Chess prodigies Andres Fernandez, left, and Alejandro Fernandez
While Venus and Serena Williams compete in championship tennis tournaments with state-of-the art rackets, the Fernandez brothers of Greenwich Village show up at their own top-tier tournaments with no special equipment. . . other than their brains. That is because Alejandro and Andres Fernandez play chess. They compete in national youth tournaments sponsored by the U.S. Chess Federation, which has 51,838 youth members, 4-19 years old.
Alejandro, age 6, and Andres, 11, live in Washington Sq. Village on Bleecker St. Alejandro attends P.S 116 and Andres, Lab School.
Alejandro is quick to point out that all chess players are not brainy nerds, because many of the kids on my chess team also play soccer. Andres astutely observes there are striking similarities between a game of chess and soccer.
Great athletes such as the Williams sisters not only have impeccable technique, but they also use similar methods to beat the competition such as distracting, faking and unnerving the opponent. In both chess and soccer I have to think ahead and have a strategy, notes Andres.
When asked why they like to play chess, the brothers get into a little competition of their own as to who will answer the question first. They both love to play chess, get to meet a lot of people and it is really fun to go to the tournaments, they both eventually concur.
Like youth sports such as baseball, basketball and soccer, there has been an explosion of children registering with the U.S.C.F. to formally play chess in highly structured and competitive programs. The last five years have seen the rolls swell by nearly 50 percent, spurred by the growth of scholastic chess, said a spokesperson for the federation. The U.S.C.F. was founded in 1939 and when Bobby Fischer emerged as a phenomenal chess player in 1979, membership spiked all over the country.
In the olden days, the 1950s, kids for the most part learned to play chess with an older relative or by watching friendly games played by men in white T-shirts at Washington Sq. Park who didnt seemed bothered by young tykes peering over their shoulders, as long as the kids were quiet.
Many an empty Sunday afternoon was filled with watching my uncle, Kent Brooklyn Stiles, have a showdown match with my father. Every game was filled with high drama and big cigar puffs punctuating their every move. They were fiercely competitive but still, the elders took the time to explain the game and answer questions.
One of the perks of Sunday chess was that Kent Brooklyn told magical stories, as he was quite the world traveler, having written the stamp column for the New York Times for years. There was a story in every stamp.
But for many families, the days of relaxed Sunday afternoons are over, and gone are the days of stories over chess. Learning chess is all business now, private coaches, seminars, even self-help books where kids can analyze their game by taking tests such as New Positions Test, Rook and Pawn Test and Novice Test, in books like Test, Evaluate and Improve Your Chess, by Danny Kopec.
Although Alejandro and Andres learned chess at the knee of their grandfather and father, they began to beat the oldsters regularly and needed a better teacher. They are now coached by internationally ranked Saudin Robovik, who has a few tidbits to tell about his adventures coming to America from Bosnia.
Recently, on a flier advertising a tournament at P.S. 41, there was a cartoon of a toddler in diapers with the caption chess genius. Does this perhaps reveal underlying ambition that parents have for their children? In a national competition held in Seattle, Andres recounts how the parents were shut out of the ballroom where the children competed, with guards stationed at the door. Just outside, hovering parents with binoculars unabashedly tried to follow the games anyway. Andres laughed off the hyper-competitive parents, noting that his mother brought her laptop and quietly worked on grant applications related to her own work as a professor at N.Y.U.
There is no doubt the 1990s marked a significant upturn in parents enrolling their children in all kinds of highly competitive sports, music and academic programs. However, pushy parents are not entirely to blame for this phenomenon; rather, the true culprit is the skyrocketing cost of higher education.
Imagine a world where colleges gave out scholarships not for academic excellence, sports or chess prowess but lets say. . . to high school seniors who could win the hot dog eating contest! Entire industries would burst forth immediately. Children would sign up for classes that would prep them for wolfing down large quantities of hot dogs in record time. Parents would be sneaking their babies cocktail wieners instead of prematurely trying to teach them to read. Camps, expensive private tutors and classes at Princeton Weiner Review would become over-enrolled.
Sadly, the pressure would still be on to win those coveted scholarships, because a grownup baby boomer with two children in college at once faces a bill north of $70,000 a year if they attend private colleges. To most parents, financial aid in the form of endless payments on loans can feel like a college loan-shark program. And dont forget you can hock your house and look forward to paying the bill well into those golden nursing home years.
When discussing the benefits of chess, Andres lights up and joyfully describes in detail how it helps his math. As an afterthought, at the end of describing certain chess moves, he mentions that he ranks third in all of North America and Puerto Rico. His love of the game is genuine, but he is quick to point out that many of his peers are involved because they know it will help them get offers from good colleges.
Like a quiet flu bug that has crossed all state lines, the pressure is on children of all ages to work toward getting college scholarships. Perhaps parental pressure should instead become part of a national effort to make higher education more affordable. Then our children can get back to the business of being children, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, not to be missed.