Vaness French, who made Mendota High students national chess champions, dies at 49

Vaness French, who turned Spanish-speaking farmworkers’ children in Mendota into chess champions, died March 1, 2016, at St. Agnes Medical Center in Fresno.
Vaness French, who turned Spanish-speaking farmworkers’ children in Mendota into chess champions, died March 1, 2016, at St. Agnes Medical Center in Fresno. Special to The Bee

Vaness French, a Fresno man whose love of chess turned Spanish-speaking farmworkers’ children in Mendota into champions of the game, died Tuesday night at Saint Agnes Medical Center.

French died of complications from a heart transplant in December 2013, family and friends said Friday. He was 49 years old.

For more than a decade, French drove his old white Volvo station wagon from Fresno to the tiny west-side city of Mendota to teach chess to students in grades fourth through 12th – whom he affectionately called his “knuckleheads.”

In a newspaper interview in 2006, French said chess is a great equalizer between rich and poor because it doesn’t take into account a person’s skin color, gender or athletic skills. “It’s about brain muscle,” he said.

And discipline, he added.

“I don’t teach chess,” French said. “I teach character.”

His efforts paid off when his team from Mendota High School won the national chess championships in 2011. The team earned second place in California in 2012 and won the state championship in 2013.

“He believed in us,” said Kevin Romero, a 2013 graduate of Mendota High who was a member of the championship teams.

In an interview Friday, Romero said French didn’t know Spanish, but he knew how to connect with kids.

“Mr. French was more than a coach. He was a father figure to most of us,” Romero said. “He didn’t see us as players. He saw us as his children.”

He touched the lives of hundreds of people with his kindness, positive outlook and big smile, said his best friend, Joe Hill.

Born Vaness Alexander French II, he grew up Catholic in the Bay Area. His father worked as a Bay Area Rapid Transit supervisor. His mother was a nurse. His love of chess came from his father, who first began teaching his son when he was 8 years old.

In the mid-1990s, Mr. French moved to Fresno, where he helped his uncle, Jimmy Moore, the golf pro at Palm Lakes Golf Course, manage and run the place. Once he got settled, French started talking about becoming a chess coach to help children, said his brother, Salim French.

In 1997, French was diagnosed with heart disease, which sapped his energy and limited his walking. He had to quit his job at Palm Lakes. While on disability, he mostly sat around his apartment. Then in 2001, a friend asked him to join the Fresno Chess Club.

A club member later told him about a volunteer position at Mendota Unified School District. He would assist Artak Akopian, who was once Fresno’s highest-rated chess player. When Akopian left the central San Joaquin Valley for Southern California the following year, the job was offered to French. He accepted it on one condition: “It had to be a chess team, not a club,” French said in the 2006 interview, explaining that a club is a social gathering, while “a team competes.”

French picked Mendota because he knew the children needed help, Salim French said. The city has high unemployment and poverty, and French knew he could make a difference in people’s lives, his brother said.

French called his chess students “knuckleheads” after the cylinders on older Harley-Davidson motorcycles that were known for their durability. French also said his father would call him that when his dad was teaching him chess. His students called him “Mr. French.”

French’s favorite motto: “Never give up. Never surrender.”

Over the years, French formed a company called French’s Knights and received contracts to teach chess to students at several schools, including in Sanger, Fresno and Clovis, said Hill.

Everything was running smoothly until June 2013, when he went into cardiac arrest while watching a Fresno Grizzlies baseball game. “He tapped me on the shoulder, and he didn’t look good. I checked his pulse and had to do CPR on him,” Hill said.

Paramedics rushed him to Community Regional Medical Center, where doctors revived him and installed a pacemaker. Once he recovered, he was accepted as a patient at Stanford Hospital as a candidate for a heart transplant. In December 2013, he received a new heart, Hill said.

Hill said French loved life. “Even though he was overweight and had a heart problem, he never complained,” Hill said. “His ability to overcome health issues and stay focused on what he loved to do – helping kids – will never be forgotten.”

French suffered a setback in October 2015 and was airlifted to Stanford when his kidneys shut down and he had a mild heart rejection, Hill said. But he recovered.

On Monday, French received good news – he was cleared to go back to work teaching chess. But on Tuesday, his blood pressure dropped, so he was admitted into Saint Agnes. The goal was to get him a room at Stanford, but it was filled, Hill said.

French died later that night.

Hill said French’s efforts were rewarded when his Mendota High chess team received recognition from the Mendota Unified School District, the city of Mendota, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, the Fresno County Office of Education and the California Assembly.

Romero, a 20-year-old student at West Hills College, said French will be remembered long after his death.

“There are lots of us kids who learned to be leaders from Mr. French,” Romero said. “Many of us have graduated and gone to college.”

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts

Vaness Alexander French II

Born: Dec. 1, 1966

Died: March 1, 2016

Home: Fresno

Occupation: Chess coach/mentor

Survivors: Brothers Micheal French, of Richmond; Salim French, of Hayward; and Omari French, of Berkeley

Services: March 19 at St. Paul Catholic Newman Center, 1572 E. Barstow Ave., Fresno, Ca, 93710. Rosary at 10 a.m., followed by a Mass.