June 18, 2011

Che Guevara and chess

If you have to use the public transportation, no matter which country you are, I suppose you all experience the same boredom as me, until you reach the final destination. To cope with that, I usually take a small book in my handbag. This time I ran out of chess books, I have to find some smaller ones, to fit my bag:) So I took a compressed Che Guevara biography, which reminded me what I've heard before: that one of his passions was...chess!
Interested by the subject, I used a bit our modern friend - internet - and I came up with the following information:

What is it about Che Guevara that makes him mythical 40 years after his death? Che became rooted not only in worldwide political mythology, but even in American pop culture. He is the narrator in Evita. The group "Rage Against the Machine" had his image on the cover of their first album. While studying in university, I was always passing by a big poster of Che that hung in the campus. I saw many people wearing a t-shirt with his image on it. Certainly his good looks didn't hurt.

Ernesto Inarkiev with his port-bonheur.

Rauf Mamedov fascinated as well
by Che Guevara's personality.

Ernesto "Che" Guevara (June 14, 1928 – October 9, 1967), commonly known as El Che or simply Che, was an Argentine Marxist revolutionary, physician, author, intellectual, guerrilla leader, diplomat and military theorist. A major figure of the Cuban Revolution, his stylized visage has become a ubiquitous countercultural symbol of rebellion and global insignia within popular culture. - Wikipedia.
So much has been written about him, but for the moment my main interest went towards his flame for chess. You might say he used chess to present to the general public an intellectual image, to be a model for his people. Which I think it's not true, if you consider his education, his family background and his avidity for knowledge.

Chess photographs of Che Guevara are by no means scarce. For example, the following appeared on page 43 of the Cuban book on the Havana Olympiad, Cuba/66 XVII olimpiada mundial de ajedrez:

Below, moreover, are the front covers of two Cuban chess magazines:

Che and the Catalan:

In his preface to Korchnoi's new book (My Best Games, Vol. 1), Sosonko tells the following story: 

  •     1963, tournament in Havana: Some participants, including Tal and Korchnoi, give simuls. Among Korchnoi's opponents there is Che Guevara. An official approaches Korchnoi, telling him: "Che Guevara loves chess passionately, but he is a rather weak player. He would be extremely happy to draw his game against you." Korchnoi nods understandingly. Later in the hotel, Tal asks him how it went. "I won them all." - "Against Che Guevara, too?" - "Yes, he doesn't have the faintest idea what to do against the Catalan."

What firm facts can be added regarding his involvement in chess? Or, to pose the question more provocatively, what justification exists for his becoming, posthumously, a 'Grand Knight of FIDE'? Two of those created in 1992 were 'H.E. Corazon Aquino, Former President of Philippines' and 'H.E. President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida of Nigeria', whereas the 1999 winners included 'H.E. Francis Chiluba, President of the Repulic of Zambia', the Presidents of Georgia and El Salvador, Mikhail Gorbachov (Soviet Union) and James Callaghan (United Kingdom). Most impressive of all is the final entry in this 'Grand Knight of FIDE' category: 'Ernesto Che Guevarra. Post Humous Award, Cuba'.
If he deserved or not this title is not the purpose of this article.

The caption reads:

'Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Cuba's popular Minister of Industries (left) watching Boris de Grieff (Colombia) with the white pieces against Boris Spassky, the USSR Champion, in the Capablanca Memorial Tournament now in progress in Havana.'

There are also a couple of games available on Edward Winter's notes; underneath you can see the game played against the well known Najdorf:

On chessgames.com, I found the following explanations on the above game:

  • "In a wonderful book written by Najdorf's daughter she tells a differrent story. According to her, quoting Najdorf, this game was not drawn. Najdorf told her that in this game he had offer Che a draw and that he had not accepted it. The game had gone on and Najdorf had won."
  • "I'm Argentine and some years ago I read in Najdorf's chess column in the newspaper Clarin that he offered a draw but Guevara refuses it, leaving him with no option but winning."
  • "I'm Argentine too and I remember Najdorf wrote that when he offered a draw to Guevara he agreed but saying: "Well, you are a great master of chess and a good diplomatic too. But now, please, play not diplomatically" and the following game was not recorded."

