By Chuck Strouse
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The MDC Sharks, who have had a club for four years, beat Harvard, which has been playing competitive chess since 1874. Fluke? The very next day the Miamians defeated Yale. Score: 4-0.
It sounded like one of the greatest Cinderella stories ever a team from a commuter school with almost no entrance requirements, a team that includes a nightclub bouncer, a security guard, and a courier, beating Ivy Leaguers in the ultimate brain sport.
But what was truly surprising was that these victories in the Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championships, as well as Miami Dade's whuppings of Stanford, MIT, Princeton, and the University of Chicago, weren't upsets. "We were the favorites," says team captain Rodelay Medina, rolling his eyes. "Our real competition is only against two teams: Texas and Baltimore. They are the challenge."
Three months after vanquishing Harvard, and less than twelve hours before the grand competition of college chess, the Final Four, Rodelay is lying on a bed at a Marriott hotel in suburban Dallas, watching a special called The End of the Sun on the National Geographic Channel. The tall, slim 24-year-old, who has high cheekbones and a princely bearing, is relaxing, just trying to keep his mind clean. No thoughts about knight-pawn openings, Sicilian defenses, or Latvian gambits. No wondering about what's going on in the minds of the three grandmasters Pawel "The Polish Magician" Blehm, a prodigy from Olkusz; Pascal "The Frenchman" Charbonneau, the Canadian champion; and the latest phenom, Alejandro Ramirez Alvarez, the seventeen-year-old from Costa Rica. There's also no point, he believes, in worrying whether tomorrow's likely opponent, Beenish "The Indian Tiger" Bhatia, will take an aggressive line or a conservative tack.
Rodelay sips some water. He has a stomachache, but not from fear. MDC has challenged the dream teams of college chess before and has come close. Third place. Three years in a row. It's almost irresistible to think about the possibility of finally beating the two dynasties that, between them, have won every National Collegiate Chess Championship played since the event was created six years ago. Baltimore, a.k.a. the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC); and Texas, a.k.a. the University of Texas, Dallas (UTD), have also monopolized the Pan-Ams for more than a decade. But Alexander "The Invincible" Onischuk, the Baltimore grandmaster, is finally gone. And Miami is stronger than ever. How sweet it would be if the team Rodelay founded four years ago, almost by accident, could beat teams that search for prodigies in every corner of the globe Serbia, Russia, India teams that bring in super-grandmasters like Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov just to give pointers. More than anything, though, how sweet it would be to defeat the schools that should have given him a $30,000-plus full-ride scholarship.
But Rodelay won't let his mind wander. He keeps his eyes on the National Geographic Channel. "Every player has a different strategy," he says, explaining that some competitors cram, studying for a match like a final exam. "I don't play for a week. I want to be hungry when I walk in the room."
The answer to the seemingly Sphinxian riddle of how a community college with no chess history can rank at the top of perhaps the most intellectually challenging of games can be found in an unassuming yellow strip mall near Red Road and Calle Ocho. There, next to a medical clinic and across from Ramon Puig's La Casa de la Guayaberas, is a small store that looks, at first glance, like a Christian Science reading room. Hints that it's something more begin with a sign that reads, "Happiness Is a Pawn." Inside, bookshelves are stuffed with titles such as Kasparov vs. Karpov: Complete Games and Alexander Alekhine's 107 Great Chess Battles.Men hunch over tables in hushed, monklike silence.
This is the Miami International Chess Academy on Calle Ocho, the place where young Rodelay spent, he estimates, nearly every day of his teenage years, including eight-hour weekend stints.
Contrary to his father's concerns, his was not a misspent youth. Rodelay developed his game at the club, receiving tutelage from veterans like owner Blas Lugo, an international master and one of Florida's top players. As a Miami Jackson High senior in 1998, Rodelay won the national high school championship. Most winners of the tournament receive scholarships to UMBC or UTD. Both schools established programs in the Nineties to attract top chess stars; prep competitions were their pipeline. But Rodelay was passed over. "I waited for the call, the letter," he says, "but it never came." Without financial aid, Rodelay couldn't afford college, so he stayed in Miami and began working as a bouncer at a Latin club in Westchester, La Covacha. Soon he moved to South Beach and began taking classes at Miami Dade.
The 160,000-student community college did not have a chess team. Rodelay played online (his handle: SouthBeachChulo) as usual, and with his pals at a club on Calle Ocho. He was also increasingly interested in another game poker. "Both games require mental discipline," Rodelay says. "I like chess better. It's 100 percent skill. There's no luck. But you can't make money in chess."