Henderson Middle School art teacher and chess coach Saul Ramirez is no stranger to changing a culture. He has taken children who have been counted out and molded them into chess champions. He has prompted a community of socioeconomic misfits to come together and support a team – not a soccer team, not a basketball team, but a chess team.
Chess, a game whose accolades and praises are often reserved to those from affluent neighborhoods, has crowned itself king in Segundo Barrio all thanks to the vision of one teacher.
Ramirez used what he calls a “gentleman’s game,” one of sophistication, strategy and grit, to lift and recognize students who are often forgotten about.
The 32-year-old soft-spoken art teacher is not one for showboating. Instead, he prefers that his actions do the talking – actions he said he learned by playing the game he loves.
That love has yielded countless awards for the Henderson team. It has also led him to write his new book “The Champions’ Game,” a true story about his students’ historic run to become national champions in 2015.
The recognition has also propelled Ramirez to become El Paso Independent School District 2017 Teacher of the Year.
Ramirez’s mantra, “Go big or go home,” helped him seize the moment in chess, life and teaching. It is also the theme of his book and what he uses to inspire his students.
“The story of our kids had to be known,” Ramirez said. “The difficulties they go through and the problems they face as students and persons. I feel like their lives are more difficult than anyone else’s and that makes this more meaningful.
“The book is about our students, their great hearts and great passions for everything that they do.”
Ramirez’s 195-page book chronicles the 2015 journey of 12 Henderson students and their quest to capture the National Junior High Championship novice division in Kentucky. It was co-written by Irving, Texas native, author and educator John Seidlitz.
The book took the duo approximately two years to complete. Its storyline is filled with heartwarming anecdotes from the dozen Henderson students. The antics of these middle school champions described in the book are filled with determination, laughter and even some tears.
“It has highs and lows,” said physical education coach Adrian Herrera.
The Henderson athletic director served as Ramirez’s right-hand man during the team’s historic run in 2015. He helped galvanize the team when they were on the brink of losing and motivated Lirio Gomez, the only girl on the team, to shine on the biggest stage. He even made prank calls pretending to be “Corporal Brown from the Looville Po-leece department” to ensure that victory celebrations would not get out of hand.
“It’s been a great experience,” Herrera said. “It’s emotionally and physically draining. You know, the kids have highs and lows. It’s hard to see them when they are sad because they lost the round. It’s great to see them win.”
Herrera said the book celebrates a special moment frozen in time, not only for Ramirez and his coaching staff, but for the kids as well. The students who went to nationals two years ago are now part of history, he said, and they’re using that platform to be a positive role model to others.
Looking back at the stories illustrated in the book, he said it’s hard to pick one above the rest.
“These guys – every single one of these stories is compelling,” Herrera said. “This marks a time when El Paso became the national champions in chess. You are playing against the best of the best in the nation. This just proves that no matter who you are, or where you are from, opportunity is there if you work for it.”
Outgoing 8th grader Eduardo Retana said the opportunity to play chess at nationals and being coached by Ramirez made all the difference. Before joining the chess team, Retana was very quiet and would get into trouble.
Retana plans to attend Jefferson High School and later join the army. He said it was Ramirez’s tutelage that helped him change.
“Before I was in chess, I would be a troublemaker,” Retana said. “Now I don’t do bad things.”
Ramirez said the most important thing about the book and any accolades that might come from chess are the kids. He added that making a human connection and getting his students to see opportunity is the most important.
“Whether it’s English, math, science or art,” Ramirez said. “Unless you connect with the student and you bring discipline and structure, you won’t be able to teach. Once you build that connection, that student will learn calculus in the 6th grade if you teach them. That’s when the student opens up their heart and their brain to learn.”