Woman Grandmaster and Knight Raider Carla Heredia is using her platform as an award-winning chess player to bring attention to social issues around the world.
When Woman Grandmaster Carla Heredia began considering a college education, she knew she had a choice to make: stay in Ecuador, where she would probably have to give up her passion for chess due to a lack of available scholarships, training and funding at the collegiate level, or look for a school outside of her home country that would give her the opportunity to continue playing while earning her degree.
Heredia soon found a place she could do the latter: Texas Tech University. This December, she will complete a master's degree in sport management after graduating cum laude from the Honors College with a bachelor's degree in psychology. She'll also leave Texas Tech with numerous honors and awards earned as a member of the Knight Raiders, the university's award-winning chess team. It is an experience she said she would not have had elsewhere.
“Chess gave me the opportunity to study at Texas Tech, but if it were not for Texas Tech, I probably would not have played chess as often,” Heredia said. “Coming to Texas Tech was important because it allowed me to focus on my education while continuing to play and improve.”
Navigating the world of chess
Heredia was introduced to the game of chess at the age of seven, playing as an extracurricular activity at her school in Quito, Ecuador.
“My parents signed me up for gymnastics and chess,” she said. “They thought it was a good idea to mix a physical and mental sport. But that world of tumbling and beams was not my thing. In chess, I found a place where girls and boys could learn together, and where I could succeed and I didn't need to be big or fast or the strongest.”
Throughout the years, she quickly garnered several honors and awards, bringing recognition to herself and her country by, among other things, being named national champion 10 times and competing several times with the country's Olympic chess team.
“Before arriving at Texas Tech, the most important achievement in my chess career was earning the title of Woman Grandmaster,” Heredia said. “I was the second person in the history of my country to achieve this, so it was a big triumph for Ecuador. I also was the first Ecuadorian to qualify to a world female championship – only 64 players around the world qualified for the 2010 Women's World Chess Championship, and it was an honor to represent my country.”
When it came time to continue her education after high school, Heredia said she knew it was rare for Ecuadorian universities to offer scholarships to athletes. In researching other options, she found the Texas Tech Chess Program, housed within the Division of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. In 2014, she arrived at Texas Tech after receiving a scholarship to play with the Knight Raiders.
“Chess is her passion, and Texas Tech provided a great opportunity to follow her dreams,” said Alex Onischuk, head coach and director of the Texas Tech Chess Program. “I think it is great that one does not have to make a choice between something that they love to do and something they want to become. Coming to Texas Tech University gave her the option to do both.”
Heredia said playing chess at Texas Tech has allowed her to train with some of the best players in the world, including Onischuk, who was inducted into the Chess Hall of Fame in 2018.
“Head coach and Grandmaster Alex Onischuk has played a key role in the Texas Tech
Chess Program and also in my own chess career,” Heredia said. “He is a true professional
who leads by example and is a top player in the world of chess.”
Her fellow teammates have also had a major impact on Heredia. As part of the program's A-Team, she qualified for the President's Cup – also known as the Final Four of Chess – in 2015 after the team took third place at the 2014 Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship. At the 2015 Pan-American, which Texas Tech won for the first time in program history, Heredia was named the top alternate.
In 2016, she was a member of Texas Tech's first Pan-American all-female team, which took top honors among all-female teams and scored 27th place overall at that year's tournament. In 2017, she again represented Texas Tech at the Pan-American tournament as part of the all-female team – the only all-female team among more than 50 coed teams at the championship.
Heredia also has earned several individual honors during her time as a Red Raider. This year, she took first place among 49 chess players in the Under 2,300 Section of the 84th Annual Southwest Open Championship in Dallas. In Las Vegas, she has competed in the same section of the National Open championship, tying for the top spot in 2017 and taking first place outright this year.
This fall, Heredia traveled across the world to Batumi, Georgia, and competed in the 43rd World Chess Olympiad as part of the Ecuadorian women's team. One hundred and eighty countries each sent two teams of five players to compete in 11 rounds in the open and all-female sections of the tournament.
“The Olympiad is the most important team tournament,” Heredia said. “It is very challenging because a game can last 6 hours. This is my fifth Olympiad. The first one was in 2008 in Germany, then Turkey in 2012, Norway in 2014, Azerbaijan in 2016 and now Georgia.”
The tournament takes place every two years, and Heredia secured a spot on the Ecuadorian team by winning first place among 12 players in Ecuador's final qualifying tournament.
“Carla is extremely talented and very hard working,” Onischuk said. “She has an analytical mind and loves trying to get to the root of problems. This quality helps her to improve constantly, and she excels when she is challenged. In chess, Carla always does better when she is up against a strong opponent. At Texas Tech, she has always been one of the key players on the team.”
