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'Bobby Fischer's Angst Vanished in Havana'

The former world chess champion would have turned 77 today. DIARIO DE CUBA talked with Miguel Ángel Sánchez, co-author of the recently published book Bobby Fischer in Cuba.

Miguel Ángel Sánchez 
Miguel Ángel Sánchez  DDC

I first met Miguel Ángel Sánchez at his house in Baldwin Harbor, the only one in all of Long Island with a traditional tinajón (ornamental clay pot) in its garden. There, on weekends, the poet Heberto Padilla and the writer Antonio Benítez Rojo, among other Cuban exiles, used to drop by.

Our meeting transpired, of course, with a board in between us. Miguel Ángel had already published the biography of José Raúl Capablanca that would later be rereleased. Now, more than 20 years later, together with Jesús Suárez he has just published another essential book on Cuban chess: Bobby Fischer in Cuba.

Miguel Angel, the relationship between baseball and politics in Cuba has well documented since the birth of the nation. Now, reading your book about Fischer –and thinking about the recent fate of great Cuban masters, such as Leinier Domínguez, and Lázaro Bruzón, today in exile– it seems that chess has not been overlooked.

Maybe it has not received the same degree of scrutiny as baseball, but there is a continuous line between chess and politics. So much so that, if we are to believe the legendary anecdotes surrounding chess, Columbus's first trip was the result of a game between King Ferdinand and Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, such that the link dates back to the very Discovery, even though this may be just a tall tale.

Another example was the chess set that the Spanish troops found in the saddlebags of some mules that had escaped from Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, and that they did not return to him, because they thought they would be useful in planning combat strategies. Céspedes was an accomplished player, and translated from French the first important book on chess published in Cuba: Laubordonnais’ Noveau Traité du Jeux des echecs.

Another known historical fact was the closure of the Chess Club of Havana in 1896, due to the suspicion that it served as a meeting place and site for the propagation of pro-independence ideas. The Club was reopened at the request of a political figure of great renown in Cuba at the time, Don Celso Golmayo, who, as a former chief judge of the Contentious Court and, at that time, Governor of Matanzas, threw all his weight and political credibility behind reopening the Club, despite accusations that it was a hotbed of revolutionary activity.

Following this same historical line, a more obscure event is the 1957 match for the Cuban Championship between Juan González, a medical officer with the Navy, and Eleazar Jiménez, which was converted by friends of the latter –such as Luis Más Martín, of the Popular Socialist Party (PSP), and Giraldo Mazola, of M-26-7– into a competition in which Eleazar represented the revolutionary forces, and González, the Batista Government.

The Capablanca tournaments from 1962, and especially the 1966 Olympiad, took place against a very marked background of political propaganda, especially because there were no sports events of universal importance, and chess in Cuba, with its global nature, helped place the country in the international spotlight as a venue for a significant event. In this regard, the Chess Olympiad was a great source of propaganda for Havana.

The Cuban Government very effectively exploited the image of Ernesto Guevara as a chess fan, further evidence of the relationship between politics and chess on the island. The series of massive, simultaneous matches, held both in Havana and other cities across the country, also reflected a political agenda of projecting an image of mass support for the game.
Thus, yes, indeed, there is a documented relationship between chess and politics in Cuba, inextricably linked to the figure of Capablanca, whose father, despite being an officer in the Spanish army, became a secret agent of the independence movement.

George Steiner, who passed away a few days ago, recalled the sense of communion that, in his student years at Cambridge, was engendered around chess boards. Was there communion between the Soviets and Fischer at that Olympiad held at the Havana Hilton, in the midst of the Cold War?

In Havana, in 1966, there was no communion between Soviets and Americans. Quite the opposite. The event was about to fall apart when the US team pulled out on the date slated for the first match against the Soviets. Although the details of the incident have never been revealed, I have no doubt that great political pressure was exerted from the highest echelons (i.e. Fidel Castro) for the event to take place, which it did. Meanwhile, there were several manifestations of personal amity between Fischer and Tahl, on the one hand, and between Fischer and Spassky, on the other, documented in the book.

Returning to the issue of propaganda and communion, the Cuban Government was very fortunate when in 1965 the State Department prevented Fischer from traveling to Havana, which gave rise to en unprecedented remote Capablanca match, with the American playing from the Marshall Chess Club in New York. It was then that the famous exchange of letters between Fischer and Fidel Castro took place, in which Fischer threatened to abandon the competition if Castro did not retract alleged statements that he was glad that Fischer did not receive a travel permit. Castro denied that he had ever made such statements and Fischer participated in the Capablanca long distance, an unprecedented development in the history of chess.

The 1966 Chess Olympiad was the first event held in Cuba in which a US master team participated; not a group of university students, but the best of the best – with the very singular characteristic that there was no distinction made between professionals and amateurs. In Cuba, in 1962, the populace did not know that there were cash prizes for the winners of the Capablanca tournaments, and even for the participants. The highest payment was received by Fischer when, for taking part in the Capablanca in 1965, long distance, he received 3,000 dollars, according to his biographer, Frank Brady, a very respected figure in American chess circles.

The decision to conceal the fact that the Capablanca tournaments were essentially a professional competition was made as a result of Fidel Castro decreeing the end of professional sports in Cuba. It was very difficult to explain why, in chess, at least in the Capablanca tournaments, that political directive was not followed. In this Cuba took a page from the 1925 Soviet maneuver when, to achieve a propaganda triumph, the Kremlin authorized that 5,000 dollars be paid to Capablanca to attend the Moscow tournament, a fact documented by the New York Times.

