Grandmasters in Guayaberas

Little Havana's chess connection vies for the national crown

12:30 p.m.

More than two hours into the match, just as it begins to appear that nothing discernible will ever happen — that another reporter will fall to Mr. Sandman — there is action on the first table in the Duke vs. UTD match.

Within a roughly 30-minute period, each of the pairs stands, signs a form that lists all of their moves, and, without any clear visible facial expression — no smiles, frowns, sighs — hands it to Guadelupe, the tournament director. It looks like a bank transaction.

Rodelay Medina, founder and captain of Miami Dade College's chess team
Photo by Steve Satterwhite
Rodelay Medina, founder and captain of Miami Dade College's chess team
Miami's chessmen (clockwise from left): Alberto Hernandez, Rodelay Medina, Charles Galofre, and Renier Gonzalez
Steve Satterwhite
Miami's chessmen (clockwise from left): Alberto Hernandez, Rodelay Medina, Charles Galofre, and Renier Gonzalez

Not a single cry of "checkmate," nary a puffed chest or high-five.

The Dukies, it's revealed, lost all four matches. Several players retire to an adjacent conference room bearing a sign that says "skittles" — that's chess parlance for a free-for-all room — where they'll discuss moves, sometimes for hours.

The resolution of the Duke/UTD match does not, however, affect the other match.

2:10 p.m.

Regulation time is expiring. Players had been given two hours apiece to make 40 moves. Once the two hours are up — assuming they have met a quota for moves — they get another hour. Guadelupe begins to reset the clocks.

2:30 p.m.

Roughly twenty minutes into the overtime period, Alberto rubs his bald head and slowly stands up. Sweat rings have formed under his arms. Finally there's some emotion — a head shake, a small frown. The Veresov opening did not confound The Frenchman.

3:30 p.m.

Three Miami Dade matches have lasted five-and-a-half hours; we're now deep into overtime. "This is good," says Rene, nodding excitedly about the delayed outcome. "We're making them work. Who knows what could happen now."

But there's bad news on the first board. Though Renier did not squander his early pawn advantage over Grandmaster Blehm, and has maintained an advantage, he has not managed his clock efficiently. Without enough time to effectively consider his moves, he is forced to accept defeat.

It's left to Rodelay and Charles to salvage a draw.

Charles, playing fourth board, is perhaps the first round's biggest surprise. The chubby-face twenty-year-old, in his first Final Four, has controlled his match against the stone-face Rohonyan for nearly five hours. But in the overtime period, The Kiev Killer gains position and at 3:40 finally prevails.

The only bright spot: Rodelay. He endures a barrage of checks in the waning moments — it's a situation the Cuban players call "a catcher" ("We use the English word," he explains) — and is able to save a draw. In fact, if it weren't for a stupid infraction by his opponent — Bhatia neglected to turn off his cell phone and was thus penalized ten minutes of time — the MDCers might have been swept.

Round One is over. The MDC Sharks, it seems, are in trouble.

They walk out slowly, fretting rapidly in Spanish about missed opportunities. Now they face a must-win situation against the home team in a match that is to begin in less than 50 minutes.

Few sports require less movement than chess. The game's requirement: moving roughly one-ounce pieces two to five inches while sitting. With such limited demands, the game often attracts the diminutive, the grossly obese, even the disabled (Stephen Hawking was a chess master).

Yet a 1999 study by Temple University researchers confirmed what many players have long suspected: Chess is, in fact, physically demanding. Blood pressure and breathing rates rise rapidly during the game. During a six-hour match, tournament participants exert as much energy as football players or boxers, the researchers found.

But physical exhaustion is the least of a chess team's worries. A marathon match is an emotional odyssey. "It's like taking a six-hour math exam," Rene says, "except that even if you get every single answer right but then get one wrong, in the sixth hour you lose."

At 4:30 p.m., as the MDC team waits for food at the Marriott hotel bar, the players seem thoroughly wiped. There are blank, vacant stares and lazy sprawling over chairs. Charles, in particular, seems pooped — slumped over a seat, set apart from the rest of the team, dwelling on his match with the Ukrainian girl. Sure there are recriminations. Renier frets about a possible clock malfunction. Rodelay is upset about missed opportunities during the middle game. Charles shakes his head: "I should have won."

Perhaps it's the curative powers of the hotel restaurant's chicken panini. Maybe it's the Café Costa's television, which shows CBS's incessant coverage of another Final Four and another underdog, George Mason University, with a national championship shot.

But moments after Rene calls for the bill, morale improves.

"Revenge is best served cold," Rodelay proclaims to the group, quoting Truman Capote.

Renier, eating an onion-packed panini, jokes that maybe the onions would help.

Then Alberto, often the team jokester, stirs. "What was with UMBC's nicknames?" he asks the group in Spanish. "The Polish Magician? The Kiev Killer? What the hell is with that?"

The first inkling that the Chess Final Four has ESPN Instant Classic potential occurs late in the second match.

MDC, at the match's outset, looks like certain roadkill. Post-paninis, the team is visibly weary, sucking up caffeinated drinks. Meanwhile the opponent, UTD, is well rested — its players have had more than four hours of rest time since the 4-0 thrashing of Duke. What's more, UTD has relief: two fresh players from its famously deep bench, including a grandmaster.

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