From Never Playing Chess to a 5 Day Chess Tournament


Chess Team celebrating with their trophies after their big wins.

By Paola Arriaza, Staff Writer

   When my friend Alberto told me that the chess team was looking for another girl to go on their trip, I signed up without hesitation. It wasn’t until a few days before the trip when Alberto told me he wouldn’t be going that I started getting nervous. 

   But the little voice in the back of my head kept urging me to do it, to step out of my comfort zone and try something new. I was a senior, after all. How many more moments would I get to do something like this? Never in my life had I played chess, and yet I found myself packing for a five-day chess trip to Orlando.

   On that 3-hour bus ride, senior Alejandro Valdes was kind enough to help me learn how to play chess. He so patiently explained chess strategies and moves. At times he’d explain concepts too intricate for my beginner brain to yet understand, but as soon as he saw the puzzled look on my face, he would tone it back and explain it in simpler terms. It was on that very bus ride that Ale taught me the opening move that I would use for the entire tournament, the fianchetto. Throughout the whole trip, anytime I had a question, Alejandro was the first person I would go to, pestering him with silly questions like “which color goes first,” and “what’s a checkmate,” or “what way does the knight move again?” But not once was he peeved with my question, and he considerately took his time to answer all of them. 

   Once we got to the hotel, I was surprised to see how many people were there. The whole hotel was booked just for people participating in the tournament. 

   We had a quick meeting in which chess coach, Mr. Aguilar assigned us our roommates for the next 5 days. Seeing as we were the only girls on the trip, junior Isabella Ferrandiz and I were roommates. 

   On the outside, Isabella seems shy and reserved, but over the course of 5 days, I was able to become friends with the kindest and sweetest soul. However, Isa is more than just a ball of sunshine; she is also an incredibly smart individual. Watching her practice her chess moves was like watching a young Picasso paint for the first time. Despite being a novice, Isa was still one of the best and would often have Ale on the edge of his seat during our practices.

   As I’m sure you can guess, the chess team is comprised of some of the best and brightest at Miami High including Alejandro Valdes, Isabella Ferrandiz, Marco Perez Vasquez, Carlos Salcerio, and Joseluis Garica. During our brief time together, I was able to become better friends with each one and learn many important lessons. 

   On our first day of the tournament, I was amazed to see kids as young as 4 competing for national titles. Some might consider chess to be a highly competitive sport, and while that might be the case for some, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t always have to be true. On my first day competing at the tournament, I was matched up against a player named Ryan from New York, ranked in the 1200 (in laymen’s terms that is like the LeBron James of chess). I lost that match within 10 minutes, but I gained something even more valuable, a friend.

Seniors Carlos Salcerio and Marco Perez-Vazquez competing against 5 year olds. (Spoiler alert Carlos and Marco lost)

   After our match, Ryan and I played a friendly game in the lobby, and we started talking to each other. At first, he seemed reserved, probably assuming I was planning some sick joke on him. But after a few minutes of pleasant small talk, he opened up, and conversation flowed freely after that. He explained that in his 12 years of playing chess, he had never spoken to his opponent, and much less played a round for fun after the game was over. 

   Later that afternoon while Marco and I were practicing, I shared what Ryan had told me, to which Marco responded with: “For all that chess is worth, it is worthless without the people.”

   Those words struck a chord in my heart, and I knew that that was my goal for the rest of the trip. Since I had no chance of winning, at least I could walk away with something even more valuable, friendships. 

   During the silent and concentrated matches held in the biggest ballroom the hotel had, you could hear me talking to my opponents. For you to understand the effect of this, you must know that in some competitions it is forbidden to speak. Most of the time, all you would hear is the sound of the plastic pieces moving along the board. While my teammates were racking up wins, I was racking up friends. Each person I played with was a new person that I had the chance to connect with. 

   In the afternoons once my teammates and my matches were over, you could find us playing against each other. Teaching one another new strategies and reviewing our moves from our matches earlier in the day. But through it all, you could hear the boisterous sound of laughter in the air, as we shared stories and inside jokes. Over the course of 5 days, I managed to form a bond with 5 people that I had seldom ever talked to.

Carlos Salcerio, Marco Perez- Vazquez, Joseluis Garcia, and Isabella Ferrandiz, practicing chess.

   If given the chance to have a redo of my high school experience, without a doubt I would have taken chess. The program that Mr. Aguilar led is impressive, considering he has managed to lead the team to many wins. My time on the trip showed me the tremendous amount of respect and admiration that his students have for him. Mr. Aguilar teaches his students more than just chess; he teaches them teamwork, friendship, and kindness.


Tournament Highlight

   Overall, the team won 2nd place nationally in the Blitz tournament (5-minute game) but was awarded 4th place due to tie breaks. 

   The seniors’ team won 4th place overall nationally. 

   The 9th-grade team won 9th place.

   The 10th-grade team won 6th place.

   The 11th-grade team won 13th place.

   Senior Xavier Alvarez and junior Justin Marquez placed 7th in the Bughouse tournament (Bughouse is a chess variant played on two chessboards by four players in teams of two).