The Soviets were then clear favorites in the Olympiad, as well as ideological allies of the Cuban government. You were there. What was the relationship like between the people in Cuba and Fischer, and vice versa, his relationship with his hosts?

Fischer was, for much of his life, a tormented figure, a kind of Van Gogh of chess. But that state of angst seemed to disappear in Havana. In 1956, when he first visited, then a 12-year-old boy, he came to play street ball with other children from the Cuatro Caminos neighborhood, which was where he stayed with his mother, at the home of Ramón Bravo, the director of the Club Capablanca, on the Calle Belascoaín, No. 1162.

Later, when he returned, in 1966, Fischer seemed comfortable. He signed autographs and praised the lighting in the game room, and, especially, the tables, which were specially made just for the Olympiad. That is, his behavior in Cuba was markedly different from that in other places. There was even a rapprochement between him and Fidel Castro – though it was of no use to him when, from a jail in Tokyo, in 2002, he asked Cuba for political asylum, an appeal that was never answered.

Something that is evident in his book is the enthusiasm and level of Cuban chess during the first half of the 20th century, and the strength of civil society, with the Capablanca Club both hosting and visiting clubs in the United States...

The Chess Club of Havana achieved what no other nation in the Americas did, except the United States: it managed to hold two world championships at a time when Cuba was still an overseas province of Spain, or a colony, as it was known. It is not that the game was widely played. Rather, several wealthy backers helped to fund these events, and to invite the best players of the era to play in Havana, such that then world champion Wilhem (William) Steinitz called Havana the chess dorado, or mecca.

In 1892 practice of the game had extended considerably, according to Steinitz himself, compared to what he observed during his first visit to the island in 1883.

Then, in the years of the Republic, there were several spikes of interest in the game: the first in 1912, as a result of Capablanca's victory at the San Sebastian tournament of 1911; and later, due to Capablanca's participation in tours of inland areas across the country. After the death of the Cuban world champion, in 1942, the Capablanca Club, founded by President Grau in 1947, was the main promoter of chess on the island. As you point out, he invited teachers to Havana, and organized tours of the United States.

Mario Figueredo, who was the club's main figure, secured the financing for its construction, along with, in 1952, a budget for the organization of the most important individual chess event in Latin America to date: the Cinquantenaire Tournament of the Republic, boasting figures like Samuel Reshevsky, Miguel Najdorf, Svetozar Gligoric, Erik Eliskases, Carlos Guimard and Arturo Pomar, among others. I underscore its nature as an individual event, because the Olympiad in Buenos Aires in 1939 was another great milestone, although at the country level.

Fischer was not a child prodigy, but he was brilliant as an adolescent. How much did his style evolve over the years? Was the aggressive game that at just 12 years old he played against Cuba's Florido, in his first match outside the US, an augury of what would come, of that permanent question for the initiative and victory, even with black pieces?

Fischer was a child prodigy, in his own way. Not like Capablanca, who at the age of 4 was able to exhibit the strategic depth of an adult with extensive knowledge; or a Samuel Reshevsky, who at age 8 played and defeated different opponents simultaneously. It was coinciding with that trip to Havana in 1956 that Fischer emerged as a superb player, an incredible one. Fischer was the first player to become Grand Master at the age of 15, when that title was still truly significant. At that age, he became the youngest World Chess Championship competitor in history.

A nice touch in the book are the bios of Fischer's opponents. Gilberto García, Eldis Cobo, Eleazar Jiménez... Apparently all the Cubans played well, especially Jiménez, who was one move from defeating him, and made a mistake... Which would you consider the American's best match in Cuba, and why?

At the 1965 Capablanca tournament Fischer's play against all Cuban players was of a high level, with interesting tactical possibilities for those representing Cuba. Gilberto García, for example, achieved a position that, although inferior, was very dynamic, and at a certain point he had the opportunity for an effective counterattack, but he did not see it. However, Fischer's best victory came against Eleazar Jimenez during the 1966 Olympiad, the only time that Fischer managed to defeat him on the four occasions they met. I think that was Fischer's best match against a Cuban, and it came in the context of his great results at the Olympiad, where he defeated players of the caliber of Portisch, Gligoric, Najdorf, Pachman, Olafsson and Pomar.

The book contains commentaries on all Fischer's official or formal matches in Cuba, plus one at an exhibition against José Arango. For those annotations, two of the three best chess programs existing today were used, as well as analyses that appeared at different times on those same games. The analysis work was overseen by International Master Luis Sieiro, who knows and has closely followed the evolution of the theory of openings in chess; and Jesús Suárez, who as a child had a reputation as a great theoretician and good coach, to the point that a great like Eleazar Jiménez drew on him for his training.

In his career Fischer lost a single formal game against a Cuban. In fact, his only defeat on the 1956 Log Cabin Chess Club tour was against Nestor Hernandez, back in the US, in Tampa. Unfortunately, we have not yet been able to find that game, but the book does show the victory that Fischer scored, barely, against José R. Florido, the first chess master he beat over his long and successful career. It is the first time that the Florido-Fischer game of 1956 appears in chess literature.

Miguel Ángel Sánchez and Jesús Suárez, Bobby Fischer in Cuba (Editorial Two Bishops, 2019).

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