Cuba and Chess

With President Barack Obama’s recent diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba, normal relations should soon occur with one of the world’s greatest chess-playing cultures.  Cuba is ranked 17th in the world in chess.  There has been a U.S. economic embargo against Cuba since 1961.  This will soon change and chess tournaments will be open again to Americans.  There is a compulsory chess program in the schools.

Chess came to Cuba with Columbus.  Chess is mentioned as being played in Cuba in 16th century books. 


In early 1837, Johan Maelzel (1772-1838) went to Cuba to put on an exhibition of the Turk chess automaton.  In November 1837, Johan Maelzel (1772-1838) returned Cuba with his Turk automaton and his hidden operator, William Schlumberger.  Schlumberger contracted yellow fever and died in April 1838.  As Maelzel sailed from Cuba back to America in July, he died on the ship and was buried at sea off the coast of Charleston.  He was 66 years old.  He may have also caught yellow fever while in Cuba.  Schlumberger was the last operator of the Turk  He was the strongest player in America from 1826 to the time of his death.


In 1860, the first Cuban championship was held.  It was won by Felix Sicre (1817-1871).  He lost the title in 1862 to Celso Golmayo Zupide.  Sicre lost all his games to Paul Morphy during Morphy’s two visits to Havana in October 1862 and February 1864.


In October, 1862, Paul Morphy sailed from New Orleans to Cuba on a Spanish steamboat.  He later sailed to France.  Morphy visited Cuba again in 1864 on his way back to New Orleans.


In 1888, Jose Raoul Capablanca y Graupera (1888-1942) was born in Havana.  In 1901, Capablanca, age 13, beat Juan Corzo (1873-1941) in an informal match in Havana. On his 13th birthday, Nove 19, 1901, Capablanca lost the second game of the match.  Corzo was the Cuban champion in 1902.  In 1913 he obtained a post in the Cuban Foreign Office with the title of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary General from the Government of Cuba to the World at Large.   When he died, he was the commercial attaché of the Cuban Embassy in New York.  General Batista, President of Cuba, took personal charge of the funeral arrangements.


In 1889, the second official world chess championship was held in Havana.  William Steinitz defeated Mikhail Chigorin by the score of 10.5 to 6.5.  The match was played between January 20 and February 24, 1889 and sponsored by the Havana Chess Club.  The total prize fund was only $1,150, the smallest prize fund of all world championship encounters.


In 1892, the fourth world chess championship was held in Havana.  Steinitz narrowly defeated Chigorin by the score of 10 to 8.  The match was played between January 1 and February 28, 1892.


In 1902, Juan Corzo won the Cuban Championship.  Capablanca took 4th place.  It was Capablana’s only appearance in a Cuban championship.


In 1921, the world chess championship was held in Havana.  Capablanca defeated Emanuel Lasker by the score of 9 to 5.  The match was played between March 18 to April 28Capablanca was world champion from 1921 to 1927.


In 1940, George Koltanowski of Belgium was giving a simultaneous blindfold exhibition in Havana.  A representative from the U.S. Consul in Cuba saw Koltanowski play and gave granted him a U.S. visa.  Koltanowski then moved to the USA and became a U.S. citizen.


In 1946, Dr. Juan Gonzales (1917- ) of Cuba won the U.S. Speed Championship.  He had been a former chess champion in Cuba.


In 1951, Cuba created its first postage stamps with chess themes.  Four of the seven stamps portrayed a drawing of Capablanca.  Another stamp showed a chess board and two other stamps had a chess knight.


In 1952 there was an international chess tournament at the Capablanca Chess Club in Havana.  During the event, there was a revolution in Cuba.  The President, Carlos Prio Socarras, who sponsored the tournament, was deposed.  The two Mexican entrants (a general and a captain) were recalled by their government.  Finally, a former Cuban champion, Juan Quesada, playing in the event died of a heart attack just before the 17th round.  His funeral was attended by all the masters participating.   The event was won by Reshevsky and Najdorf.


In 1958, Covo-Artega of Cuba won the U.S. Open chess championship, which was held in Rochester, Minnesota.


In 1962, Cuba hosted its first Capablanca Memorial.  It was held in the Habana Libre hotel in Havana and was won by Miguel Najdorf  Dr. Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado, then Cuban President, authorized the prize money for the Capablanca Memorial. EnerstoCheCuevara supported the event.


In 1965 Cuba linked up to the Marshall Chess Club in  New York by telex to allow Fischer to play in the 4th Capablanca Memorial tournament being held in Havana.  Each game lasted up to seven hours.   After the event, Cuba had to pay the bill of over $10,000.  Dr Jose Raul Capablanca, son of the late World Champion, transmitted the move in Havana.  Passport officials rejected Fischer’s bid to visit Cuba because they did not think chess tournaments was a valid reason to visit a Communist country and they did not believe Fischer was a bona fide journalist.  Saturday Review and Chess Life wanted Fischer to go as a journalist.


