An Official ‘Check’ to Cuban Chess

Chessplayors Bruzón, Domínquez and Quesada, whom officials have called “slaves” for playing under the flags of other countries.

(Translator’s note: this article makes reference to the Elo rating system, which is used to evaluate the relative skill levels of chess players. Amateur chess players typically have Elo ratings in the 1000-2000 range, while a rating of over 2600 places you in the world elite. The world champion currently has an Elo rating of 2863.)

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14ymedio, Rafael Alcides Pérez Coyula, Havana, July 15 2020 — There was a time when surpassing 2600 Elo points meant you were one of the world’s top 100 chess players. After former world champion José Capablanca (1888-1942), the next Cuban to reach those heights was Jesús Nogueiras, between the mid ’80s and early ’90s. Then, 18 years ago, he and Capablanca were joined by Leinier Domínquez and Lázaro Bruzón.

Ever since these two exploded onto the international chess scene, Cuba has had at least one representative in the top 100 players in the world, and, for the first time since the Elo rating list was introduced, in the top 10. Six Cuban players have passed the 2600 mark, appearing repeatedly in the most prestigious international tournaments. They’ve won two individual Panamerican titles, two qualifications to the World Team Chess Championship and have garnered excellent results in the Chess Olympiads, including individual medals for men and women. Lisandra Ordaz, for example, was awarded the international master title.

How then do we explain the fact that currently, no Cuban is rated above 2600 Elo, especially given that nearly 300 players worldwide have achieved that rating? It’s true that three Caribbeans hold that distinction, but none of them competes for the Cuban Federation. Grandmaster Neuris Delgado, who appears at number 161 on the FIDE rankings with 2621 Elo points, has played for Paraguay since 2013. Last year Leinier Domínquez (currently number 14 in the world rankings with 2758 Elo) made  his switch to the United States official. Now, Lázaro Bruzón (2644, number 111 in the world) has done the same.

Originally from the province of Las Tunas, Bruzón has lived for the last two years in the U.S., where he’s part of the chess team at Webster University in St. Louis, today’s chess mecca. Although he originally intended to continue playing under the Cuban flag, the inept handling of his move by the Cuban Chess Federation (FCA) eventually brought relations to a breaking point. Bruzón’s switch the U.S. Federation took effect on July 1st.

The FCA’s policy towards its players has amassed other victims as well. In the last three years they have sanctioned or “separated” some of their best known players from the National Team, players like the grandmasters (GM) Yuniesky Guesada and Yusnel Bacallao, the former for accepting work as a trainer in the U.S. after asking for permission and being denied, and the latter for protesting a two-year delay in payment of his prize money from the Capablanca Memorial Tournament.

The most recent case is that of GM Roberto García, who won 2nd place in the 2019 Cuban championships. The FCA normally provides a monthly stipend to all Cuban grandmasters, but has been denying this payment to García on the basis of his “repeated insubordination” and critical social media posts. What’s more, the Federation has interfered with García’s travel permits and insists that criticism of their actions will not be tolerated. All this is detailed in a letter written by Carlos Rivero, president of the FCA and National Sports Commissioner.

The absence of Cubans in the now-not-so-selective 2600 club is just the tip of the iceberg in the deterioration of the island’s chess scene. This started to become evident after the 2018 Chess Olympiad in Batumi, Georgia. Yuniesky had already fallen into disgrace while Bruzón’s problems were just beginning; then came the complaints about the organization and the conditions offered to the participants in the National Championships in 2019 and 2020.

Claims of delays in payment of prize money from the Capablanca Tournaments to Cuban players, while foreign players received theirs right away. Complaints by top players over the lack of high speed internet access, which is indispensable for any professional chess player these days. Calls for greater support for participation in high-level European tournaments, without which Cuban players have no opportunity to test themselves against the world elite.

The common factor in all these cases seems to be Rivero, who has been in charge of Cuban chess for nine years now. Rivero has faced criticism for failing to live up to the responsibilities of his office, and what’s worse, for not defending the real interests of Cuban chess.

Faced with these charges, the president has pointed to the large number of players who have achieved the grandmaster title during his tenure, the training programs he has implemented, and the number of young players who are currently dominating the national scene. But he ignores the generation of players whom Cuba has lost under his leadership, who have left the country or abandoned professional chess in search of better-paying work.

Meanwhile, at a more basic level, the problems just keep adding up. In schools, there is a lack of chess sets, boards, and even tournament clocks. There have been accusations of “phantom tournaments” that result in the sale of Elo points and international titles. And then there is the arbitrary retaliation against any hint of criticism.

The fact that for the first time since 2002 the leader in the national rankings sits below 2600 Elo is a reflection of the malaise that has overtaken Cuban chess. Carlos Daniel Albornoz, who is only 19 years old, has already reached 2573 Elo. Rivero is right in hoping for a brilliant future for the grandmaster from Camagüey. But while the Federation continues on its current course and U.S. universities continue strengthening their chess scholarship programs, it would be naïve to think that skill is the only realm in which Albornoz with emulate his predecessors.

 Translated by: Zach Young


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