Che’Mate: Chess in Cuba
Avid followers of our news section might have wondered why no post from me appeared for three weeks. The reason was simple: a holiday. I spent the time in Cuba, a destination that had been high on my bucket list for a while. How long? Well, the Lonely Planet I took from my shelf turned out to be from... 2004!
Cuba is amazing, beautiful, dirty, jolly, musical, poor, unique, vibrant, and very revolutionary. Anywhere else in the world people try to be cool wearing a t-shirt with that iconic, black and white Che Guevara image (well, except GM Ernesto Inarkiev, who was named after him!), but in Cuba people do wear it. You do see that image in many places on building walls, and also his name and that of Fidel Castro of course. Even though many of those buildings have deteriorated, and texts such as Si el presente es de lucha, el futuro es nuestro or the most famous one, Hasta la victoria siempre, are sometimes hardly readable, the revolution has certainly not been forgotten.
Although the government has done a few things right (free education and health care sounds too good to be true but is a reality), one thing clearly went wrong: the economy. With doctors earning U.S. $30-40 a month, citizens waiting in long lines for simple things like bread or getting money from a bank and things like soap or pens being a luxury, there's still much to improve. But the Cubans will never stop smiling, their great music (which can indeed be heard from many houses while walking the street) keeps up the spirit and, with Barack Obama visiting the country in a few weeks from now, many changes are expected.
Two colonial houses, one restorated, in Havana.
I crossed the country clock-wise and visited Holguin, Gibara, Baracoa, Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Viñales, Havana and Varadero. It's highly recommended to not rent a car but use the local Viazul buses or, even better, share a taxi colectivo which gives you more opportunity to meet other people (and actually talk to them!).
As a bonus, you get to ride in some of those fancy old American cars, because yes, the country is still full of those! Some are really old and crappy, but some have been redone beautifully and are shiny as new. (Usually the internal affairs are Japanese these days; one of our cars had an Isuzu motor and other parts by Mitsubishi, Toyota and Suzuki!)
For this blog I'll focus on my chess experiences in Cuba. There were a few: I encountered the Academia de Ajedrez right in the heart of Santiago, I discovered a small club in Trinidad and I met with the wonderful Pavel and Sandra, who are doing great things in Havana. There, naturally I also paid my respects to the third world champion.
The Academia in Santiago de Cuba was something I found by accident. In another travel guide (not the Lonely Planet) I noticed a Cafe Ajedrez, and so I tried to find it. It turned out it wasn't really a cafe, but quite a big building where people were playing chess on the ground floor, and no bar. Photos of José Capablanca but also Che Guevara and Fidel Castro were hanging on the walls.
The amazing thing was that this building is located right next to the Cathedral on the main square, Park Céspedes. I never was in a city where the chess club is so centrally located, but in a chess-minded country like this one, it's possible!
I played some blitz with a few strong players and helped the local trainer, Manuel Ambruster Jauregui, by trading the Capablanca book he gave me for a USB stick which he'll use for transferring training material for his pupils. A day later I also played two games in a parque nearby, making up for the many losses surely suffered by other tourists.
In Trinidad, a beautiful colonial town spoilt somewhat by an overdose of tourists, chess also came to me by accident, in yet another Céspedes Park. You'll come across the same names of revolutionaries and military figures everywhere in Cuba, including those from the two wars in the 19th century, e.g. Carlos Manuel de Céspedes del Castillo, José Martí, Antonio Maceo, Frank País, and José Miguel Gómez.
Alongside Trinidad's Céspedes Park you'll see a house with a big rook and a big knight on the walls right and left of the entrance. Inside is a tiny room, with space for only three chess sets and a demo board. It's the place where small tournaments are held, and lessons are provided for children. Unfortunately I seem to have lost the photos, so here's another one from Trinidad.
A typical Cuban music group playing in a Trinidad restaurant.
But the true chess experience came in La Habana, Cuba's bustling capital. After touring the country for 2.5 weeks and seeing beautiful nature and picturesque (and relatively quiet) towns, Havana is a completely different experience. What a huge and beautiful city! Despite its faded glory, the city embraces you like a warm blanket and burns a permanent spot in your memory. There's so much history, so much has happened there. The many gorgious buildings, squares and monuments reveal the troubled times that Cuba went through, but the spirit of optimism is definitely there as well.
Typical, multi-colored colonial houses (in front of Havana's Capitol).
A great example is the work being done by Pavel García Valdés and his wife Sandra. Their community project Barrio Habana brings together children and seniors with workshops, sports such as football and chess, and games such as dominos (played on the streets even more than chess in Cuba!), and puzzles.
Chess.com had been in contact with them before I traveled to Cuba; in December IM Danny Rensch had provided a ChessKid account and dozens of Gold memberships. It made a lot of sense to pay them a visit and I took some ChessKid t-shirts and pens with me.
Pavel's son using ChessKid.
When I met Pavel and Sandra, it was at a moment when they could proudly show me their latest success. The Cristo square, one of the five main squares in Old Havana, was in its final stages of restoration and a year before they had managed to convince the city counsel to place concrete tables with chess boards engraved in them! No less than seven brand new tables are there, each with two chess boards and benches, ready to be used by anyone.
Pavel had seen the famous Washington Square Park in New York, and that is what he wanted for Havana as well. The first step is there, and surely the players will come too when the park is open, which can be any day now at the time of writing.
“The chess boards will hopefully be used by both young and old, and ideally at the same time,” Pavel said to me. “One of our goals is to bring together people from all ages in our community and chess is perfect for that.”
Chess.com will definitely stay in touch with Pavel and Sandra and continue to support them wherever we can.
A visit to Havana needs to include a visit to the grave of José Capablanca. The great Cuban champion died of a stroke in New York on the 8th of March 1942 (in fact one year and one day before Bobby Fischer was born). The third world champion was only 53, the same age at which my own father died, as I realized when I stood at the grave.
But it was the importance of Capablanca in the history of chess, and the importance of chess in my life, that made the experience something really special for me. I stood at the grave for several minutes with a special sensation, and I didn't want to take a photo immediately. I wanted to be in the moment for a while. Fischer is my big hero (chess-wise), but Capa has a special place as well.
To finish this blog, let me just stress that it's great to be in a country where chess is well respected. It's an official sport, and as a result the country has always been quite strong. At the moment it is ranked 16th in the world, just ahead of its colonizer Spain.
According to Pavel, it was chess that made Che Guevara learn about the existence of Cuba in the first place. The story goes that his father, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, took his son Ernesto jr to a tournament in Buenos Aires where Capablanca was playing. The young boy and later revolutionary caught the chess fever, and he also got to know about Capa and Cuba for the first time.
Ernesto “Che” Guevara was an avid chess fan.
With this in mind, it is no surprise that Ernesto “Che” Guevara himself launched the Capablanca Memorial tournament in 1962. The tournament is still held every year in the Cuban capital and after my trip chances of me participating one day have improved greatly.