In Cuba, chess is a game for the masses


Havana (AFP)

Ana is four years old, is learning her numbers and still doesn't know how to read.

But she is already immersed in chess lessons in her native Cuba, where the Castro regime has turned chess from an elite pursuit into a game for the masses.

After coming to power in the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Fidel Castro and his band of rebels sought to transform the impoverished island not only with radical social programs and mass education, but also with chess.

Castro and fellow revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara were both avid players.

They were immortalized in post-revolution snapshots pondering their next moves on the chess board, bearded chins in hands and wearing their trademark combat fatigues.

In a Cold War world where American chess great Bobby Fischer and Soviet champion Boris Spassky played out the battle between East and West with queens and pawns, Cuba's communist government actively promoted the game.

It introduced chess as a required subject in schools, launched chess clubs, sponsored tournaments and created the Latin American Superior Institute of Chess (ISLA) to train new generations of grandmasters, free of charge.

Despite what some are calling the Cold War echoes of this months' World Championship between Russia's Sergei Karyakin and Norway's Magnus Carlsen, it's a different world today.

The Iron Curtain is a receding memory. Cuba has restored ties with the United States. Castro is 90 and retired. But his passion for chess endures on the island.

"Every afternoon after daycare, my daughter asks me if she has dance lessons or chess. That makes me proud," says Ana Paula's mother, Monica Barroso, a 30-year-old sociologist, as she collects her daughter at ISLA after lessons.

"Don't forget to practice moving your knights," Ana's teacher tells them on their way out.

- Street chess -

In Havana, chess is played in schools, clubs and on the street, at the foot of the Cuban capital's crumbling colonial buildings.

Boards and timers are a luxury in a country where the average salary is about $29 a month. But that has not dampened Cubans' love of the game.

Every evening in central Havana, men in short-sleeve shirts or overalls gather to play speed chess on faded cloth boards.

Children gather around the small groups, following the action.

"No drinking allowed, no ruckus and no betting," says 61-year-old Rolando Ramos, a former math professor and painter who plays up to five hours a day, five days a week.

State-subsidized, black-and-white pamphlets for aficionados sell here for less than 1 US cent, with information on chess history, players and tactics.

Chess even stars on state-controlled television in Cuba, which broadcasts lessons and programs on the history of the game.

The director of ISLA, Danilo Buela, is one TV teacher.

He beams when he talks about Cuba's chess successes.

"Cuba has trained 43 grandmasters. There are other countries that have more, but they don't have a population of just 11 million inhabitants," he said.

Nine of those grandmasters have been women.

The country's current chess star is Leinier Dominguez, who is ranked number 17 in the world -- the only Latin American in the top 100 of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) rankings.

Dominguez, 33, is the best Cuban player to come along since the legendary Jose Raul Capablanca, who was world champion from 1921 to 1927.

He remembers being discovered at school by talent scouts.

"That has always been an advantage in Cuba with respect to other countries: the program to bring chess to the masses," he told AFP.

"You realize that people in the street know a lot about chess."