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Commentary, sarcasm and snide remarks from a Florida resident of over thirty years. Being a glutton for punishment is a requirement for residency here. Who am I? I've been called a moonbat by Michelle Malkin, a Right Wing Nut by Daily Kos, and middle of the road by Florida blog State of Sunshine. Tell me what you think.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Maybe he should be teaching more than chess

Below is an article from Yesterday's Miami Herald. It's about International Chess Master Renier Gonzalez. He teaches chess to elementary school students at two Miami-Dade County Schools.

IM Gonzalez also has an interesting life story. Born in Cuba he defected from that country in 1999 and eventually settled in the US in 2001. Besides teaching children a love for chess, he is a college student in Miami. I think you'll enjoy the following.

One minor quibble- The use of the term prodigy shouldn't be applied to Mr. Gonzalez. He is 32 years old.

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Brow furrowed, hands at the ready, Matthew Galvis studies the chess board with the intensity of a veteran player. He looks up long enough to glance sideways at his mentor, Renier Gonzalez.

''He taught me moves that I didn't know,'' the fifth-grader says, ``and he also taught me that the king is the most important piece in the game and that you should never underestimate the pawn and that you have to concentrate and not get distracted by anything else because if you don't think wisely, you lose.''

All important life lessons, to be sure. Lessons Gonzalez, 32, has learned on and off the board and that he now tries to impart to his youngest wards, girls and boys like Galvis who find escape and refuge in a checkered world.

Gonzalez teaches elementary school students the intellectual art of chess five afternoons a week at Henry M. Flagler and Coral Terrace elementaries in Miami. His program is part of a federally funded project that brings extracurricular activities to students enrolled in after-school programs.

Walking the halls at Flagler Elementary right before the final bell, Gonzalez pats his students on the head, stops to say hello to a kindergartener who has become a chess enthusiast this year, and otherwise comments about the thrill of spreading the gospel of chess.

Most of his 70 students, however, know little about him beyond the campus. They might be amazed at the accolades the chess whiz has managed to earn since his arrival in Miami in 2001 as an unknown prodigy who had left everything behind to start a new life.

Gonzalez, a native of Cuba, has made his mark both with the chess team at Miami Dade College and on a professional level. At Miami-Dade, he is considered the ''number one board'' (top player) and, along with a stellar cast of other young Latin prodigies, he has made the underdog team a national contender in the highly competitive circle of collegiate chess. In fact, MDC has become such a force that it earned the coveted Chess College of the Year Award in August 2004 from the U.S. Chess Federation, beating out 120 other schools with more money and a longer track record.

Gonzalez is a student at the Wolfson Campus downtown, majoring in computer science. The chess club sponsor, Rene Garcia, describes him this way: ``Renier brings tremendous professionalism. As competitive as chess can be, his demeanor is always positive, even in the face of adversity. I think that his serenity spreads to other team members.''

Before Gonzalez enrolled at Miami-Dade, he had already begun to leave his mark. He has won three consecutive Florida chess championships since 2001. (This year was the first year he didn't compete since his arrival.) He was also one of 64 players nationwide to qualify for the U.S. Chess Championship tournament, considered the Super Bowl of the game. He ranked 18th at that competition -- the highest-ranking player who was not already a grand master. (Gonzalez is an international master, one notch below the grand master.)

''I'm working toward that goal,'' he says of the grand master status. ``It's something that means a lot to me.''

There are about 800 grand masters worldwide. To earn that distinction, players must go through a rigorous circuit that includes playing a certain number of tournaments against others who have achieved the grand master title. He'll have plenty of practice this fall. This month, he traveled with the MDC chess team to Ohio for a tournament and played solo in the Turkey Bowl in Boca Raton. This month he will also play in the prestigious Pan American InterCollegiate Team Chess Championship, a qualifying meet for the Final Four of College Chess being hosted by MDC.

How does he prepare for this flurry of events while holding a job with the school system, working on a new business and attending college all at the same time?

Easy, he says. ``Learning and playing chess has many advantages. Chess quickens the mind and teaches you to concentrate, to analyze, to think ahead.''

It probably helps, too, to believe you're on a mission. And Gonzalez certainly is. He would love to spread the sport to all schools in Miami-Dade, particularly the middle schools where students are more apt to perfect the game. In New York, he points out, chess is offered as an elective, and in Cuba it is a required subject in two grades.

He wants educators to recognize its benefits. Again Rene Garcia: ``Renier may see chess as much more than a game. Perhaps he sees it as a set of transferable skills applicable beyond the board. He sees the discipline and concentration needed in chess as excellent skills for children to develop.''

But Gonzalez wasn't always such a fan. Born in Jaguey Grande in the province of Matanzas, he preferred to play basketball, baseball and soccer, though his father and younger sister were chess enthusiasts. He had the good fortune, however, of living right across the street from a chess academy, and he eventually learned to play by watching others. He was 11.

''After that it became a fever,'' he recalls. ``I couldn't get enough of it. I was training every single day.''

Months later, he won a state championship. By 12 he was sent to a special provincial school to be trained. Identified as a prodigy, he began playing on the national team and traveled the length of the island for competitions, plus visiting Spain and other Latin American countries.

But in 1997, his growing discontent with the situation in Cuba kept him off the teams that were invited to play overseas -- until, finally in 1999, he was invited to play in Colombia. There, he defected with another teammate. ''I wanted the freedom to come and go as I pleased, to play in the tournaments I wanted,'' he says.

In Colombia, a Bogota businessman who was also a chess enthusiast helped him land a job as a trainer of the national teams, and in 2001, he ended up in Miami, where two first cousins lived and where he eventually received U.S. residency.

With the help of one of the cousins, he attended night school to learn English and worked as a handyman, day laborer and gardener. He also married. Then, after registering at Miami-Dade and re-establishing his chess roots, he and Gilberto Luna II, a national master, founded Professional Chess Services, a company that runs tournaments, offers private and group classes, and sponsors chess camps. Last month, the company put on an open tournament for both private and public school chess players at Flagler Elementary. His company will also run the Pan American tournament, which starts Dec. 27.

The kids, he says, give him hope. He points out Lien Morcate, a third-grader at Flagler Elementary who ranks in the top 20 nationally for her age group. She began playing for him in kindergarten. ''I love chess,'' she gushes. ``I love to think a lot and I love giving checks. It makes me feel proud.''

Gonzalez doesn't know how far his young students will go with their new skills, but he fervently hopes that they'll continue playing for pleasure long after they've forgotten him.

''I don't force them to come here,'' he explains. ``I want them to come and enjoy themselves. They have to be motivated, to feel the soul of what is chess. I want them to learn to love it.''

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