Grandmasters in Guayaberas

Little Havana's chess connection vies for the national crown

But as for fans — not coaches, players, student administrators — there were only two: Curt and Chuck Pfaffle of Sachse, Texas. "We just thought we'd check this out," said Curt, a middle-age fellow with boyish enthusiasm. "I love chess." Chuck, his retiree dad, nodded.

"Chess is not a great spectator sport," whispered advisor Rene Garcia, as Curt and Chuck settled in. Rene — who has wild, longish hair, wears oversize glasses, and looks vaguely like the Italian actor Roberto Benigni — is a veteran of four consecutive Final Fours.

A Cuban immigrant and chess player who is almost as animated and humorous as Benigni, Rene had given me ample warning in the weeks before the tournament. "It's like watching grass grow. Drying paint is more exciting."

Alberto Hernandez (left) and Renier Gonzalez during the 
heat of the Final Four
Steve Satterwhite
Alberto Hernandez (left) and Renier Gonzalez during the heat of the Final Four
Chess does pay: Miamian Bruci Lopez has a full-
ride scholarship to UMBC
Steve Satterwhite
Chess does pay: Miamian Bruci Lopez has a full- ride scholarship to UMBC

He also warned me about the fate of Jose de Cordoba, a Wall Street Journal reporter who dared stray into chess journalism for a story that was published March 5. "The guy really, really wanted to watch Renier play," said Rene, grinning. "He did. And he fell asleep in five minutes."

The sixteen players queuing into the Final Four didn't match the Hollywood stereotype of chess prodigies; they were far from Revenge of the Nerds material. The Duke foursome, sporting low-slung jeans, polos, and Rugby shirts, could have come straight out of an Abercrombie catalogue. The UTD and UMBC teams were also shockingly normal-looking: jeans, polo shirts, T-shirts, Nikes. Some of the UTD players wore team blazers, exuding a shabby prep school effect.

There were, though, two conspicuously odd things about the chess elite. First, there was only one woman in the room, UMBC's Katerina Rohonyan. (This was typical; fewer than five percent of the top 100 players in the world are women.) The other odd thing: MDC's old guys. Alberto, with his MDC polo shirt, and Renier, with his big protruding forehead and receding hairline and short-sleeve, button-down shirt, both reeked of middle age.

At 10:10 a.m. it was, at last, time to play. As the director of the tournament, Francisco Guadelupe, the chess version of an umpire, gave a series of proctorlike admonishments (no cell phones, no talking to coaches or teammates) and assurances (the air conditioning works), two computer guys settled down, ready to report every single move of the match on (Yes, Guadelupe explained, people will be watching and commenting on these matches online all over the world.)

The tournament is a round robin; in the first cycle, Duke and UTD play on table one while Miami Dade meets UMBC on table two. Players seat themselves in order of their World Chess Federation ranking — Renier (ranking 2548) at the first board, across from Blehm (ranking 2593). To his left are Alberto and Charbonneau, and Rodelay is paired with Bhatia, a Ph.D. computer scientist. And on the fourth board, Charles stares across at Rohonyan.

After each move, players must punch a clock and then record their decision in algebraic-looking chess notation.

With pencils and paper, Red Bull cans and Starbucks cups on the table, and the casual clothing, it truly felt like the beginning of a test. Strangely, though, moments after this atmosphere was set and the clock was started, UTD's Dmitry Schneider moved a pawn, stood up, and headed to the hallway. This was puzzling. "You got to let them go to the bathroom," explained Rene. "Get ready. It could be six hours."

12:05 p.m.

Most of the players have made at least twenty moves by now, but none of the games is near resolution.

This is no surprise. At this level, there is rarely much drama in the opening game. Players are too smart to make fatal mistakes. During the opening game, they methodically angle for control and try to slice away their opponents' pieces.

In the fourth board match, which pits Charles against Katerina "The Kiev Killer" Rohonyan, not a single piece has been exchanged.

At 12:20, Curt and Chuck, who are patiently watching in the front row, head for the door. Chuck apparently has to go shopping. He can't wait another three hours. Curt, however, seems frustrated. A more advanced player than his dad, he's trying to learn from the masters, thinking it might improve his play. The games, though, are baffling to him. There is only one match he believes he can read. "I think that that guy," he says, pointing to Rodelay, "is looking good."

Very good, but I try to get a better update on the matches from Rene, who played chess avidly in high school and seems fluent in basic strategies such as the Sicilian defense.

"It's too early," he says.

Then UMBC's coach, Igor Epshteyn, leaves the room. He's a former Soviet master and a former coach of the Belarus junior national team; he's also from Minsk, the hometown of Veresov. He surely knows what is going on. "I cannot discuss," he says, frowning at the mere question. Then he admonishes me. "You should not be talking about game during game. Should you? It's not right."

But the other Eastern European coach, UTD's Rade Milovanovic, a champion player from Serbia, is more approachable. "Blehm," he says, referring to The Polish Magician, "has sacrificed a pawn with no known return. Perhaps he is seeking position." He raises his eyebrows at this mystery. "It's not clear."

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