Cuba is a country of complex history and culture. With a mixture of tradition stemming from Taino Arawak roots, Spanish colonialism and African lineage, the country of more than 11 million has a sense of pride that appears infectious. That same pride is taken in many areas such as scholarship, music, sport and art. One of the art forms that is highly revered in Cuba is chess. With a rich tradition stemming from the world championship of José Raúl Capablanca, chess has become fully integrated as a national pastime.
If one goes to Cuba and visits the Capablanca Chess Club, one will find enthusiastic players engaging in blitz sessions and intense analysis of games. The players are very passionate, have a good standard and many strong players claim roots at the club. Because of this chess culture Cuba has developed into a chess power and is currently ranked #19 in the world… second to the U.S. in the western hemisphere. Leinier Domínguez is the top-rated player while the top-rated female player currently is Oleiny Linares Nápoles, winner of silver medal at Dresden Olympiad. Perhaps the Spanish name “Linares” is now known for more than the defunct super-GM tournament.
Born in the region of Santiago de Cuba in 1983, Linares hails from the same region of the great Afro-Cuban revolutionary, Lt. General José Antonio de la Caridad Maceo y Grajales… or simply Antonio Maceo. It is also the place where national hero Jose Marti is buried and incidentally Linares lives in the district bearing his name. There are a large number of Afro-Cubans in the city of Santiago de Cuba and Linares is one “Santiaguera” who has shined on the chess scene. Born June 27th, 1983 in Santiago she is a veteran of three Olympiad tournaments and has won several national titles. She earned the Women FIDE Master (WFM) title in 2000.
At the 2008 Dresden Olympiad, she rose to international prominence by scoring 9/10 (+8-0=2) and earning both a silver medal and the WIM title. In 2010, Linares became the women’s Cuban national champion and would help the team score a splendid result in the Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk. Cuban women achieved their highest ranking ever of 4th after wins over Latvia and Croatia. Linares would score 5.5/9 on second board and later be awarded the WGM title.
In 2012, Cuba was unable to repeat the success of the previous Olympiad and came in 19th despite only two losses. Both Linares (who was pregnant) and Lisandra Ordaz Valdes scored 6/10 at the 2012 Istanbul Olympiad (Linares on board #3). She won Havana’s Concluyó la Copa Giraldilla with 6.5/9. In this year’s women’s national championship, she came in joint 4th with the legendary WGM Maritza Arribas winning her 10th title.
In March of this year, Linares competed in the Capablanca Memorial, the annual tournament that attracts some of the world elite including Vassily Ivanchuk. The tournament is comprised of two sections: the Elite section, a near-2700 level tournament and the Premier section which is comprised of strong master-level players. While Hungarian Grandmaster Zoltan Almasi won the Elite section with 6.5/9, Linares won the Premier section with 7/9 with superior tiebreaks over IM Carlos Davila. In doing so, she scored a second IM-norm and it confirms the fact that women competing in the strongest available fields can yield good results.
Linares winning 1st at the 2013 Capablanca Memorial.
Linares can be considered one of the strongest players of African ancestry (male or female), but most certainly the strongest woman. It goes without saying that the success of this talented Afro-Cuban woman should not go unnoticed despite the lack of exposure Cuba gets in the mainstream western media. In addition, it is noted that her success should encourage women to come out of the comfort of playing solely in women’s tournaments since there are no limitations that would normally occur if brute strength were required.
A proud mother of two daughters (Mirtha Esther and Faith Victoria) with a supportive husband, she represents all that is good about chess and provides inspiration for those who may believe there are limitations of race and gender in the chess realm. Cuba is a country of intrigue and nostalgic beauty. It is a country with a complex geopolitical and sociocultural landscape, yet it is a country presenting many examples of resourcefulness and opportunism.
Rogelio Ortega is a name Linares must surely know. As the 1958 and 1966 national champion of Cuba, he served as a trailblazer in times where master-level players of African descent were rare. Ortega traveled the world competing against legends like Semyon Furman, Saloman Flohr, Max Euwe, Wolfang Uhlmann and Vlastmil Hort. Despite the height of Cuba-U.S. political tension, he traveled to the U.S. to play in the 1959 U.S. Open. He is honored by a memorial tournament in Cuba every year.
The aforementioned Afro-Cuban Antonio Maceo is honored on the Cuban peso and considered a national hero. More than 100 years later, we find another Afro-Cuban from the same city serving not as a soldier, but an ambassador of a sport that ofttimes is very exclusive. It is with such an example that Oleiny Linares Nápoles can continue her quest for excellence in chess and help present a picture of chess that is universal and more inclusive.