Cuban-American Chess Masters Take on Elites

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A scrappy group of Cuban-American community college students is poised to end the domination of collegiate chess by elite schools such as Harvard, Stanford and MIT. Cuba's national obsession with chess played a big part in fostering a new national chess powerhouse at Miami Dade College.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeline Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up: a colorful fixture retires from American college basketball.

BRAND: But first, the field for the men's NCAA Tournament has been announced and fans everywhere are filling out their brackets for office betting pools. There's another college championship about to get underway, but there won't be a whole lot of betting on this one, the Collegiate Chess Championship.

CHADWICK: For years this has been dominated by a handful of select universities, but as NPR's Eric Weiner reports a teen from a community college in Miami has jumped to the top of the sport.

ERIC WEINER reporting:

The Miami Dade College team is the Bad News Bears of collegiate chess. The players all hold down part time jobs. Some have families to support. While their opponents are en route to Master's Degrees and perhaps PhD's, their academicals don't extend beyond a two year Associate Degree. And while many chess teams show up for tournaments in matching blue blazers, the Miami Dade team prefers t-shirts and flip-flops.

Mr. RODELAY MEDINA (Captain, Miami Dade College Chess Team): My name is Rodelay Medina. I came to America about ten years ago.

WEINER: Medina is one of the stars of the team. He explains how one day in 2002 he and a few friends decided on a lark to cobble together a team and enter the Pan-American Chess Tournament.

Mr. MEDINA: And that's basically what we did. I make all the team and then I'll be there one way or the other.

Professor RENE GARCIA (Advisor, Miami Dade College Chess Team): One day he showed up in my office and said something like Miami Dade has a chess team, here's the trophy and you're the advisor.

WEINER: Rene Garcia teaches psychology at Miami Dade College.

Professor GARCIA: And after I got over that, those three statements, I said okay, what do we do next?

WEINER: With Garcia's guidance, the newly formed Miami Dade team quickly rose to the top ranks of collegiate chess, beating schools like Harvard, Stanford, and MIT. James Stallings is chairman of the Collegiate Chess Committee.

Mr. JAMES STALLINGS (Chairman, Collegiate Chess Committee): Go back half dozen years, I don't know that Miami Dade had a team and then all of a sudden, wham, they're there. They just jumped out of nowhere and with a fully born team. I mean, just a great team.

WEINER: Are they taken seriously at tournaments now?

Mr. STALLINGS: Oh, absolutely.

WEINER: All six members of the Miami Dade team are Cuban immigrants and that is no coincidence. Cubans love chess. They play it constantly and loudly on scratched up boards in cafes, on sidewalks, at home. In the 1920s, Cuba produced a world champion, one of the best chess players ever, Capablanca. Every Cuban knows the name Capablanca, the way we know Babe Ruth. And every Cuban school kid aspires to be the next Capablanca. Rodelay Medina is no exception. He started playing chess when he was eight years old.

Mr. MEDINA: The very first day I beat the guy's brother, the guy who taught me, I beat his brother the very first day. So I was so, so happy, very happy.

WEINER: It is here in the campus chess room, more like a chess closet actually, where the Miami Dade team practices and discusses strategy. There's a simple chess board, a shelf full of trophies and the most important tool for any chess player these days, a computer. Medina logs in for a quick game of blitz chess.

Mr. MEDINA: This is super blitz, super blitz, because you only play one minute.

WEINER: It's the chess equivalent of the 100 yard dash, over before you know it. Medina plays to a draw against his opponent, a Russian Grand Master. Medina is clearly not happy with his performance. Collegiate chess is extremely competitive, but as Rene Garcia explains, always sportsman-like.

Professor GARCIA: In fact, most of the time the only way you know who won in a match is if you're right next to them. Nobody high fives, nobody screams and what happens immediately after a match is the two players stay behind and analyze the game they just concluded.

WEINER: Garcia cannot conceal his pride in the Miami Dade team and what they've accomplished and as a psychology professor there's something else he notices.

Professor GARCIA: I see a certain satisfaction once they see they think we're crap, but let's just wait and see.

WEINER: There's some psychology going on here.

Professor GARCIA: I think so. And Rodelay is actually a master of that. He even has a stare, that's a special look that can be quite intimidating, quite frankly.

WEINER: He's right. I found the stare of Rodelay Medina intimidating and I don't even play chess. Next month, Medina and his stare travel to Dallas for the Final Four Championship. There was talk of getting team blazers for this, the premiere event in collegiate chess, but the Miami Dade players have decided to stick with t-shirts and flip-flops. They prefer it that way. Eric Weiner, NPR News, Miami.

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