, knucklehead, and take it back and do it again. Well, later he explained to me that just meant that I was not giving up; I would always come at him. So I looked it up later on as I got older and found out that it actually meant a part of an engine of a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Their head was called a knucklehead.
COX: That's an interesting story. By the way, if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are talking about the true Cinderella story of California's Mendota High School Chess Team, from a town of packing houses and farm field labor. It won the premiere division of California's chess championships. With me one of the chess players from that team Chrispin Reyes, and the coach and mentor Vaness French.
Chrispin, what was it like when you actually won?
REYES: Wow, when I actually won? It was extraordinary. It was a relief because man, the competition there was very severe. I give credit for the other, my opponents and for the other teams but, you know, we just came out the best.
COX: Was it sweeter because you come from Mendota?
REYES: Yeah. Actually these out-of-town kids just coming out of nowhere and just taking over the place, that was pretty sweet.
COX: Coach, you don't speak Spanish do you?
FRENCH: No, sir. I don't.
COX: And all of your teammates, all of your team, they are Latino youths?
FRENCH: Ninety-nine point nine percent are. We only have one African-American and one Asian child.
COX: Was language ever an issue?
FRENCH: It is an issue at times when I'm dealing with my parents. But usually my children like Chrispin, who's a senior captain, is my designated translator. Or I'll pull a member of the faculty - of the school board or the faculty to translate for me because certain things are so important, you know. The children are traveling out of town, sometimes out of county, and I need to make sure the parents know where we're going and how we're doing it.
COX: How were you able to pay for this in a community that is already, as we said, 45 percent unemployment? Who is supporting you and how are you financially supported?
FRENCH: We are financially supported through state and federal program. It's a program that's run for migrant workers and that allows me to pay for my transportation and my entry fees for my students. It helps me buy books and chess equipment and so forth.
COX: Where's the trophy now?
FRENCH: I believe it's at the high school. Isn't it Chris?
REYES: Yes - board members.
COX: You mean you guys don't - you don't know where your trophy is? Your big win, you don't know where it is?
FRENCH: It's funny you should ask. We had it in our classroom for about two weeks and we actually got sick of looking at.
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FRENCH: So we presented it to the school board and told them here, you deal with it now.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
COX: Are you going to enter - my last thing. Are you going to enter the competition again next year?
FRENCH: I'm going to let Chris answer that one.
COX: Chris, you going to answer?
COX: You're going to win?
COX: There you go. Chrispin Reyes is a player on California's state champion chess team, the one from the tiny Mendota High School in the state's agricultural center. Vaness French is coach and mentor of the Knuckleheads, as they are called, the Mendota Chess Team, named after the durable vintage motorcycle engine of the same name. Gentlemen, thank you very much and again, congratulations.
FRENCH: Well, thank you for having us.
REYES: Thank you for the time.
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COX: And that's our program for today. I'm Tony Cox and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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