Éxito Interview: Hector Hernandez on Mentoring Chicago Youth
By Keith Ammann   
January 18, 2015
Héctor Hernández

I met Héctor Hernández when I approached him to collaborate on a community tournament for National Chess Day 2011. Hernández is the branch manager of the Lozano Branch Library in Pilsen, a formerly Eastern European neighborhood on Chicago’s Lower West Side that became predominantly Latino in the 1960s and ’70s as Mexican-American residents were displaced southward by the construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In addition to managing the library, Hernández is the longtime organizer of the Knight Moves Chess Club and the Chicago Latino Chess Championship (which I’ve directed for the past three years). He also is a former president of the Illinois Chess Association, a onetime Class A correspondence chess champion and a mentor to countless young players from Pilsen and other nearby neighborhoods.

After the 2014 championship tournament, which took place Thanksgiving weekend, Hernández observed that four of the five top-rated players and six of the top 10 finishers in the open section, along with the top-rated player and top finisher in the 14-and-under section, were current or former students of his. “In a sense,”  he told me, “this feels like reaping the fruits of my labor.”

Keith Ammann (KA): How did the Knight Moves Chess Club at Lozano Branch Library get started?
Héctor Hernández (HH): Back in September 1989, when the library opened to the public—at the same time, we opened the chess club. Actually, I had done a chess club at Back of the Yards Branch Library on West 47th Street, and that ran from July 1978 until August 1981. And then I went back to university. But I eventually ended up at Lozano, when it opened.

The name was given to the club back in ’95, about five or six years later. We received a grant for the children’s librarians, and [they] adopted the chess club, got some funding, set up the chess corner. And we had a contest among the children and parents to see who would come up with the best name. . . . “Knight Moves” was the club name that was selected by everyone.

KA: How many years have you been running the Chicago Latino Chess Championship?
HH: Twenty-two. I started in 1993. Two years ago, we had a hundred participants, but the first one had only about six in the adult group and about as many in the kids’ section. It was mainly just a community event, kids and a couple of adults who were in our chess club.

The reason I started having tournaments was because for the first couple of years, I was losing customers, because they wanted some kind of official setting in which to test their skills. And we were not providing that at the time, so I figured I’d better start something.

KA: Obviously, many of the participants aren’t Latino.
HH: Well, at the time we started, there used to be a Chicago Latino Cinema, and there were different events that highlighted the Latino aspect [of the library]. I don’t think that after 22 years, it would be a good thing to go back and change the name. All along, it has been a Chicago Public Library event. It’s free to the public. There are no entry fees.

The first year, I got a call from a gentleman [who asked],  “I’m not Latino, but my wife is Mexican—can I play in your tournament?” I said, “Yeah.” . . . This is really a Chicago Public Library event which is open to everyone, regardless of whether you’re Latino or not.

And it’s for people of all ages. Elisa Blancas is 94. She taught all her grandchildren how to play chess. Back in 1990, her grandson, Tizoc Ólivo, was interviewed here by Channel 44 [WSNS-TV, now a Telemundo station]. . . . She’s been a strong supporter of our chess club over the years. One time, several years ago, she ran across the street to the supermarket and bought a bunch of stuff for all the participants. We had about 30 or 40 at the time. She came back with a shopping cart full of stuff.

KA: Tell me about this year’s participants.
HH: Bennett Joseph (2063, 5.0/5, 1st place)—he used to come here when he was 7 years old. I did not tutor him privately, but he did attend our chess club meetings and participate in the group lessons I was giving. He won one of those brightly colored chess tables we have in the corner. . . . So he dates back to—he’s 27 now, and he was 8 or 9 at the time when he used to come to our chess club.
Josh Flores (1659, 4.0/5, 2nd place)—I met him when he was 14, when he was a freshman in high school, and I brought him along to tournaments, and we would get together and study together, and I would teach him, being the older one and the one with more experience in chess and chess tournaments. And he went on to become a tournament director himself.
Bennett Joseph, I met Héctor Hernándfirst place winner, Chicago Latino Chess Championship XXII

José Antonio Rodríguez Jr. (1811, 4.0/5, 3rd place)—he came here a few days after his fifth birthday. There was an article published in a Latino newspaper which was called Éxito, meaning “Success.” That newspaper article was published the same day Cristián Peña was born. . . . Tony took first place in the U.S. Junior Open age 6, age 7, age 8—three years in a row in his age group. And when he was 11, he tied for the under-15 group. And he was the top player [of his age] in Illinois, rating-wise, from the time he was 6 till the time he was 16, and he was one of the top 50 in the United States.

