Chess in Cuba

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inset- Che Guevarra and Fidel Castro playing chess

The Havana Chess Club, formed in 1885, (José Raúl Capablanca was born in 1888) hosted 3 world championships: 
1889 (Steinitz-Chigorin) 
                                   1892 (Steinitz-Chigorin)
                                   1921 (Lasker-Capablanca)

Havana linked up by telex to the Marshall Chess Club in New York (where, incidentally, Capablanca suffered his fatal heart attack on Mar. 7, 1942 - he died the next day at Mount Sinai Hospital where, also incidentally, Lasker had died the year previous) allowing Fischer to play in the 1965 Capablanca Memorial tournament. Dr. Jose Raul Capablanca, Capa's son, transmitted the moves from Havana.  Even though Fischer had been offered a $3000 appearance fee, he was prohibited from visiting Cuba due to political tensions. Smyslov won the tournament. Fischer shared 2nd-4th places with Efim Geller of the Soviet Union and Borislav Ivkov of Yugoslavia.

Actually, the first Cuban tournament to honor Capablanca was held in 1951, but it was a one-time event. That year, Cuba issued the first postage stamp ever to feature a chessplayer - Capablanca, of course.

          "On November 1, 1951 seven stamps were issued in Cuba 
          as part of the 30th anniversary of Capablanca winning the 
          world chess championship from Emanuel Lasker in 1921. 
          This was the first portryal of a chess player (Capablanca) on 
          a stamp. Two stamps of Capablanca are based on a portrait by 
          the Cuban artist E. Valderrama, and two stamps are from a 
          photograph of Capablanca taken in 1941. 
          One stamp shows the final position of the last game of the 
          world championship match,  1921."  -
Bill Wall

Then in 1952, during an international tournamnet in Havana, there was a coup d'etat and the president, Carlos Prío Socorras, who sponsored the tournament was disposed by Fulgencio Batista. The players from Mexico were pulled out by their government and Juan Quesada, then the Cuban Champion, died from a heart attack. All the chess masters present participated in his funeral.

The Capablanca Memorial has become a huge event.
The first such tournament took place from  April 20 to May 20 in 1962 at the Habana Libre Hotel in Havana.  Miguel Najdorf outperformed the other 21 contestants (which included such players as  Spassky, Smyslov, Gligorić and Polugaevsky), to win first place.  Che Guevara, the director of the National Bank, underwrote the costs.  


Probably the greatest tournament ever held in Havana was the 17th Chess Olympiad  of 1966.

Premier Castro took a personal interest in this tournament. He was on the Organizing Committee and showed up, along with his friend and ally, Che Guevara, for a lot of the games, kibitzing and mingling with the grandmasters. He played games against several grandmasters including Fischer and Petrosian. In one game Petrosian offered Castro a draw (more out of diplomacy than necessity) but Castro refused, preferring the real outcome to an artificial one.
Out of the 68 FIDE members, 52 countries were represented. Cuba provided each team with a chauffer and a car and paid for the air expenses of every team. The USSR won the gold, the USA won the silver and the bronze went to Hungary. (There was a tie betwen Hungary and Yugoslavia. The referees decided to give the bronze medal to Hungary, but their tie-break calculations were faulty. Yugoslavia should have been awarded the bronze medal and this has never been corrected).
There was a simultaneous exhibition consisting of 6,480 boards given at the end of the tournament and as it was finishing, a torrential tropical rain finalized the event almost on cue.

This US chess team was the first cultural team from the US to visit Cuba since Castro took over in 1958.

-Mikhail Tal had been hit in the head with a bottle during a bar room fight at the onset of the tournament. He was transported to the hospital and therefore missed the first five rounds.
-Fischer finally made it to Cuba but when, for religious reasons,  he refused to play a Saturday match against the Soviets, causing an international scene and, although the Soviets protested,  the game was eventually rescheduled. (read about it at
-Fischer also played a game against Castro. Both sides got advice from chess masters. Castro won. (see the
Kenilworth Chess Club for photos and a contrary view)

2002 Havana chess simul 

In December, 2002, after declining to participate in the Central-American Games in San Salvador because of concerns about the security of their athletes, Cuba decided to hold their own Olympiads and as part of it, hosted a massive chess tournament at the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana.
About 11,000 amateurs played 550 chess masters in a simultaneous simul breaking the world record of 10,007 games set recently by Mexico.

Castro participated, playing against Cuban GM Silvino Garcia.