In 1966, Cuba spent over $5 million on the 17th Chess  Olympiad held in Havana.  Fidel Castro played several exhibition games including a draw with Grandmaster Tigran Petrosian and a win against Bobby Fischer.   Fischer did not leave Cuba with the rest of the U.S. team, and extended his visit.   Fischer inscribed a copy of his chess book to Castro, writing, “I sincerely hope that my book will help you play better chess.”


In 1975, FIDE awarded its first Cuban Grandmaster title to Silvino Garcia Marinez (1944- ).  He was Cuban champion in 1968, 1970, 1973, and 1979-80.  He has been President of the Cuban Chess Federation for more than 40 years


In 1976, Guillermo Garcia Gonzales (1953- ) became Cuba's second GM.  He won the Cuban Championship in 1974, 1976, and 1983.


In 1980, GM Igor Ivanov (1947-2005) went to Cuba with the rest of his Soviet team to play in the Capablanca Memorial.  On the way back to the USSR, during a refueling stop in Newfoundland, Ivanov left the aircraft and defected to Canada, and later, to America.


In 1985, Jesus Nogueiras Santiago (1959- ) took second place at the Taxco Interzonal and qualified for the Candidates Tournament.  He won the Cuban championship in 1978, 1984, and 1991.


In 1986, Walter Arencibia Rodriguez (1967- ) won the World Junior Chess Championship.  He became the second Cuban, after Capablanca, to hold a world chess crown.


In March 1988, Cuban Grandmaster Guillermo Garcia Gonzales (1953-1990) took second place in the New York Open (won by Vassily Ivanchuk).  However, his $10,000 prize was put in an escrow accunt by the U.S. Department of Treasury, invoking the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, because he was Cuban.  In 1990 he died in a car accident.    He won the Cuban championship in 1974, 1976, and 1983.  One of his descendants should now be able to claim the balance, over $250,000.


In 1989, Cuba instituted a chess in the schools program.


The first open international tournament held in Cuba took place in 1992 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Havana as the capital of the island. 


In 1999, Lazaro Bruzon (1982- ) became a Grandmaster only 32 days after becoming an International Master.


 In 2000 GM Lazaro Bruzon won the World Junior Chess Championship.  He won the Cuban Championship in 2004 and 2005.


In December 2002, Cuba claimed the world’s biggest simultaneous chess exhibition when 11,320 players took on more than 500 chess masters.  Each one of the masters had to play 25 to 30 people simultaneously.    President Fidel Castro dropped in for an hour to observe.


In 2003, the training of chess professors with a university chess degree began.  Close to 1,000 chess professors have graduated since then, majoring in chess.


In April 2004, Cuba claimed the world’s biggest simultaneous chess exhibition when 13,000 players took on more than 500 chess masters, including former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov.  One of the players was Elian Gonzales, the former Miami refugee.


The 2008 national champion is Yuniesky Quesada.


In 2008, Leinier Dominguez (1983- ) won the 43rd Capablanca Memorial.


In November, 2008, Cuban GM Leiner Dominguez (rated 2708 and 25th in the world) won the World Blitz Championship, held in Kazakhstan.  He won 8 games and drew 7.  Second place went to Ivanchuk.


In November, 2008, the Cuban women’s team took 25th place at the chess Olympiad in Dresden.  In 2006, they took 16th place at Turin. The men’s team took 23rd place.  In 2006, they took 16th place.


The 49th Capablanca Memorial took place in May 2014 in Havana.  The winner was Wesley So, followed by Lazaro Bruzon Batista and Leiner Dominguez Perez.  It was the strongest in the history of the memorial.


In August 2014, Cuba finished 7th in the World Chess Olympiad, held in Tromso, Norway.  Cuba took 7th place in the Novi Sad Olympiad in 1990 and 7th place in the Calvia Olympiad in 2004. 


There are 19 male Grandmasters (GM) and 7 female Grandmasters (WGM) in Cuba.    There are over 300 masters.


The highest rated Cuban player is Leinier Dominguez Perez, rated 2726.  He is the number one Latin America player and currently ranked 11th in the world.


The 2014 Cuban champion is Sulennis Pina Vega.


Fidel Castro has been quoted as saying, “I lie chess although I don’t play it very well.  I play it very casually, but it seems to me more entertaining than dominoes.


Currently, chess is being taught in almost all the schools in Cuba.  Chess is being taught in over 9,000 elementary schools and over 1,000 high schools.