Grandmasters in Guayaberas

Little Havana's chess connection vies for the national crown

To achieve grandmaster status, players must win consistently against internationally ranked opponents; many serious competitors believe this level of chess is incompatible with college. Hikaru Nakamura, the New York teenager who is currently the second-highest-ranked player in the United States, skipped college, believing it would hurt his game. The U.S. Chess Federation offers the $32,000 Samford Fellowship to promising young players so they can stay out of school for a year. And UMBC and UTD, which treat chess like Florida State treats football, give generous stipends so students don't have to work and can concentrate intently on chess.

The MDC team, however, does not have such luxuries. Players often have ridiculous schedules — juggling work, family, school, and chess. They don't practice on a regular basis and almost never get together in person. "Other than tryouts, it's almost exclusively online," says Rene Garcia.

Renier and Rodelay hold multiple jobs. The youngest team member, Charles Galofre, a twenty-year-old business student, works full-time as a courier, driving between 8:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. each day. He practices, he jokes, "during traffic jams." And the team elder, 40-year-old Alberto Hernandez, who is married and trying to earn an education degree, toils from 5:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. daily as a security guard in a West Miami office building and then relaxes on the weekends from 9:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. as a bouncer at La Covacha.

Players usually keep energy drinks and coffee on hand
Steve Satterwhite
Players usually keep energy drinks and coffee on hand
Professor Rene Garcia has been the MDC team's advisor for four years
Steve Satterwhite
Professor Rene Garcia has been the MDC team's advisor for four years

"I really don't know how they'll have time to prepare," said Rene, a week before the tournament.


Perhaps this is no surprise, given his time crunch. But fifteen minutes before the first match in the Final Four, Alberto, who is bulky, short, and bald, chugs a pregame latte and, in his rough English, admits that he has done almost nothing to prepare for his match. He doesn't even know his opponent's identity.

"Charbonneau," he says, reading a bulletin board. This is UMBC's Pascal Charbonneau, from Quebec, a two-time Canadian champion and soon-to-be grandmaster with a Chess Federation ranking more than 200 points higher than Alberto's — a difference that is generally considered insurmountable.

"It doesn't matter who I play," Alberto says, smiling and shrugging with the cockiness of either a genius or fool.

But before you conclude that this is simply pregame bluster — or that winging it against The Frenchman is certain suicide — consider this: This bouncer is a prodigy. He spent his childhood, beginning at age nine, in an elite chess boarding school. By sixteen, he was one of Cuba's top five junior players. During his late teens and early twenties, he traveled the world (Finland, Spain, South America), competing for the national team. Before immigrating to the United States, he did nothing but play, teach, and lecture about chess. Even when he was detained for nine months at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay in 1994 after fleeing Cuba on a raft, he was fanatical about his game. During his Gitmo internment, he played with crude pieces made by melting down plastic food ration boxes and soda bottles. He used Coke can rings to signify the king and queen.

In the United States, though, there weren't great opportunities for a professional chess player. So he worked as a dishwasher at China Grill. He was happy living on the Beach, beginning a new life, and learning English at MDC. For almost five years, he stopped playing the game. "Chess was the past," he says, swearing he would never devote his life to the game.

But in 2000, Alberto began occasionally playing blind chess with his friend Rodelay, during nights at La Covacha. And then came the 2002 Pan-Ams. Rodelay called and Alberto agreed — to help a friend.

Even with nil preparation, Alberto is supremely confident. What's more, moments before his match, the old prodigy reveals what sounds like a brilliant I-have-no-time-to-study solution. It's an old trick from Cuba, designed to deal with younger players who are constantly studying.

"It's called the Veresov opening," he explains. Conceived in the 1930s by Gavril Veresov, a Belorussian master, it's rarely played today. Alberto believed this unconventional opening would force his opponent to abandon preconceived strategies and memorized moves. "I want him to get out of the book, to react to the board. Improvise," he says. "If that happens, anything could happen."

As he walks down the Dallas Marriott's hallway, passing an auto parts sales seminar, Alberto says quietly: "D4, then Knight C3." These are the first two moves of the Veresov.


The 1972 Match of the Century — between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky — was held in Reykjavik, Iceland, and watched by millions. Garry Kasparov's famous 1997 match with the computer Deep Blue was broadcast on ESPN2 live for an hour each day for nearly three weeks. Even these days, tournament chess matches in Russia or Cuba, held in large auditoriums, draw crowds in the hundreds.

The apogee of American college chess in 2006 was, however, held in a conference room, barely larger than a dining room, which felt like it had hosted thousands of Internet marketing seminars. There were two tables and about 30 seats.

At game time, 10:00 a.m., the stadium — a.k.a. the Addison room — was slowly filling. There were the sixteen competitors, two coaches, five or six administrators, a handful of tournament and Chess Federation bureaucrats, some Baltimore and Dallas backups, and two computer guys who were broadcasting the tournament on the Internet.

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