Grandmasters in Guayaberas

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Miami Dade College and Harvard University do not often compete. But last December, four local men sat across a table from four Cambridge men. They played chess.

The MDC Sharks, who have had a club for four years, beat Harvard, which has been playing competitive chess since 1874. Fluke? The very next day the Miamians defeated Yale. Score: 4-0.

It sounded like one of the greatest Cinderella stories ever — a team from a commuter school with almost no entrance requirements, a team that includes a nightclub bouncer, a security guard, and a courier, beating Ivy Leaguers in the ultimate brain sport.


Miami Dade College Chess Team

But what was truly surprising was that these victories in the Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championships, as well as Miami Dade's whuppings of Stanford, MIT, Princeton, and the University of Chicago, weren't upsets. "We were the favorites," says team captain Rodelay Medina, rolling his eyes. "Our real competition is only against two teams: Texas and Baltimore. They are the challenge."

Three months after vanquishing Harvard, and less than twelve hours before the grand competition of college chess, the Final Four, Rodelay is lying on a bed at a Marriott hotel in suburban Dallas, watching a special called The End of the Sun on the National Geographic Channel. The tall, slim 24-year-old, who has high cheekbones and a princely bearing, is relaxing, just trying to keep his mind clean. No thoughts about knight-pawn openings, Sicilian defenses, or Latvian gambits. No wondering about what's going on in the minds of the three grandmasters — Pawel "The Polish Magician" Blehm, a prodigy from Olkusz; Pascal "The Frenchman" Charbonneau, the Canadian champion; and the latest phenom, Alejandro Ramirez Alvarez, the seventeen-year-old from Costa Rica. There's also no point, he believes, in worrying whether tomorrow's likely opponent, Beenish "The Indian Tiger" Bhatia, will take an aggressive line or a conservative tack.

Rodelay sips some water. He has a stomachache, but not from fear. MDC has challenged the dream teams of college chess before and has come close. Third place. Three years in a row. It's almost irresistible to think about the possibility of finally beating the two dynasties that, between them, have won every National Collegiate Chess Championship played since the event was created six years ago. Baltimore, a.k.a. the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC); and Texas, a.k.a. the University of Texas, Dallas (UTD), have also monopolized the Pan-Ams for more than a decade. But Alexander "The Invincible" Onischuk, the Baltimore grandmaster, is finally gone. And Miami is stronger than ever. How sweet it would be if the team Rodelay founded four years ago, almost by accident, could beat teams that search for prodigies in every corner of the globe — Serbia, Russia, India — teams that bring in super-grandmasters like Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov just to give pointers. More than anything, though, how sweet it would be to defeat the schools that should have given him a $30,000-plus full-ride scholarship.

But Rodelay won't let his mind wander. He keeps his eyes on the National Geographic Channel. "Every player has a different strategy," he says, explaining that some competitors cram, studying for a match like a final exam. "I don't play for a week. I want to be hungry when I walk in the room."

The answer to the seemingly Sphinxian riddle of how a community college with no chess history can rank at the top of perhaps the most intellectually challenging of games can be found in an unassuming yellow strip mall near Red Road and Calle Ocho. There, next to a medical clinic and across from Ramon Puig's La Casa de la Guayaberas, is a small store that looks, at first glance, like a Christian Science reading room. Hints that it's something more begin with a sign that reads, "Happiness Is a Pawn." Inside, bookshelves are stuffed with titles such as Kasparov vs. Karpov: Complete Games and Alexander Alekhine's 107 Great Chess Battles. Men hunch over tables in hushed, monklike silence.

This is the Miami International Chess Academy on Calle Ocho, the place where young Rodelay spent, he estimates, nearly every day of his teenage years, including eight-hour weekend stints.

Contrary to his father's concerns, his was not a misspent youth. Rodelay developed his game at the club, receiving tutelage from veterans like owner Blas Lugo, an international master and one of Florida's top players. As a Miami Jackson High senior in 1998, Rodelay won the national high school championship. Most winners of the tournament receive scholarships to UMBC or UTD. Both schools established programs in the Nineties to attract top chess stars; prep competitions were their pipeline. But Rodelay was passed over. "I waited for the call, the letter," he says, "but it never came." Without financial aid, Rodelay couldn't afford college, so he stayed in Miami and began working as a bouncer at a Latin club in Westchester, La Covacha. Soon he moved to South Beach and began taking classes at Miami Dade.

The 160,000-student community college did not have a chess team. Rodelay played online (his handle: SouthBeachChulo) as usual, and with his pals at a club on Calle Ocho. He was also increasingly interested in another game — poker. "Both games require mental discipline," Rodelay says. "I like chess better. It's 100 percent skill. There's no luck. But you can't make money in chess."

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.

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.

"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.

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."

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 www.chessclub.com. (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."

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.

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.

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.

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."

Rodelay's match ends minutes later — it's also a draw. This means team competition is a draw too — one win and one draw apiece. Rene, ever the optimist, gives it a positive spin. "A draw against that Dallas team. A team that has so many points on us. That's great."

But none of the players is pleased. A stunning victory slipped away. The national championship is no longer a possibility. Baltimore won its first two matches. So even if Miami wins tomorrow and Baltimore loses, MDC can do no better than tie for second.

Walking away from the tables as midnight approaches, Alberto becomes almost apologetic. "The last move. I couldn't see the board," he says. "I was too tired." Almost wistfully he adds that, in the old days, when he was serious about chess, "I would have beaten him."

The final day of the Final Four is glorious for Miami. Unfortunately the glory doesn't involve Miami Dade College. The Sharks take third place for the fourth consecutive year. Their victory over Duke is sullied by the fact that the Blue Devils arrived to the match half an hour late (excuse: They forgot about the change to daylight-saving time).

But the day's highlight centers around Miamian Bruci Lopez. In dramatic fashion, Bruci beats UTD's Dmitry Schneider in overtime to win the championship for Baltimore.

Lopez is, of course, the former MDC player who Rodelay jokingly calls "The Traitor." He's also the one player who may have changed the weekend for MDC.

"[MDC is] one player away," says Tim Redman, director of the UTD chess program.

"They're very close," admits UMBC coach Epshteyn.

UTD's coach Milovanovic is more specific. "If they had Bruci Lopez," he says, "It might be different story."

Two weeks later, back in Miami, Rodelay says MDC's national championship hopes are not over. He's coming back again for one more year.

And he might have the missing link.

"Marcel Martinez," says Rodelay, eyes widening, as he sits in front of the 12th Street volleyball courts. "He'll be with us." Martinez, another Cuban exile and another Calle Ocho fixture, is nearing grandmaster status, and would be first or second board.

As for his motivation, Rodelay is brutally honest. "This isn't about winning for the school," he says, pausing. "It's personal."

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