Kindred’s Special: Che Guevara–A Revolutionary’s Passion for Chess

NEW IN CHESS magazine cover with a well-organized  article appearing in 2013/6 presents a colorful look at Cuba, its socialism path and a rare look at Che Guevara’s life and love of chess.

How does a writer choose to report news?  On this topic, I decided to highlight some of what should be memorable comments and story briefs with the hope of encouraging those interested in seeking the actual story which unfolded in a very long and well done effort by Adam Feinstein. My readers may write directly to NEW IN CHESS,  P. O. BOX 1093,  1810 KB  ALKMOOR , THE NETHERLANDS or e-mail:

Perhaps one of Che Guevara’s chess achievements was his immense role in the establishment of the prestigious annual Capablanca  Memorial Tournaments held in Havana, Cuba.  In October 1961, Cuba was in turmoil as a result of the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs in April  1961; this turmoil prompted Guevara to instruct his aides to bring back six chess sets and boards because there was no telling how long this war threat might last; Khrushchev was having missiles sent to Cuba.

Guevara’s closing ceremony remarks:  ‘At this moment of global conflict between very different ideological systems, chess is capable of uniting people from divergent political systems.’  This thought was ever on his mind.

Chess was mi segunda novia which means in English, my second girlfriend.  Different reports tell how he started playing as a child.  What thrilled him was the announcement by his father that Jose R. Capablanca would be playing lst board for Cuba in the upcoming 8th Chess Olympiad to be held in Buenos Aires.  Capablanca won the Gold Medal.  It is this achievement that turned his attention and interest to Cuba and had evolved over the chess board.  In the 1950s, he fought to topple the dictator Batista and became known as a great patriot and guerilla fighter alongside Fidel Castro.

This great Olympiad found the Second World War underway.  Many players and representatives were stranded in Argentina including Miguel Najdorf who lost his wife and family in Poland and went on to become a businessman and a famous Grandmaster of Chess.  He was to become friends with Guevara who met and played him in simultaneous displays Guevara had helped arrange.

During his university years, he traveled widely, discovering the poverty, illness and disease that was widespread throughout South America.

People who influenced his thinking was Professor Alberto Bayo, his military instructor, who called him the best guerrilla of them all.  Among his chess playing friends of influence was the Cuban diplomat and journalist, Giraldo Mazola, who drew a clear analogy between the two activities, writing many years later in tribute to Che Guevara: ‘As a guerrilla fighter, you realized that, just as in chess, numerical or material superiority is not an absolute or insuperable advantage, if the chess concepts of time and space are applied correctly.’

A habit of evaluating variations and plans was useful in life to make good judgment decisions.

So important to him for chess that in the 1958 hideout in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, he played much chess with others and gave chess lessons to soldiers despite his being the right hand man of Fidel Castro.  Apparently he recognized the need to relax which chess gave him.

From 1959-65, the support of Guevara helped the chess movement in Cuba expand rapidly.  The Fourth Capablanca Memorial in 1965 saw the greatest players in the world compete.  It is said that he helped secure the participation of Bobby Fischer.  Unfortunately his live participation was stopped by the State Department who refused to allow Fischer to travel to Cuba. Elsewhere I wrote how Fischer played from New York City, having been handicapped in so doing. V. Smyslov won the event.  Perhaps Fischer began to sour by such treatment.

Following his being assassinated, writers like Jon Lee Anderson, Regis Debray and Jorge G. Castaneda contributed to exploring his life in less than idealistic terms.  However, British journalist, Richard Gott, writing in the Guardian on the day of his death declared: “It was difficult to recall that this man had once been one of the great figures of Latin America.  Not only a great guerrilla leader, he had been a friend of Presidents as well as revolutionaries. His voice had been heard and appreciated in inter-American councils, as well as in the jungle. He was a doctor, amateur economist, once Minister of Industry in Cuba.  He will likely go down in history as one of the truly great continental figures in the Americas.”

Because of Guevara’s influential position and superb knowledge of chess both as a historian and player, he left Cuba a giant representative in the world chess body and a host of very talented players in international and national play.  Most of all, he gave the groundwork for a prosperous and lasting chess legacy for the people of Cuba.

24 Responses to “Kindred’s Special: Che Guevara–A Revolutionary’s Passion for Chess”

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