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Hilton in the Big Classroom, Part I: Nicaragua Print E-mail
By Jonathan Hilton   
February 9, 2010
Flying above Nicaragua
My first college course took place last September in the country of Nicaragua. Long before I ever reached the conclusion that playing chess and attending a university were, possibly, mutually exclusive events, I had already left my board and clock behind for two weeks to explore the history and culture of the largest country in Central America. My favorite aspect of chess tournaments had invariably been the travel involved-meeting people from different cultures, visiting new cities, constantly adjusting to new environments-and so by May of 2009, I had decided that, given the vast sums of funding available to me from the University of Cincinnati Honors Program and UC International, I might as well go see the world. My itinerary for the trip included taking classes with three different professors, performing daily volunteer service, touring famous Nicaraguan lagoons and volcanoes, and spending down time with my host family. I counted on leaving my chess set behind.

Juanito and Juanita, Photo Irene Arevalo
No matter where I travel on this earth, however, I am never quite able to escape from the Royal Game entirely. Chess provides an avenue for connecting with other human beings, one which transcends the cultural barriers of age, race, and creed. I hadn't been in Nicaragua for more than a week before I learned that one of my host brothers, who went by the nickname "Chito," was an avid chess enthusiast. My appetite to play had been whetted by the hundreds of elegant sets I had seen peddled by craft merchants at the Nicaraguan town of Masaya, so I decided to surprise him one day by purchasing a ceramic (yet still touristy) "Spaniards versus Incans" set and challenging him to a game. As usual, the bond between two chess players proved instant. I knew I had to use chess to connect with more of the locals in Nicaragua.

Fast-forward to 7:35 P.M. Nicaragua time on Monday, September 14, 2009. I was out after dark in a third-world country, had no cell phone, and was about to get into a car with someone I barely knew. Just minutes before, I had been laughing, playing blitz, and trash talking-now, I was ready to panic. My new acquaintance, Juan, motioned toward the car again with his lips. "Get in,"  he urged. I couldn't budge.

Nicaraguan National Master Juan Bosco Ruiz Urbina and I had just been kicked out at closing time from the local Euro Café, one of the many cozy little shops hugging the perimeter of the town square in Granada, Nicaragua. I'd heard from some locals that the café was a popular hangout for chess players, so I had arranged by email to meet Juan there that evening. In real life, Juan is a 23-year-old self-employed tour guide and transportation provider-but as the local granadino chess hustler, Juan was ready to play me a blitz match at ten córdobas-or about fifty cents-a game. Although I was somewhat intimidated by Juan's shaggy black hair and wild laugh, I accepted his offer. The score was level after the first four games, but closing time for the Euro Café on weeknights was 7:30 P.M., not quite two hours after the Nicaraguan sunset. A quick glance around Parque Central-the central park-revealed that other venders were also packing it in for the night. We would have to take our match somewhere else-which, to Juan, meant getting in his car and driving there.

Jonathan in a defunct Nicaragua train. Is this a safe ride?
Photo Irene Arevalo
At that moment, I found myself dealing with two conflicting notions: one rational, the other instinctual. The former told me my paranoia of abduction and death was unreasonable. At the heart of the city of Granada is a sleepy colonial town, which, in accordance with Spanish tradition, revolves around a central park flanked by government buildings and a cathedral. The streets, filled with "ma & pa" shops, horse-drawn carriages, and middle-class families, are well-lit at night. The population is notoriously conservative, and crime rates are low compared with the rest of the country. So long as Juan simply intended to drive a few blocks down Calle la Calzada, the spacious boulevard next to the cathedral, surely I would be safe.

Not only, my rational self argued, was trusting Juan by accepting a short ride in his car perfectly safe, it was also the right thing to do. As a college student on a University Honors study abroad trip, I had been told various times that I was representing the United States during my visit. Despite repeated U.S. meddling in Nicaraguan affairs-from the 1856 recognition of an American pirate, William Walker, as the 6th President of Nicaragua to U.S. support for the contras in the 1970s and 80s-Nicaraguans are still readily accepting of American visitors, invariably showing them great hospitality. Refusing to ride even a few blocks with Juan would betray my instinctive distrust. On the other hand, showing I trusted a fellow chess player would amount to a small, one-man effort to improve strained U.S.-Nicaragua relations.

Like most American children, however, I was taught never to get in a car with a stranger. For me, this was always considered a hard-and-fast rule. Its advocates included everyone from local policemen at school to Barney the purple dinosaur, and my parents had succeeded in inculcating it into me at a young age. This was not, however, the stereotypical "stranger with free candy"  scenario I was taught in the second-grade Cub Scout Handbook. Part of me felt that, as a young adult, I ought to be able to exercise my own judgment.

