November 17, 2017

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Winning Is Contagious: Saul Ramirez on “The Champions’ Game”

Saul Ramirez is the coach of a national and state championship winning chess team from Henderson Middle School in El Paso, TX. He’s also their art teacher. In The Champions’ Game (Canter Press, May 2017), coauthored by John Seidlitz, Ramirez recounts how his club made up of Mexican American and Mexican tweens, with little to no previous chess experience, made it all the way to the big leagues. Ramirez also peppers the narrative with his own memories of growing up in El Paso. SLJ chatted with Ramirez about how the club got its start and how librarians can better serve Latinx students.

Photo by Barry Link

What prompted you to start a chess club at Henderson?

My vision for the chess club grew from my own history as a young chess champion. I had the good fortune to learn from a great coach, and I experienced the thrill of being a winner as a young man in this very same community. I wanted to offer my students an opportunity similar to my own.

I also wanted El Paso, my community, and the school to shine. More important, I wanted these kids to stand out from the crowd. It’s not easy for them to gain recognition through traditional measures of success for students (test scores and grades), but I knew they had it in them to become champions through chess. I also felt confident that if they could master the game, they would certainly become academically successful students.
Being a winner is contagious—it leads to other wins in life.

Did you encounter any early roadblocks or challenges?

The first, and most challenging task, was to work with the team members to build their skills, discipline, and stamina. Chess was not a game these students had been exposed to, so they needed to learn the basics. To become competitive, they required tons of practice (after school and during evenings and weekends). I drilled into them that champions put in the time and effort to get better and better. Success is not an accident; it is something you strive for over time.

In the beginning, I asked them to imagine the game play a couple of moves ahead. As they matured as players, I challenged them to visualize moves further and further into the game. This focus and stamina was truly a test for them. Not only did they have regular homework from school, they also had homework from me! But they never let me down.

Most of the team members had personal stories that included challenges that might have prevented them from maintaining their connection to the game. I integrated the rules of chess with my set of “champions’ rules.” My way of teaching echoed the way I was taught the game; the rules of chess are actually rules for success in life. They struggled to see the connection until they began winning. Once they won, they saw a map for their futures.

I was lucky to have the enthusiastic support of the parents, the school community, and my principal Elizabeth Maldonado as I built the team into championship contenders. Chess is not a game traditionally targeted to economically disadvantaged border kids. We had some fundraising struggles to pay for competition fees and travel expenses. Again, our community and even the school district stepped up to assist. Our Facebook circle also got involved, which helped spread our story.

How have your champions handled their newfound success?

I consistently tell the team members no matter how high they achieve, no matter how much attention they receive, to always remain humble. Strive for more. Ask more of yourself. Respect your opponent, but avoid admiring them—that puts them above you. During competitions, it’s essential to have that champion mentality—it’s a message the opponent can read.

Part of helping them handle their success is my insistence that they maintain high academic grades. I want these students to be high academic performers as much as I want them to be chess champions.
I ask for them to maintain averages of 90 or above as a requirement for competing in tournaments. With very few exceptions (for instance, those with learning disabilities), they’ve met the challenge. Their test scores have risen, and they are talking about their futures in ways that they
previously did not imagine possible.

You describe your desire to start “a revolution of the mind.” Can you expand on that?

I want to revolutionize the way adults see the life circumstances of these children as somehow limiting their options for a bright future. As teachers, we educate them regardless of economic status, languages spoken, what side of the freeway they live on, or even what side of the border they call home.

I want to start a revolution in the minds of these young teammates. I tell them to educate themselves for their future. They can set themselves up for success if they use the rules they learned to master the game of chess to master the game of life.

From my personal experience, there is no moment more galvanizing in the life of a young person, than the moment they first taste glory. I use those words, taste glory, to capture that moment when you’re holding the trophy and you’re being acknowledged as the best. Once you’ve experienced that, you want to keep going forward. These students have moved up through Novice Division, to Junior Varsity Division, and to Champions Division by tasting glory and wanting more.

Finally, this story of victory over circumstance, of changed lives, struggles overcome, and love for culture and community can be shared with others. I hope that readers of The Champions’ Game are inspired to challenge themselves to open their hearts and minds even more to those who are different.

How can librarians better serve Latinx youth, especially those who are children of immigrants, are immigrants themselves, or live on the border?

I cannot state enough how important librarians and media specialists are to the learning lives of their students. We know that many homes do not have libraries of books, and even many classrooms are dependent upon the school library for learning resources.

You can:

  • Connect students to high-interest books at reading levels that reflect their true ability
  • Expand your titles of “real stories about real people” from the cultures represented in your schools
  • Look for translated texts of literary classics, well-known childhood stories, and any books that are taught as part of the language arts curriculum
  • Realize that while chess was the “motor” for my students, other topics will be the “motor” for others
  • Investigate and make available ebooks and other digital information to help students with limited background knowledge gain that experience “just in time”
  • Make the library a hub of acceptance and cultural curiosity in the school

This article was published in School Library Journal's June 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Della Farrell About Della Farrell

Della Farrell is an Assistant Editor at School Library Journal and Editor of Series Made Simple

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