I finally found a place in a very different neighborhood: Cayo Hueso in Centro Habana. People in the street led me to a door up the road from a barber shop, caged bird store, and crushed sugarcane juice stand. I knocked and a latch swung open behind a peephole. A dark burly man with swimming-pool blue eyes unlocked the door and held it open a crack. He had as little English as I had Spanish, so instead of embarking on the usual frustrating pantomime negotiations about the room for rent, he held out two upside-down clenched fists and motioned for me to choose one. This is a ritual he’s repeated every time I’ve seen him for the last 15 years.
I pointed to his left fist, and he opened it to unveil a white knight chess piece. He smirked. “Bueno. Usted primera.” I had first move. He invited me up onto his padlocked rooftop, where his daughter brought a small mug of coffee, two shot glasses of Havana Club rum, and a scratched-up chessboard. His loyal dog, Venus, jumped into his lap and he stroked her fur, and over his shoulder was the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen. I gestured to it, and he solemnly pointed to the board before us. Chess, it was obvious, offered him a view more haunting and lovely than any sunset.
Today this gentleman—let’s call him Fernando—and his wife rent a room in their Centro Habana neighborhood on Airbnb. But many years before Airbnb was legal in Cuba and renting rooms to foreigners was subject to fines and even seizure of property, he provided for his family by secretly leasing a room on the roof of a four-story walk up.
Fernando has Chinese, Spanish, African, and German blood, and it seemed to inform all the features of his face with a noble and almost magical harmony of purpose: getting me to play one more game. On the streets below us, amidst cigar smoke and diesel fumes, the slap of dominoes was heard well into the night, while Fernando and I were invariably playing chess up above. His chessboard was always waiting on his roof, freshly reset with pieces or, more likely, frozen where a game was left off. Up there, Fernando also read from one of a dozen books reliving the games of José Raúl Capablanca, his beloved hero and Cuba’s greatest chess champion. It was Fernando who introduced me to Capablanca. I was obsessed with Bobby Fischer, but for Fernando there was only one gran maestro, not only on the chessboard, but as an artist, a scientist, a philosopher.
Fernando has a booming voice that dipped into a panicked hush for only two men: Castro and Capablanca. In all the years I’ve known him, he’s never mentioned Castro by name. Instead he motions by grabbing an imaginary beard or simply refers to “Him.” Capablanca receives the same treatment for entirely different reasons. His genius was mystical. “Capablanca,” Fernando whispered, “was born in 1888 in Havana to a Spanish army officer. That was the only ordinary thing about him.” He held the title of world champion from 1921 to 1927 and is regarded as one of the great artists of the game. “But he was bigger than the game!” Fernando assured maniacally. “The Yuma at Time magazine put him on the cover in 1925. Brinicito, do you know the other men who were on Time magazine that year? Winston Churchill! Charlie Chaplin! Leon Trotsky! John D. Rockefeller!” He lost only 35 games in his entire professional career, and upon dying in 1942—while watching a chess game at New York’s Manhattan Chess Club—his body was sent back to Havana and honored with a state funeral.
Chess had arrived in Cuba more than four centuries earlier, aboard Columbus’ Spanish ships in 1492, and while the shackles of colonialization were broken with Cuba’s revolution in 1959, chess’ hold on the island nation has proved considerably more durable. They joke in Cuba that what King Midas was to gold, Castro was to politics, but Fernando likes to remind me that chess is 1,500 years old and will be around long after communism or capitalism. “Like a great book that never finishes what it has to say, chess is no closer to being solved. It only gets more beautiful as people try in vain. Just like life off the board, we all resolver.”
Resolver—“to resolve” or, colloquially, “to get by”—remains one of the most vital words in the Cuban vocabulary. Considering the new and unknown challenges ahead for Cubans, perhaps it’s not surprising that chess has never flourished more.
The last time I’d seen Fernando was during Barack Obama’s March 2016 visit to the island, the first time a sitting American president had done so in 88 years. In November, I watched from back home in New York as the island experienced an even bigger political disruption: the death of Fidel Castro, who had inhabited the island like Moby Dick in a goldfish bowl. In January, I wrote Fernando to see if he would help me dig deeper into Cuba’s chess history. I wanted to understand its relevance to today’s culture, and how it might illuminate the tidal waves of change on the island. He wrote back and suggested we begin at the Capablanca Chess Club, the first place he went after his own father could no longer give him a decent game.