Beyond the board
Heredia's achievements during her time at Texas Tech include more than just those in chess. She credits the program and university with her growth and success as a student and a member of the Lubbock and Ecuadorian communities.
“English is not my first language, and it was a challenge to get out of my comfort zone and come to the U.S.,” Heredia said. “The Texas Tech professors have encouraged me to learn and give my best. This opportunity has been really important for me to keep improving in chess and, at the same time, learn, challenge myself and get my bachelor's degree. Now, I am looking forward to getting my master's degree.”
Though she graduated with honors when she completed her bachelor's degree, the accomplishment didn't come without support and her own hard work and perseverance. She remembers in particular a solar astronomy Honors course where she struggled at the beginning of the semester.
After receiving the lowest grade in the class on the first exam, she committed to studying more and meeting her professor during their office hours. Her dedication paid off on the second exam: she earned the top grade in the class.
“Texas Tech has experienced professors who are always there to teach in classes, meet during office hours and give great advice that ranges from research to personal projects to career advice for the future,” Heredia said. “Most important of that experience is that I learned a lot, and I did not give up.”
Heredia said her freshman sociology class also had a profound impact on her, further opening her eyes to the struggles of others. In Ecuador, she already had been featured in stories on TV and in newspapers, but she soon began to look to another outlet as a direct connection to others.
Using her following on social media, Heredia said she began addressing the issue of violence, from domestic violence to public violence as part of a robbery or another crime.
“Even at soccer matches, people fight and fans have been injured or killed,” Heredia said. “I speak out against violence of any kind, and social media has allowed me to work with people who also care about changing things. But for me, while activism is powerful in social media, it has to go beyond that.”
Heredia said one of the most important initiatives she has been a part of is “Jaque mate a la violencia,” or “Checkmate Against Violence.”
“With Ecuadorian activists Ana Almeida and Eli Vasquez, we did a four-week workshop that taught chess to the community and invited different experts to talk about respect, the use of public space, education, feminism and other topics,” Heredia said.
In November 2017, she presented a TEDx talk in Quito not just about that initiative and her other instances of activism, like speaking out for victims of gender and sexual violence around the world, but also about her journey in the chess world. As a child who refused to conform to the traditional roles girls are often placed in, Heredia said chess was her refuge, her first love, her home.
“Those same things we learn on the chessboard, you can use them in your life,” she said in the talk. “When we think about our actions in our lives, when we have to question ourselves or analyze and make those important decisions in our lives, chess gives us the confidence to become the piece we want to be in society.”
In Lubbock, the Texas Tech Chess Program gave her a chance to give back to the Lubbock community while also learning about different cultures and perspectives.
“I have been giving chess lessons in different schools and empowering kids through chess,” Heredia said. “The Texas Tech Chess Program praises diversity, so we have chess players from the U.S. and from around the world. Chess is a language itself and connects people from different countries, backgrounds and ideas. It has been an amazing opportunity to belong to this multicultural team that gives their best at the chess board and in life.”
Recognizing her work
Heredia's efforts to be a voice for change have not gone unnoticed. In addition to being invited to speak about and teach chess at different schools and organizations, this summer, Heredia traveled home to accept a medal for sports merit from the Ecuadorian Congress.
The medal recognized Heredia's achievements during her 20-year chess career and acknowledged her work serving others.
“In the past several years, I have been involved in many initiatives to empower people through chess and to seek a society that allows people to live in peace,” Heredia said. “This medal is the maximum achievement an athlete can have from the government, and just a few athletes have been awarded it.”
At the medal ceremony, Heredia used the platform to give thanks and to again bring awareness to the issues she is passionate about.
“The speech was, first of all, to thank my parents for all their love and support. Since I was a child, they believed in my chess talent and have always encouraged me to challenge myself,” she said. “Then, I asked the members of congress to give nothing less than 100 percent to make our country better.
“Finally, I thanked the support of the Ecuadorian people and let them know that they can also make positive changes in our society and those changes start at home, at work, at every street and on every corner where we are.”
When Heredia decided to pursue her master's degree in sport management after completing her bachelor's degree, she took advantage of the opportunity Onischuk offered her to continue playing with the Knight Raiders. True to form, she has big plans for her life after graduation.
“I would like to work in marketing in either the soccer, tennis or chess industry,” Heredia said. “In the future, I hope to go back to Ecuador and have my own nonprofit organization that uses sports to empower communities and to make positive changes.”
Onischuk said he has no doubt in Heredia's future success or the impact she will have continue to have on others and the world.
“She is a role model to many young people in her home country and around the world, especially with her being a Woman Grandmaster; it gives young female players someone to look up to,” Onischuk said. “We are very proud of Carla. She is a true ambassador for Texas Tech University.”