Grandmasters in Guayaberas

Little Havana's chess connection vies for the national crown

Sure enough, just two hours into the match, things turn alarmingly bad for MDC.

Charles, seemingly still smarting from his narrow loss, makes a horrible move, losing a bishop only twenty moves into the game. ("We all do it," Rodelay says sympathetically, later.) In less than two hours — a blink in chess time — Charles heads for the showers. Renier, who is in a tough match himself, flashes a fatherly "poor kid" glance as the youngster heads out.

Interestingly, though, Charles's early loss seems to spur the others. Team chess is different from individual play. Down by one game early, MDC's three remaining players have no other choice but to become more aggressive. ("Someone had to get a win," Rodelay recalls later.) It's now time for the team captain's favorite style of chess: street fighting.

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

9:10 p.m.

The rally begins on board two, around move 30.

Alberto, playing black, is squared up against the Little Grandmaster — Costa Rica's Alejandro Ramirez Alvarez. There are other grandmasters in the room, but no one cultivates the air of eccentricity quite as much as this kid — roughly five feet six inches, maybe 120 pounds, with smarty-pants specs, he frequently sports a Greek fishermanlike cap and a blazer that hangs over his frame like a drape. He's one of the youngest of the 565 grandmasters in the world, and the only one from Central America. He also has 217 ranking points on Alberto and is the only player to bring his own fan base: his father and a cute blond girl in a pink sweater.

During the match, Alvarez, whose look evokes memories of Doogie Howser, MD, almost crosses the line from nonchalance to cocksurety. He's mouthing something to his young lady friend, noticing when she enters and leaves the room. Is this kid — probably the most promising chess mind in the room — so confident he's already making party plans?

But at roughly move 30, two hours into the match, Alvarez's disposition seems to change. No more glances at his fans. He seems agitated. His face crinkles as if he's annoyed. He looks restless, frequently leaving his seat and peering around at other games.

Using facial expressions to predict chess outcomes is not necessarily effective. In match one, The Frenchman frequently had an anguished look on his face. He won easily.

But after one of the Little GM's gesticulations, Rene raises an eyebrow. I meet him outside. "The Little GM is in trouble," he says, almost giddily. "Alberto is looking very good."

Charles joins us. He's brightening, too, and explains the euphoria in simple terms. "One of Alberto's pawns is threatening. If his pawn reaches the end of Ramirez's board, he gets a queen."

"And you know what that means?" Rene asks. "The game will be over. Soon." But it gets better. According to Charles's read, not only is Alberto in control, but so is Renier — he has Grandmaster Magesh Panchanathan, the tournament's second-highest-ranked player, in trouble. And Rodelay is in good shape. It's a virtual deadlock.

10:15 p.m.

An excruciating hour later, there's still no conclusion. But the smell of upset seems to have spread through the empty hallways of the Marriott Quorum. The Baltimore contingent — Blehm, coach Epshteyn, and The Frenchman, who finished their matches hours ago — enter the room. Then Duke's top players arrive. And here comes Jerry Nash, scholastic director of the U.S. Chess Federation; and Jim Stallings, associate director of the UTD chess program. All of a sudden, the once-vacant room is full; ten people are standing, silently staring.

It's a mad mob by chess standards.

The Little Grandmaster has given up all hope of victory. He proposes a draw. Alberto, his pawn just two spaces away from Valhalla, shakes his head. Twenty minutes later the kid asks again. Same response.

I approach Nash, who is grinning. Renier, he says, is leading his match in both position and material. As a last-ditch effort, Panchanathan is effectively offering Renier a draw, through a technique called perpetual check. The Indian champion, forced into a defensive posture — is repeatedly putting Renier into check, forcing him to make one move over and over again. Theoretically this loop could continue ad infinitum. Panchanathan's goal: Get Renier to accept the draw. "Against a higher-ranked player," Nash says, "I'd do it."

This is, however, team play. Renier is constantly peeking at his teammates' boards. Will Alberto win? Rodelay? Ten minutes later Nash smiles. The game of chicken has ended. "He's going for the win."

Renier's gamble pays off. At 10:30 p.m. his opponent finally accepts defeat. The team match is tied. I spot Rene and Charles across the room — they express as much emotion as is socially acceptable — a half-smile. Out in the hallway, Rene says with his Benigni energy: "Yes that's a big win. Now if Alberto wins, that would put us up two to one."

Charles nods and says of the opponent: "But he's a grandmaster. Who knows what kind of tricks he has."

Sure enough, twenty minutes later, both Alvarez and Alberto stand. The match is over. But across the room, Alvarez's dad is smiling slyly.

"He did it," says Charles, later. "He's not a grandmaster for nothing."

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