Historias de Ajedrez: A Cuban Chess Movie

by André Schulz
1/8/2022 – "Historias de Ajedrez" is a Cuban movie from 2019 by Emmanuel Martin Hernandez. In the movie, Hernandez, a passionate chess player himself, offers an intimate look at the stories of chess players in Santiago de Cuba.

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In his movie "Historias de Ajedrez", Cuban filmmaker Emmanuel Martin Hernandez presents three stories exploring life in Cuba. In fact, there are actually four stories. Chess is the unifying element across the different episodes, which are all in some way linked to the city of Santiago de Cuba, as well.

The protagonist of the first story is Raul, a chess teacher who loves the game above all else.

He is literally addicted to games, not just chess. However, he has trouble managing the rest of his life. The movie shows him playing blitz chess with his friends. This is where he feels at home.

During a phone call, he tries to appease his creditors. This is when we learn about his gambling debts. His marriage is in shambles. His wife lives with another man. Raul rarely gets to see their son. Eventually, he even loses his job as a chess trainer and has to sleep on the street. The story ends with Raul being beaten up because of his gambling debts.

The second story features a female protagonist. Osdalgia Vidaux is a devout Christian, a strong player and Grandmaster competing for the national championship title.

Winning the title would allow her to qualify for the Chess Olympiad. However, she is also a housewife and mother of young children. The pregnancies have had a negative impact on her career. Moreover, she has to care for her sick mother, as well. Winning the championship would benefit Osdalgia and her family economically, as well.

Between games, Osdalgia uses her notebook and ChessBase to prepare for the opponents she is about to face.

However, the numerous sources of stress in her life negatively impact Osdalgia's performance. Her trainer suggest using the Houdini engine to cheat, which she refuses. While she is competing at the tournament, Osdalgia's husband kills her sick mother, played by renowned Cuban actress Adela Legra, famous for her role as one of protagonists in the Latin-American classic "Lucia". Osdalgia's husband is played by Jorge Molina ("Juan of the Dead", 2011).

At her mother's funeral, Osdalgia states that she has come to the conclusion that a good Christian can never be a successful athlete, and that it is impossible for a woman to shoulder both family life and competitive sports. 

The third story begins in 1966. Havana is hosting the Chess Olympiad. The sporting event bears great significance for the still young communist republic. Games are broadcast on TV.

The entire country is obsessed with chess, including Pedro and Pablo, both eleven years old, who gather around a homemade board with other street urchins, debating the best moves and trying to teach themselves how to play the game with chess books.

Their love for chess unites Pedro and Pablo throughout their lives. 52 years later, they are both ill. Pedro has difficulty walking, Pablo suffers from diabetes. They still meet regularly to play chess, wearing T-shirts with the image of Capablanca or the insignia of the Capablanca Memorial.

Pablo's daughter has come to Santiago from Havana to sell her father's house and take him with her to Havana. When Pablo finds out that he is about to lose his chess partner, he offers the daughter money in order to allow his friend to remain in Santiago.

An offscreen voice narrates an additional fourth story, allegedly an urban legend from the Internet. Unbeknownst to the World Chess Federation and the Russian authorities, Bobby Fischer and Anatoly Karpov are said to have contacted each other via mail in 1975 to organise a game as a private event with a single witness.

Historias de Ajedrez ends with a melancholy final shot.

The movie's writer, director and producer Emmanuel Martin is an expert when it comes to chess. A conversation in the film between Grandmaster Osdalgia Vidaux and a chess enthusiast during the Cuban National Women's Championship mentions a particular episode during the Chess Olympiad 2008 in Dresden, Germany, where the fictional character of Osdalgia Vidaux won an important game, which earned her an individual silver medal.

In 2008, the real Cuban Grandmaster Oleiny Linares Neapel, still WIM at the time, did indeed win a silver medal at the Chess Olympiad in Dresden: with eight wins and two draws out of ten games she had the second best individual performance on board four. Oleiny Linares Neapel was born in Santiago de Cuba in 1983 and is still a very active and successful player. Could she be the inspiration for the character from the movie?