Andy (1333, 4.0/5, 4th place) and Cristián Peña (1648, 2.5/5)—Cristián didn’t win one of the top 10 places this time around, but Andy tied for second. They lived in the neighborhood and would be here every week, and parental involvement was the big thing with them. I remember one year at the Illinois state K–8 Championship, Andy and Tony were both 6 and 0 going into the last round, but they lost. Andy’s mother, she felt like he wasn’t progressing enough. And as for Cristián, I told Helen [Warren], only time would tell how far Cristián Peña would go. So he went as far as the national championship with Sam Schmakel in bughouse [in 2011], and they won. [The following year, Peña and Schmakel, in a four-way tie, were awarded third place on tiebreaks. —K.A.] And he was also part of the Whitney Young High School state championship team, and he also won the Chicago Public Schools’ MVP $12,000 scholarship.

Daniel Zhang (1248, 4.0/5, 5th place)—I’ve been working with him for 2½ years, since August 2012. Daniel has a very good memory, a steel-trap mind. You tell him something, and he gets it, and he doesn’t forget it. I might say to him, “If you have a big advantage, what do you do?” And he says, “Act quickly!” He’s very transparent. If you show him a position and he can’t see the ideas in it, as you start to give him hints, you can see him go, “Oh!” You can see the light bulb going on in his head. . . . He sort of goes his own way. His style of play is more dynamic, say, than mine. He might take more risks or gamble a little on occasion.

Juan Ávalos (1626, 3.5/5, 7th place) showed up here when he was 7, and he will be 28 in March. For a few years, he showed up, then he went away but came back when he was 13, and he’s been with us ever since. He’s actually an employee here [at Lozano]—he’s a “cybernavigator.” So he actually got a job out of the Knight Moves Chess Club involvement.

Ricky Román (1403, 5.0/5, 1st place, 14 and under)—I’ve been teaching him since he was about 5, on and off, and he’s a very gutsy player. One time, he was playing some big event, and he lost his queen. His opponent was up a queen, but he had two rooks, and he checkmated his opponent with two rooks on the seventh rank. He’s got a good positional sense, good tactics. As a matter of fact, GM Gregory Kaidanov called him “Tricky Ricky.” . . . He even beat [IM] William Aramil in a simul here at our library. He’s won the Latino tournament [14-and-under section] a number of times.
  Ricky Román, first place winner, 14-and-under section, Chicago Latino Chess Championship XXII

Any noteworthy participants in the past?
HH: Way back in the beginning, there used to be one, Isidro Tamez. He was an Illinois Class A champion. Roberto Martín del Campo—he’s an International Master. He happened to be here around the time we had it. And Yadira Hernández [Guerrero], she’s a Woman IM. They’re both champions in Mexico. Roberto Martín del Campo won the national open in Mexico a number of times. . . . That was back in the mid-’90s. They came here about two or three years in a row with help from the Mexican consulate.
Elisa Blancas and Elizabeth Rivera, the oldest and youngest participants in the 2011 Chicago Latino Chess Championship

KA: The past several years, the Chicago Latino Chess Championship has been an unrated tournament. Has it always been unrated?
HH: It has. In the early years, we tried to have some rated tournaments, but many of the kids in the community, they can’t afford USCF dues and and ICA dues and entry fees and stuff. So that is why we gave up on that idea of it being a rated tournament.

But even though it’s not rated, it is a tough tournament. Look at Cristián Peña, who’s done so well at the state level—he didn’t even figure in the winners here [this year]. Some players are shocked by a lower-rated opponent. Even the kids from Lane Tech [High School], like Eros García—they came in second place in the city championships. He comes here, and he gets 10th place. Mark Jungo, who picked up a nice prize at the World Open—he comes here, and Daniel beats him in 10 moves. And Daniel comes up to me—I love it when a student comes to me after the tournament and says, “I did something you showed me, and I won the game.”