Grandmasters in Guayaberas

Little Havana's chess connection vies for the national crown

In November 2002, three years after all but abandoning his college chess hopes, Rodelay began receiving e-mails from people he competed against in high school. They were college players now. And one of them said, "We're coming to Miami. Will you be there? Are you playing in the Pan-Am games?"

The Pan-Ams, the oldest and largest college chess tournament in the Western Hemisphere, was coincidentally being held in Miami that year at the Embassy Suites on Le Jeune Road. The hotel was only ten minutes from the house where Rodelay grew up. This awakened his competitive juices — he was an aggressive, fearless player who called his chess style "street fighting." He was hungry to challenge some of his old high school opponents, especially those at Texas and Baltimore.

It soon occurred to him that a number of his friends were also part-time students at MDC. Juan Barry and Roger Rodriguez were studying to become computer techs, and Javier Torres was in architecture. Bruci Lopez had just begun taking computer classes at the Hialeah campus. And then there was his buddy at La Covacha, Alberto Hernandez, a bouncer with whom he often played blind chess — no boards, no pieces, just memory — while whiling away boring nights at the club; Alberto was taking English classes at MDC. He qualified as well.

By December Rodelay had enlisted the six-member team, filled out the forms, and collected $20 from each participant for the application fee. "We just wanted to play," Rodelay recalls, "maybe do some damage, mess things up." The team showed up at that year's Pan-Ams wearing T-shirts, jeans, and flip-flops. They did more than mess things up.

They beat the University of Chicago and Princeton, and played UMBC to a draw. The biggest surprise: Bruci, the team's top player, defeated Grandmaster Onischuk, a Ukrainian émigré who was among the nation's best players. The team finished third out of more than 30.

The next day the proud players presented their trophy to college officials back at the Wolfson campus. "I didn't even know we had a chess team," recalls Rene Garcia, a psychology and statistics professor who became the team's advisor.

The chess world was stunned. "I thought, Who are these guys?" recalls Rade Milovanovic, head coach of UTD's team. "I had never heard of them. They were brilliant, aggressive players."

Weeks after the tourney, UMBC, the seven-time Pan-Am champ, often described as "The Yankees" of the sport, contacted Bruci Lopez — and in true Steinbrenneresque fashion — lured him with a full-ride scholarship.

Losing the top player, though, did not trouble Rodelay, nor did it destroy the team.


What the U.S. college chess world realized after the 2002 Pan-Ams is that an island 90 miles south of Key West is obsessed with more than just cigars and baseball. Every one of the Miami Dade players was a Cuban exile.

The island's chess tradition dates back to the early 1900s. As a Spanish colony, Cuba hosted international chess tournaments that attracted the great European masters of the period. In the 1920s, a Cuban, José Raúl Capablanca, was the world's best player and a national hero. In the 1950s, Che Guevara famously relaxed from guerrilla warfare by playing chess with his comrades.

And during the Communist era, the island's love for the game has only grown. In the '60s Castro made chess a requirement in Cuban schools (it's an actual class — just like math and Spanish). He also opened centers for the game in virtually every town. During the '70s, Cuba adopted a Soviet-style system, plucking prodigies from elementary classes and placing them in boarding schools where they were cultivated — receiving four hours of daily training from chess masters.

Several of these Cuban chess prodigies defected. One was Blas Lugo. Unable to support himself as a professional chess player, he founded the Miami International Chess Academy. Soon the Calle Ocho club was not only a gathering spot for folks who played the game casually, but it was also the de facto home base for exile chess pros who had spent their childhoods in state-run academies.

Take a peek these days at the walls in the Chess Academy; they're crammed with trophies. Blas's place is among the most talent-packed in the nation, even rivaling Manhattan's fabled Marshall Chess Club.

So as soon as Bruci Lopez headed for Baltimore, Rodelay, back on Calle Ocho, found Renier Gonzalez, a 33-year-old former member of the Cuban national team who defected in 1999 and just happened to be studying computer science at Miami Dade College. Rodelay was excited — the team would get another shot at the Final Four. This time with the 30th-ranked player in the country.


During the two weeks leading up to the Dallas tournament, it became apparent that Miami Dade had some glaring disadvantages in a matchup with UMBC and UTD, and even the fourth contender, Duke. The MDC team doesn't have a travel budget (a U.S. Chess Federation grant paid for the trip to the tournament), they don't have practice space, and, most troubling, they don't have nearly enough time to "book up."

Training for a chess tournament can be as intensive and time-consuming as prepping for med school exams. There are 85 billion ways of playing just the first move. Players must learn offensive and defensive philosophies for the opening, middle, and end games. Databases, such as ChessBase, now enable players to scour millions of games — dating back to the 1600s. Competitors routinely reread books by Russian grandmasters such as Alexander Alekhine and Aron Nimzowitsch. Some players dedicate games that include dozens of moves to memory.

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