The character of Raul from the first story is a tragic hero, a typical loser, the likes of which can be found in large numbers all over the world. Director Emmanuel Martin is a chess player himself, with good connections to Santiago de Cuba's chess community, and undoubtably knows players like Raul personally. Their love for the game has kept them from growing up. A passion for chess can be a source of joy and friendship for players, but it can also hinder their careers or distort their view of reality. They are artists.

Grandmaster Osdalgia Vidaux, on the other hand, has everything that Raul lacks. However, she cannot find happiness, either. She is a successful player with an intact family, but as a woman, there is no way for her to manage both things at the same time. The fact that she does not know how her mother died gives her character a particularly tragic note.

The third story is more optimistic in tone. By fast-forwarding from 1966 to 2018, it tells of a great and long-lasting friendship defined by a mutual interest in chess. And even the bonus story about an alleged secret match between Fischer and Karpov has some reconciliatory elements. Against all limitations and obstacles, right in the midst of the Cold War, the best American player and the best Russian player meet to play a game of chess.

And there is another exceptional touch Emmanuel Martin added to his work. Women are featured prominently in each of the three stories, and the director managed to include a number of sensual scenes, which do not feel misplaced or gratuitous - a rather rare occurrence in movies revolving around chess.

Emmanuel Martin's "Historias de Ajedrez" (Chess Stories) was filmed in 2019. Unfortunately, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the movie and the people involved in its creation did not receive the attention their work would have deserved. The film has been screened at a number of festivals, such as the Callela Film Festival 2020 in Spain, and has thus far won seven prizes.

In 2022, it might become available on demand on the streaming platform Vimeo.


Emmanuel Martin Hernandez

The director and his actors

Emmanuel Martin Hernandez learned how to play chess as a kid and participated in a number of Cuban youth championships. He later worked as a chess teacher at irregular intervals when he was 24-25 and 31-35 years old, for a grand total of eight years.

He published a number of articles about Grandmasters and International Masters from Santiago de Cuba.

Oleynis, la ajedrecista de Cristo

El Menor, un ajedrecista atípico

For a while, Emmanuel Martin worked as a free Journalist. He personally knows and is friends with numerous of chess players, amateur players and club players from his home town of Santiago de Cuba.

Historias de Ajedrez, 2019, 79 minutes

Written and directed by Emmanuel Martín Hernandez

Produced by Emmanuel Martín Hernandez

Cast: Adela Legra, Jorge Molina, Neisy Alpizar, Raúl Gomez, Barbara Rodriguez, Laura Ferrer, Yara Gonzalez, Jose Emigdio Pini, Mateos Pazos, Alberto Juantorena, Manuel Enríquez. Most actors are performers from a number of different theater groups from Santiago de Cuba

In Spanish (with English subtitles)

Callela Film Festival...

Translation from English: Hugo Janz

André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.


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math_lover math_lover 1/9/2022 01:35
satman satman 1/9/2022 12:47
The names you mention are from the old days, but things haven't changed much even now.
It's an unfortunate fact that it's only the top 20 or so who can make a decent living playing chess, but why should it be any different?
The world doesn't owe anybody a living, especially chess players.
The vast majority of aspiring grandmasters would be much better off going into something like IT where they can develop their talents in creative and challenging ways, with a good income guaranteed.
Then if they still have the urge to refine their chess skills to the highest level, I recommend going down the path of chess composition where they will find marvels awaiting them!
karavamudan karavamudan 1/9/2022 04:02
Is the moral of the movie - play all consuming chess and expect to be a loser in all other aspects of life? Only a fraction of all chess lovers are economically well off, most with state support. Others have to fend for themselves and die in penury (famous examples Steinitz, Speelman, Lasker?, Alekhine, Yates, Schelter, the list goes on)- a really sad state of affairs
jeanalvarez jeanalvarez 1/9/2022 03:02
Where I can watch this movie, please?