MARGARET — Pedro Pino-Padron Sr. remembers the first time he picked up a chess piece. It was in Old Havana, Cuba.
“I started playing when I was eight,” he said. “The pieces attracted me, the strategy kept me.”
Now 74, Pino-Padron is still intrigued by the game.
Coach Pedro, as he is fondly called by his chess students, said there is more to chess than 64 black and white squares on a board, covered by 32 oddly shaped pieces.
He said the game helps develop skills involving problem-solving and critical thinking.
“What I tell kids is, chess is going to be a tool of life,” Coach Pedro said. “In chess, your tool is your mind, so they are going to take it with them wherever they go, and use it anytime they make decisions in life.”
He said chess also teaches players how to properly handle challenges and adversity.
And he should know.
It was only eight years after playing his first game of chess in Old Havana, Pino-Padron found himself in a traumatic, life-changing situation.
It was a time when the Cuban Revolution came to an end, and Fidel Castro took control of his island country.
It was then that Pino-Padron, at the age of 13, boarded a plane, leaving behind family and friends, flying to the U.S. for a new life.
“I was by myself,” he said.
Through Operation Pedro Pan, Pino-Padron was one of more than 14,000 children who left the Cuban island for a new, free life in America.
The youngster, along with so many other children, was taken to a refugee camp, south of Miami.
“The camp had an Indian name,” he said. “It was called Matecumbe.”
He said the camp was in a remote wilderness area, surrounded by swamps. There were times when he and others thought about running away, but there was nowhere to run.
The original plan was for his mother to join him in two weeks, but that never happened. The Castro regime shut down all travel outside of Cuba. Pino-Padron was alone, and his young life was filled with uncertainties about his future when he boarded another plane for the second time in his life.
This time, he flew from Miami to Seattle, stopping once in Chicago. He boarded a smaller aircraft that took him to his final destination, Portland, Ore., where his new foster home awaited him.
The young Pino-Padron was in a world that he did not know, isolated from family and friends, and to make matters worse, he did not speak a word of English.
“I never thought I could learn to speak English,” he said. “It was very hard. There’s nothing like being turned loose, and you’ve got to survive.”
Even though he sorely missed his family and friends who were left behind in Cuba, it was a new adventure for the young boy.
And he understood why his family had put him on a plane by himself, headed for the U.S.
“It was a move by the family, especially my mom, to make sure I was not indoctrinated into the communist system, because that was what was going on in Cuba at the time,” Pino-Padron said. “They wanted the best for me.”
Years later, his mom eventually made it to the U.S. and the two were finally reunited.
“You know, I tell people don’t ‘wow’ my story,” he said. “Any refugee throughout the world who had to relocate had to go. They had no control. Nobody wants to leave on their own accord. There are people who have stories that will just make you weep.”
RETURNING TO CHESS
Pino-Padron left Oregon in 1980 after Mt. St. Helens erupted, spreading a thick ash throughout the Northwest.
“It was surreal,” he said.
He left Oregon after suffering asthma attacks from the thick volcanic dust.
Pino-Padron and his family then moved to Tampa, which is where the now 32-year-old man was also reunited with the game of chess, while laboring as a transportation worker there. During his breaks, he would play and teach other bus drivers how to play chess during his 16 years of employment with Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.
Pino-Padron worked his way up and retired from the company as the Superintendent of Transportation.
“I thrived on challenges,” he said.
From Tampa, he and his wife, Faye, moved to St. Clair County in 1997, and the couple has resided in Margaret since 2003. Faye retired from the military service, and he was semi-retired. She is originally from the Moody/Odenville area.
After moving to Alabama, Pino-Padron received his A-Post Certification through the police academy and at the age of 57, he began his second professional career in law enforcement. Pino-Padron has since worked for both the Margaret Police Department and the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Office.
From 2009 until 2015, he coached chess at seven different schools in St. Clair County with the Country Knights Chess Club.
“It was like a fulltime job,” he said.
In 2015, he put the chess board aside to serve as the District Governor for Central Alabama with the Lions Club International, a four-year commitment.
Now, he has returned to chess and teaching the skills one more time.
“I was drawn to play and drawn to teach,” Pino-Padron said.
Coach Pedro recently held the monthly St. Clair Knights Chess Club meeting at the Margaret Mexican Restaurant. The club has both adult and children members.
“You never know when someone new may show up,” he said.
Nash Kreitlein, 22, of Pell City also attended the chess club meeting, giving a helping hand to new players.
The young man has about an 1800 online rating, even higher than Coach Pedro.
“Chess imitates life in a lot of ways,” Kreitlein said. “In chess, there are patterns of thinking used in everyday life.”
Kreitlein said he plays every day, whether it is over the board or online.
He began playing chess tournaments as a freshman in high school and has been playing ever since. He said he enjoys playing over the board, face-to-face, with chess players.
“You learn how people approach the game,” he said.
Kreitlein said he wants to give back to the community through chess, while helping others learn the game, much like Pino-Padron.
Chess boards were placed on a line of tables inside the restaurant. Players positioned themselves on each side of the tables, studying the board and plotting their next move.
“I never played at all until they started playing,” said Tara Murphree of Argo, who was playing a chess game against her daughter, Evelyn.
She said her son Barrett wants to start playing chess tournaments. He sat beside her, playing another young boy.
“Is there a red-headed girl who will be here?” asked one teenager, who walked in with a group of friends from St. Clair County High School.
“What do you think this is, a dating service?” Coach Pedro said, getting laughs from the boys.
The girl in question had apparently beaten his friend in a chess game, and the youngster was looking for a redemption match.
“I like playing against other people,” said Hunter Scott, who attended the meeting with his friend Trey Shrader. Scott said he is becoming more serious about the game and hoping to take his chess game to the next level.
“I’m studying and playing,” he said. “I am hoping to start taking classes soon.”
What does Scott like about chess?
That’s simple — winning, he said.
Coach Pedro recalled a time when parents brought their 7-year-old daughter to one of their chess club meetings.
“The parents didn’t play,” Coach Pedro said. “She (their daughter) was self-taught.”
He said the girl beat him in their first match, and he knew right then…
“I’m not a strong chess player when it comes to rating,” Coach Pedro said. “I am a very good beginner. I do know my limitations.”
He arranged for the parents to meet a few higher rated chess coaches, whom their daughter needed to progress to her full potential.
Coach Pedro has also begun teaching chess in St. Clair County schools again.
He is currently holding chess classes at Margaret Elementary School, helping students prepare for a chess tournament that is slated for Saturday, April 8, in the school gymnasium. The tournament is going to be open to students at all levels, and adult players.
Coach Pedro said he wants chess to be played in all the schools, from one end of the county to the other, with the help of teachers, parents and other volunteers.
“We need to build a team,” he said.
He said new talent could be uncovered, perhaps a child with unusual abilities, who will excel in chess at new heights.
But like other things in life, he said, you don’t have to be a chess grandmaster to enjoy and learn life lessons from the game of chess.
As for Coach Pedro, he just wants to play and teach chess for as long as he can.
“I play three games every morning, just to help keep my mind sharp,” Coach Pedro said. “If I lose three out of three, I need more coffee.”
The St. Clair Knights Chess Club meets the third Saturday of each month. The next meeting is at 1 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 18, at the Margaret Mexican Restaurant. Everyone is invited and welcome to attend and even play a game or two of chess. The club meeting is free to attend. For more information contact Coach Pedro at firstname.lastname@example.org.