Regardless, my gut prevailed and I refused the ride. Although we'd done all our trash talking in English, I switched to Spanish to explain to Juan that I wasn't comfortable getting into a car. I invented something about university rules to avoid taking all the blame for myself. He showed me his business card, which advertised his services as a local guide, chess master, and taxi driver. I mentioned something about my parents. "What happened?" he asked, disappointed. "Not cool, man, now I've got to pay for parking."  Juan handed me his chess set-presumably so I wouldn't run off-while he went into a building for a few minutes. When he came out again, we headed out on foot to find somewhere to continue the match.

And so it was that we headed down Calle la Calzada, downtown Granada's street for open-air bars, and soon came across an inviting string of open tables. After setting up shop again and getting out our córdobas, we were able to continue our match uninterrupted and play late into the Nicaraguan night-which, considering the early sunset, means about 9:30 P.M. For all my efforts, I eventually won about 200 córdobas from my Nicaraguan host: enough to buy some nice souvenirs to bring back to my family in Ohio, but, perhaps fortunately, nothing like the epic tails of chess hustling highway robbery that occur regularly here in the States.

Juan Ruiz was not the only Nicaraguan chess master I met that night. During our marathon blitz match, we were joined by the handsome campeón nacional absoluto, or Nicaraguan National Champion, university student Maximiliano Rocha. Known by his compatriots as simply "Max," the reigning champion of the largest country in Central America is perhaps the closest Nicaragua has to a national prodigy. His quiet and easygoing presence contrasted sharply with Juan's extroversion and energy, and he had the aura of a calm, disciplined professional. He wore a dark polo shirt, had gelled black hair, and exhibited the well-groomed sideburns of a movie star. "If there were an ‘Oscar' for national [Nicaraguan] chess," wrote Fide Arbiter Gerardo Avellán, technical director of the National Nicaraguan Chess Federation (known as FENANIC-FENICA), "my vote would be for NM Maximiliano Rocha."

After my match with Juan, I had the honor of playing Max in a short three-game blitz bout. The score ended 2-1 in his favor, though at a number of crucial moments it looked as if things could easily have gone the other way. In analyzing after-the-fact, Max demonstrated a high level of positional understanding, endgame knowledge, and tactical mastery, with knowledge of opening theory being a possible weak point. It is small wonder that the name of this young man has become synonymous with the positive image of Nicaraguan chess he portrays.

When it finally came time for me to part for the night and head back to the home of my Nicaraguan host family, I bid both Juan and Max adieu and set out across the well-lit Granada streets. I arrived back at the house a few minutes past the traditional 10:00 P.M. student curfew. This made me nervous at first, but my host mother, Gladys, understood. If I had to be out late, at least it was to play chess. ¿Lo pasaste bien? she said, asking if I'd had a good time. I responded that I had. ¿Ganaste mucho? Had I won a lot? I told her about the 200 córdobas. She was delighted for me.

My trip to Nicaragua was just the first of many international trips I will be able to experience during college. I've already gone on another one, this time over winter break, to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. And as of this past week, I have applied to attend a school of political science in Concepción, Chile from July to December of this year. If the trip goes as planned, perhaps I'll even take a weekend trip to fly out to the Buenos Aires chess club in neighboring Argentina. As I continue to travel the Spanish-speaking world in search of education and fellow chess players, however, I often find myself reflecting on this brief first encounter with the Latin American chess scene. For instance, I still wonder whether it was truly necessary for me to decline Juan's offer of a ride. Simply declining all rides in third-world countries sounds like a smart policy-after all, the State Department is continually issuing warnings to travelers such as the following:

"Several U.S. citizens have reported being victimized by fellow travelers who offered to assist them in locating and/or sharing a taxi in and around... Granada, Managua, and Masaya. Upon entering the taxi, the U.S. citizens were held at knife-point or gun-point, threatened with bodily injury and/or rape, robbed of their valuables and driven around to ATM machines to withdraw funds from their accounts. After the assault, the U.S. citizen victims were left abandoned and destitute in remote areas." - State Department, August 6, 2009

Granada's inclusion in this paragraph makes the city sound much more dangerous than I believe it really is. Yet perhaps there's something to be said for erring on the side of caution.

Nonetheless, should any of my readers go to Nicaragua and be looking for a local tour guide, Juan Bosco Ruiz is one of the first people I'd recommend. He is entertaining, authentically Nicaraguan, has his own YouTube channel, and-best of all-is one of the millions of people worldwide that make up the global community of chess players.

Stay tuned for Hilton's next piece on his winter study abroad in Mexico, where he faced off with IM Ramon Huerta Sorís at the site of the canceled Carlos Torre Memorial Tournament in Mérida, Yucatán. For more on his trip to Nicaragua, you can check out his blog for the University of Cincinnati Honors Program. Also read Jonathan's latest CLO piece, Hilton on Not Playing the Pan-Ams and check out his upcoming book, co written with IM Dean Ippolito, Wojo's Weapons.

March - Chess Life Online 2010

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