Home Page arrow Chess Life Online arrow 2010 arrow June arrow Hilton in the Big Classroom, Part II: Mexico
Hilton in the Big Classroom, Part II: Mexico Print E-mail
By Jonathan Hilton   
February 24, 2010
There is no kind of hospitality quite like chess player hospitality, and there is no city in Mexico quite like Mérida, Yucatán. Since returning from a trip I took to Mexico last December, I have detailed on numerous occasions, much to the bafflement of my non-chess friends, the story of the great hospitality I received from the chess community there. Within eighteen hours of entering the local Club de Ajedrez "Bobby Fischer" (Bobby Fischer Chess Club) in Mérida, I had the privilege of being treated to two authentic yucateco meals, was interviewed by a renowned local chess journalist, played an exhibition match with Cuban trainer and author IM Huerta Sorís, and had my picture in the local newspaper. It was not that I had signed up for the University of Cincinnati's annual winter tour across the Yucatan Peninsula - a whirlwind study abroad experience that took me from Mérida to Cancún in ten short days - with the intention of finding the chess players there. As I discovered, encountering signs of the local meridano chess culture is just something that happens once one has spent a day or two roaming Mérida.

I had some free time on the Saturday after my plane flight into Mérida, so I took advantage of the hot and sunny December weather to wander the city. I'm an adventurer at heart and I love to explore, so it wasn't long before I had entered several beautiful buildings and walked a dozen streets. Mérida, the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatán, was the home of Mexican millionaires during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a result of what is known as the "henequen boom," a time period when a high demand for sisal rope - produced from the henequen plant, a tough shrub which thrived in the Yucatan's desert-like climate - brought a tremendous influx of capital from the newly-industrialized United States. Geographically isolated from the central powers in Mexico City, the Yucatan developed its own distinct cultural identity. Although the region's economic boom ended with the introduction of cheaper, more durable synthetic rope in later times, the remnants of great wealth still exist in Mérida in the form of dozens of elegant mansions along the famous Paseo de Montejo, a grand boulevard so long I saw only a fraction of it on foot.

In the cool of the evening, while the rest of the students headed out for a night on the town, I crept into a cultural center just a block from the hotel where we were staying - the tranquil Casa del Balam, an example of extravagant Art Deco architecture - and enjoyed a free music event. After the show, I browsed the numerous fliers, stands, and posters in the atrium. There, amidst the colorful cardboard advertisements for the usual variety of song-and-dance events, was a tiny three-by-six-inch paper with the headline: "El Club de Ajedrez Bobby Fischer." I wrote the location (57th Street, between 62nd and 64th Street) on a piece of paper and put it in my pocket. A few days later, when I had another free evening, I set out on foot to find this chess club.

The club "Bobby Fischer" was easy to spot. At 7:30 P.M. on a weekday evening, the club was the only building in the area besides an adjacent hotel still open and visibly lit. From the street, I could make out the silhouette of two players absorbed in a game by the second-floor window, a demo board hanging behind them. Upon entering, I headed up a spiral staircase and found myself in a cozy room just big enough for a ten- or twelve-person weekend Swiss. Spanish-language chess books filled a single bookcase on the far left, and tacked everywhere along the wall were chess posters and newspaper clippings. On the right, a Mexican man and a woman played an offhand game by the window. A lady sat quietly in the corner, watching.

My timid entrance into the club didn't distract the two players from their game, but the spectator introduced herself to me as Concepción Godinez Bautista, the club's director. As I explained in Spanish that I was a chess journalist from the United States, she became quite animated, insisting there was someone I had to meet. She pulled out her cell phone, placed a call, and then asked if I would be able to stay at the club for the rest of the evening. I agreed, so while we waited on the mystery guest, Señora Godinez gave me a full tour of the club, which included a more spacious third floor (for which she was still trying to get air conditioning) and a fenced-in patio on the roof, where the two of us talked in the cool night breeze.

Over the next half hour, I learned more from Godinez about chess in the State of Yucatán than I ever expected to know. Prior, I had considered my finding the tiny ad for the local Mexican chess club to be nothing more than a coincidence; Godinez made me realize that it was, in fact, an eventuality. Spend enough time in the city of Mérida and you will eventually learn to play chess. Mérida was the home of the first Mexican Grandmaster, the famous Carlos Torre Repetto (1904-1978), and has developed a rich chess culture based around the annual Torre Memorial tournament. Indeed, the game of chess is an integral aspect of society for many meridanos. Children in first and second grade are required to learn the game as part of their school curriculum; only in third grade does it become an optional activity. A handful of chess teachers are hired by the city for a free chess program for anyone else who wants to learn. Yucatán is also home to two Grandmasters, Manuel León Hoyos and José González Garcia, and several lesser masters.

As we chatted on the roof patio, Godinez explained to me that this booming chess culture was perfect for Mérida's service-based economy. Hosting tournaments and giving chess lessons are now important economic activities that keep the chess movement growing. The popularity of chess also provides a market for vendors to sell goods. As I would discover later, boards and sets are popular items at tourist sites such as Chichén Itzá, where chess sets lined up on tables or on the ground in open-air markets are often visible as far as the eye can see.

In spite of the positive impact chess has had on Mérida's economy, this year's Torre Memorial, which was actually set to take place in part during my time in Mérida, was canceled this year due to lack of government funding. Although a virtual version of the competition was held in its stead, the cancelation of the tournament had been a disappointment for the meridano chess community. I had seen the venue of the tournament - the Centro Cultural Olimpio - for myself, and I could only imagine the thrill of watching top players competing there. No wonder the locals felt they had been deprived an important part of their calendar year for 2009.

