Wednesday, May 24, 2006

I bet you didn't know this...

A couple of weeks ago I was intrigued by the cover of the Miami New Times, an alternative free weekly newspaper in Miami known mainly for its yellow journalism. They occasionally do have some interesting articles and good investigative pieces. One of my beefs with the New Times is the length of their stories. Definitely not for someone with a short attention span like me. Anyway this cover featured a chess piece and was entitled:

Grandmasters in Guayaberas
Little Havana's chess connection vies for the national crown

I was intrigued and saved the issue. Today I finally read the piece and it's worth excerpting here. For the full article click here.

----------- O -----------

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.

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."


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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."


Ed Murrow said...

FYI - Progressive papers, by definition, are not "pushers" of yellow journalism. Yellow journalism is the stain of outlets like Fox News and Radio Mambi: twist information into a form that escalates and incites irrational acts of ignorant aggressiveness.

Henry "Conductor" Gomez said...

The definition of Yellow Journalism according to Encyclopaedia Britannica: In newspaper publishing, the use of lurid features and sensationalized news in newspaper publishing to attract readers and increase circulation.

The phrase was coined in the 1890s to describe tactics employed in the furious competition between two New York papers, Joseph Pulitzer's World and William Randolph Hearst's Journal. When Hearst hired away from Pulitzer a cartoonist who had drawn the immensely popular comic strip “The Yellow Kid,” another cartoonist was hired to draw the comic for the World; the rivalry excited so much attention that the competition was dubbed yellow journalism. Techniques of the period that became permanent features of U.S. journalism include banner headlines, coloured comics, and copious illustrations.

Thanks for playing, your consolation prize is backstage. Jackass.

TruthSeeker said...

Ooops, Conductor, you made a mistake.

Look up William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer in your encyclopedia and you will see that they originated the term "yellow journalism" when they were in a very jingoistic and sensationalist competition to get the USA to start a war with Spain and invade Cuba. Looks much more like Fox News than Miami New Times to say the least.

Hearst, for example, published articles calling on the USA to invade Cuba, and articles praising the father of fascism Benito Mussolini, and many articles falsifying information about the Soviet Union. He also admired and financially supported Adolph Hitler in the 1920's. Pulitzer also published jingoistic articles calling on the US to start a war with Spain. While it is true they both published some crude, populist "for the common man"-type stories, those were not what got them the "yellow journalism" label.

So please do some research before throwing insults. And no, I will not stoop to your low level by throwing insults back. Thank you. Have a great day!

P.S. For those readers who can't afford a subscription to, here are some relevant quotations:

Pulitzer, Joseph. (2006). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved July 22, 2006, from

[start Pulitzer quotations]
...Four years afterward he gained control of the St. Louis Dispatch (founded 1864) and the Post (founded 1875) and merged them as the Post-Dispatch, soon the city's dominant evening newspaper. On Oct. 5, 1882, Pulitzer's chief editorial writer shot to death a political opponent of the Post-Dispatch. Public reprobation and his own ill health prompted Pulitzer to shift his newspaper interests to New York City, where he purchased (May 10, 1883) a morning paper, the World, from the financier Jay Gould...

...[Pulitzer's] World eventually became involved in a fierce competition with William Randolph Hearst's New York Morning Journal, and the blatant sensationalism that both newspapers resorted to in espousing the Spanish-American War of 1898 led to the coining of the term “yellow journalism” to describe such practices....
[end Pulitzer quotations]

Hearst, William Randolph. (2006). Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved July 22, 2006, from:

[start Hearst quotations]
Hearst was the only son of George Hearst, a gold-mine owner and U.S. senator from California (1886–91). The young Hearst attended Harvard College for two years before being expelled for antics ranging from sponsoring massive beer parties in Harvard Square to sending chamber pots to his professors (their images were depicted within the bowls)...

...He then entered the New York City newspaper market in 1895 by purchasing the theretofore unsuccessful New York Morning Journal...

...Hearst's Journal and Pulitzer's World became involved in a series of fierce circulation wars, and these newspapers' use of sensationalistic reporting and frenzied promotional schemes brought New York City journalism to a boil. Competition between the two papers, including rival Yellow Kid cartoons, soon gave rise to the term yellow journalism.

The Journal excoriated Great Britain in the Venezuela-British Guiana border dispute (from 1895) and then demanded (1897–98) war between the United States and Spain. Through dishonest and exaggerated reportage, Hearst's newspapers whipped up public sentiment against Spain so much that they actually helped cause the Spanish-American War of 1898...
[end Hearst quotations]

on Hearst's financial support of Hitler, see
Charles Higham, Trading with the Enemy: An Exposé of The Nazi-American Money Plot 1933–1949 (New York 1983), p162.

on Hearst's financial and publishing support of Mussolini, see

also, check out:

Henry "Conductor" Gomez said...

Oops TruthSeeker, interesting name for someone trying to obfuscate, it's you who are mistaken. What part of the quoted definition from the same Britannica did you not undertstand? Yellow journalism is "the use of lurid features and sensationalized news in newspaper publishing to attract readers and increase circulation." And certainly the New Times is guilty of that.

I'm not going to debate the merits (or lack thereof) of Pulitzer, Hearst and Fox News with you. It has nothing to do with this post.

Thanks for playing.