Pickup Team at Miami Dade
Stuns the Ivy League;
Bouncers' Mental Game
Stuns the Ivy League;
Bouncers' Mental Game
By JOSÉ DE CÓRDOBA
March 4, 2006; Page A1
March 4, 2006; Page A1
MIAMI -- In December, Alberto Hernández, a brawny 40-year-old security guard who studies English part time at Miami Dade College, sat down across a tournament chessboard from Albert Yeh, 20, a biochemistry major at Harvard, which boasts one of the oldest college chess clubs in the nation.
In a grueling six-hour match, Mr. Hernández fought Mr. Yeh to a draw, lifting his team above Harvard in the tournament standings. "That was a tough game with Harvard," recalls Mr. Hernández, an ex-bouncer, rubbing his shaved scalp.
Four years ago, Miami Dade College didn't know chess from checkers. Since then, this community college has emerged as the nation's most unlikely chess powerhouse, with triumphs over Harvard, Yale, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The secret to its success: a team stocked with players who fled chess-mad Cuba.
Mr. Hernández, a former Cuban junior national champion, taught chess before leaving the island on a raft in 1994. He was scooped up by the U.S. Coast Guard and deposited in a refugee camp at the U.S. naval base on Guantanamo Bay, where he fashioned chess sets by melting down plastic food-ration boxes and soda bottles. Ten months later, he was permitted to enter the U.S. His five teammates include a former member of the Cuban national chess team, 33-year-old Renier González, who defected in Colombia in 1999 and is now ranked No. 30 in the U.S. by the U.S. Chess Federation. Another Cuban-American team member plays professional poker on the side.
As these Cuban immigrants struggled to make new lives in America, they crossed paths by chance at this commuter college of some 80,000 students, where all six team members are part-time students. Nine out of ten students on Miami Dade's eight campuses are Hispanic or black, and the average age is 27. Playing collegiate chess was the last thing Messrs. Hernández and González were thinking about when they enrolled at Miami Dade to learn English.
Chess is a passion in Cuba, played with an intensity usually reserved for baseball. In the 1920s, a Cuban grandmaster, José Raúl Capablanca, was the game's third world champion and became a national hero. Thirty years later, Che Guevara relaxed from fighting a guerrilla war in the mountains of Cuba by battling his comrades-in-arms on the chessboard.
Then, as Cuba became a pawn of the Soviet Union, a chess powerhouse, Fidel Castro made learning the game obligatory in Cuban schools. He established Soviet-style boarding schools where gifted young players received four hours of daily training from chess masters. The lousy economy helped too. "Since nobody does any work in Cuba, hobbies are very welcome," says Mr. Hernández.
In 2002, he and another Miami Dade student from Cuba, Rodelay Medina, were working as bouncers at a Latin nightclub, where they passed the time by playing boardless chess against one another, tracking moves in their heads. On a whim, Mr. Medina, a computer-science student who is now 24, decided to enroll in the Pan-American Collegiate Tournament, scheduled that year for Miami, which draws college teams from around the hemisphere. Miami Dade didn't have a team, but he persuaded Mr. Hernández and four other Cuban-American students at the college to chip in $20 each for the entry fee.
T-Shirts and Flip-Flops
The six men showed up as the Miami Dade team wearing jeans, T-shirts and flip-flops. They sliced through a field of about 30 universities, besting such schools as Princeton and the University of Chicago. Miami Dade's top player, Bruci López, a recently arrived 18-year-old Cuban immigrant, beat grandmaster Alexander Onischuk, the ace for powerhouse University of Maryland at Baltimore County. (Months later, Maryland dangled a scholarship before Mr. López, and he jumped to that team.) Miami Dade finished third. The proud players presented their trophy to stunned Miami Dade officials, who quickly made them the school's chess team.
"If anyone had asked me 10 minutes earlier whether we had a chess team, I would have said no," says René Garcia, a wild-haired psychology professor who became the team's adviser. It was the first time in the history of college chess that a community college had placed in the contest. "It was always a Harvard, Stanford or MIT," says James Stallings, chairman of the College Chess Committee of the chess federation. "I don't know any other community college that is even close."
The University of Maryland at Baltimore County and the University of Texas at Dallas typically finish one-two at college chess's Final Four tournament. They recruit players, providing stipends and scholarships valued at about $30,000, and hone players' skills by taking them on the road to a half-dozen or so tournaments a year. Some elite schools bring in grandmasters to lecture or coach their chess clubs.
Miami Dade caps its financial aid at $500 per player, and cannot afford to send its players to more than one or two tournaments a year outside the city. Its team members are frequently older than their competitors and are holding down jobs to support families. (They must take at least two classes a semester to maintain their collegiate-chess eligibility.) They seldom have time to practice against one another, so they train online at home or at a computer in the tiny chess room at the school.
Even so, Miami Dade has placed third at the Final Four for the last three years running. In 2004, Miami Dade was named Chess College of the Year by the U.S. Chess Federation.
Mr. Hernández's marathon match in December against Mr. Yeh, the Harvard student half his age, helped lead Miami Dade to a third-place finish in that tournament, and paved the way for it to qualify for this year's Final Four.
"It was very tense. I thought I would win," says Mr. Yeh, who had a pawn advantage over Mr. Hernández as they neared the end of the game. Because other Harvard players had already lost, Mr. Yeh had to win to salvage a draw with Miami Dade and to keep alive Harvard's hopes of finishing among the top contenders. "I kept playing hard, thinking I could convert my advantage to a win. But he was determined to hold me off. We were down to the last 20 minutes of a six-hour match, and I couldn't find a way to position a win. I had to accept the draw."
One recent afternoon, the team's top player, Mr. González, met at the chess room to practice against Mr. Medina. Mr. González, a business student, got a visa to the U.S. in 2001, thanks to a chess-playing U.S. diplomat who befriended him after he defected from the national team in Colombia. Mr. Medina made it to Miami in 1994 when his mother won an immigration lottery known as el Bombo that permits some 20,000 Cubans to come annually to the U.S.
When the two sat down to play, they brought a distinctly Cuban rhythm to a game that is often silent and somber, bantering and punning rapidly in Spanish.
"Te la vi," said Mr. González. ("I saw your move.")
"Tel Aviv, capital of Israel?" Mr. Medina shot back.
"I offer you a draw," rasped Mr. González in a Mafioso whisper.
"I don't want your draw," said Mr. Medina, who ultimately lost.
Later, a weary Mr. Hernández stopped by. He had risen before dawn to work a nine-hour shift as a security guard, then had stopped briefly at the Miami nightclub where he also works to help with the evening setup. Using his online name, Southbeachchulo, he logged onto a chess Web site for a fast-paced game of "blitz chess" against a grandmaster who calls himself Kevlar. Each player had five minutes to make all his moves, but Mr. Hernández conceded defeat after four minutes. "I'm too tired...I've been under too much pressure at work," he said.
The team is gearing up for the Final Four next month in Dallas. Mr. Hernández plans to play hours of blitz chess online. Mr. González, who teaches chess in Miami public schools, sharpens his skills against the best local players at the chess club where he gives private lessons. This week, he's playing some of the nation's best players at the U.S. Chess Championship in San Diego.
Mr. González is looking to redeem himself from a loss in last year's Final Four to the University of Texas at Dallas. Had he managed a tie in his match, Miami Dade would have finished second, not third. "It hurt," says Mr. González. "I shed quite a few tears."
Miami Dade players are thinking of wearing blazers with the Miami Dade logo, supplied by the school. But Mr. Medina says his preferred tournament wear is still shorts and flip-flops.