As our conversation began to wind down, the mystery guest arrived. The man whom Godinez had called was Jorge Balam Díaz, a writer for the daily paper Diario de Yucatán who had served as a chess columnist for over thirty years. Señor Balam - a smiling, middle-age man with a round face who, in accordance with Latin American stylishness, wore his glasses clipped over the open V-neck of his dress shirt - began by composing a few photographs of me sitting across the board from the woman I had seen playing in the window earlier. Although we hadn't managed to get past the opening before the photo shoot was finished, my impression was that my opponent, Guadalupe Burgos Canul, the city women's champion, was a formidable player.

Guadalupe Burgos Canul and Jonathan Hilton with club director Godinez looking on Photo Jorge Balam
When he had put the camera away, Balam took a seat across from me and interviewed me meticulously. This tested the limits of my Spanish at times. When I could, I stuck to telling anecdotes I had already told many times in English. Balam asked about everything from my coverage of the 2008 Olympiad in Dresden to my other travels in Latin America, which had, at that point, included trips to both Nicaragua and Honduras. My answers were scrupulously recorded in a little brown notebook, the meridano writing furiously the whole time. Then, Balam arranged with Godinez for me to face Cuban trainer IM Ramón Huerta Sorís the following morning for an exhibition blitz match. Having not had the opportunity to play a titled player in several months, I jumped at the chance. I agreed to meet Balam, Godinez, and IM Sorís for breakfast at 8:30 the following morning.

Tired, I started making a move to leave. Meridano hospitality being what it is, however, I should have known better - no sooner had I expressed a desire to head back to my hotel than Balam invited me to a late dinner with Godinez, a few friends, and his daughter, a local chess teacher. We all headed down the street to a quiet restaurant and bar called the Mayan Pub, where Señor Balam proceeded to order half the traditional yucateco items on the menu so that I could try them. I failed miserably at eating the panuchos, a kind of open-faced soft taco loaded with every ingredient imaginable, using only my hands. The party lasted past 11:00 P.M. that night as we shared stories, told jokes, and discussed once more the chess scene in Mérida.

IM Ramón Huerta Sorís and Jonathan Hilton with a stack of  Huerta's Spanish language books on chess, Photo Jorge Balam
The next morning, Balam and Godinez brought IM Ramón Huerta Sorís to meet me in the lobby of the Casa del Balam hotel. Huerta - a tall, weathered Cuban with a thick black beard - is the author of over half a dozen Spanish-language chess books, five of which he brought to me as a gift. Over a hot breakfast of huevos motuleños at another downtown Mérida restaurant (my hosts had insisted on treating me once again), Huerta discussed his life as a trainer of young ajedrecistas in Cuba. Having worked with several upcoming strong players, he had developed a firm belief in creating a disciplined training routine. He graciously offered to help me create one for myself so that I could become an International Master. Knowing that - college student that I am - I would be unlikely to stick to any schedule outside of my classes, I decided to decline.

It was finally time for the blitz match. We headed once again to the club Bobby Fischer, where a crowd of a little less than a dozen people had come to watch. I won the first game with the White pieces, converting an endgame advantage from a line I wrote about in my book on the late GM Aleksander Wojtkiewicz: 1.Nf3 d5 2.d4 Nf6 3.c4 e6 4.g3 dxc4 5.Bg2 Nc6 6.Qa4 Nd7 7.Qxc4 Nb6 8.Qd3 e5 9.Nxe5 Nb4 10.Qc3 Qxd4 11.0-0 Qxc3 12.Nxc3 Bd6 13.Nf3 c6 14.Rd1


After 14...Be7, I eventually penetrated with the maneuvers Bc1-f4, e2-e4, and Nf3-f5-d6, achieving a bind. In the second game, I tried out the Sicilian Defense against 1.e4 - something I've been experimenting with lately at college - rather than my typical stalwart 1...e5, but, having limited knowledge of the opening, I soon found myself being positionally stuffed out by Huerta's skillful Rossolimo. I eventually caved under pressure and went down a piece, ending the match in a tie at 1-1.

IM Ramón Huerta Sorís and Jonathan Hilton, Photo Jorge Balam

As my class with University of Cincinnati was leaving Mérida for Chichén Itzá, never to return, at noon, I was compelled to bid my guests farewell before lunch. I shook hands with everyone one last time and tucked Huerta's present of five books under my arm before heading back to the Casa del Balam. I was sad to leave Mérida because I felt I was only just getting started exploring the city and its people. Nowhere else in all my travels had I encountered a more hospitable welcome as a chess master and writer. In fact, the day after my departure, Jorge Balam's article about my encounter with Huerta was published in Diario de Yucatán. (A translation can be found on my Facebook page.)

This encounter in Mérida, as well as many of my other global chess encounters, has led me to believe that the FIDE motto - Gens una sumus, we are one people - represents more than just a hackneyed slogan for chess politicians. A chess player is a marked man. He shares a set of core experiences with the millions of others like him, opening up a world of possibilities for human interaction. And in this world there are many types of chess players, such as club owners, hustlers, professionals, teachers, and journalists, and each of these plays a vital role in sustaining a small part of this global chess community. Thus, what has already been said of mankind can also be said of the chess world: no chess player is an island, entire of itself. The late Jerry Hanken told me this, though he himself had never played out of the country. Now that I have traveled, I can only affirm that what he said is true.

Also see the first installment of Hilton on the Big Classroom, about his travels to Nicaragua.
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.   

June - Chess Life Online 2010

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