Before he founded a great chess tournament, Ché Guevara came to Cuba as a guerilla, when the island was ruled by Batista and the mob. He was on his way to a big hotel, the Havana Hilton. It was opened in 1958, as another gambling hall. Revolutionaries took over the building within a year. The new government occupied one floor of the enormous hotel and renamed it Habana Libre.
When the political situation had stabilized, Ché warmed up the government for a chess event. The Capablanca Memorial (in Memoriam) became the best paid tournament in the world. Ché Guevara could cover the costs as director of the National Bank and Minister of Industries. Twenty-two players from Europe, Latin America and Cuba conducted the first contest in Habana Libre from April until May 1962. 

Ché Guevara talks to Miguel Najdorf in 1962.
Credit: Jan van Reek

"You know, comrade Pachman, I don't enjoy being a Minister, I would rather play chess like you, or make a revolution in Venezuela." -  Che Guevara

1. Chess Notes by Edward Winter
2. Tim Krabbe: "Open Chess Diary"
3. Wikipedia
4. Jan van Reek: "Capablanca Memorial"


  1. NOT a hero of mine. What, in the end, did he do that was any good for the common people of Cuba over the last fifty years? The Capablanca Memorial though, is a splendid tournament.

    1. I think you are confused between Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. I won't go deep in details since it's your work to research information and try to answer your own questions.

      Prior to Castro / during the US-Batista dictatorship:

      "Whilst foreign millionaires lapped up sybaritic and schmancy lifestyles in the capital Havana, only 11% of rural Cubans drank milk, 2% had running water, 14% had tuberculosis and 43% were illiterate."

      "Before the revolution women in Cuba made up only 9.8% of the workforce. Many were prostitutes, abortion was illegal and contraception barely existed."

      Then, Che and Castro and others liberated Cuba. Keep in mind that they were 87 men arriving in Cuba in 3 boats. Not enough to beat an army is it ? Then how do you think they did ? Local dissident joined them.

      "75% of Cuba’s best arable land was owned by foreign individuals or foreign (mostly American) companies at the time of the revolution. One of the first policies of the newly formed Cuban government was eliminating illiteracy and implementing land reforms. Land reform efforts helped to raise living standards by subdividing larger holdings into cooperatives."

      They took over casinos and transformed them into schools.

      In the wake of this, Fidel Castro set up The Federation of Cuban Women (FMC). In addition, the Family Code, 1975, enshrined equality between men and women in law.

      Today women in Cuba constitute almost 50% of the workforce and 62% of Cuban technical, medical and scientific professionals are women.

      Furthermore, the number of women in the National Assembly has risen exponentially from 22.8% in 2001 to 26% in 2007."

      "As Michael Moore’s documentary ‘Sicko’ proved, Cuba has a healthcare system alongside the very best in the world.

      In fact, the average Cuban today will live longer than the average American. According to the World Health Organization (2006), Cuba has a doctor to patient ratio of 1 to 170; which as of 2008, was the second best on the planet.

      In 1998, Fidel Castro himself won the Health For All award from the WHO for his achievements in healthcare.

      Cuba’s Internationalism and Foreign Aid

      Cuba also sends tens and thousands of health professionals to nearly 70 countries the world over."

      Which reminds me of Hugo Chavez. After he was elected, one of the many great things he did was to take over the oil companies - which for most belonged to Americans - and canceled the deals with the USA. Instead of selling Venezuelan oil for cheap to Americans, Chavez decided to sell it to Cuba in exchange of 20 000 doctors that are nowadays taking care of all the people in Venezuela.

      Now, I'm not saying they are saints. But these people **are heroes for having liberated the poor from the oppression of the rich**. Of course, that's probably not the version that you guys are aware of in USA. But you have internet, so you have no excuse for your ignorance.

      Some sources:

  2. Well Jan,happy new year to you too.!.
    Depends about the view of peaple.
    Many peaple where i live(Sardinia,Italy) consider himself an hero,someone adore him.
    I have read even what he has written,well is not my hero but i consider the thing in a more neutral way.I Don't want to speak about politics here,because,it will be my internet site..In my opinion a lot of Cubans were happy of him as many disapprove.

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