Juan Blanco: "Chess is the second biggest sport in Venezuela"

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
3/17/2019 – Venezuela is going through a devastating economic crisis, with hyperinflation, hunger, disease, massive emigration and death rates rising dramatically. Among the millions of emigrants is Juan Blanco, a PhD in Education that has worked with chess as a learning tool for over twenty years. He is now living in Peru and in conversation with ChessBase he talked about his current projects, the situation of chess in Venezuela and some of the reasons for this crisis. | Pictured: Protests from January 23rd, 2019 | Photo: Agencia Uno

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Far from home

Juan Blanco has devoted his career to studying the connections between chess and education. After getting his Doctorate in Education, he published a book, in collaboration with Clemen Mazzarella, which takes a deeper look into how chess enhances the learning process in children, particularly in regions with social or academic disadvantages.

His interest in this subject was naturally born out of his previous work as a player, trainer and organiser. In fact, Blanco trained grandmaster Eduardo Iturrizaga from ages 8 to 12 — 'Eduardito', as Juan calls him, is now the fifth highest rated player in Latin America. Blanco also trained the Venezuelan national team for the blind and visually impaired and worked in numerous schools and institutions throughout the South American country.

As many other Venezuelans, he saw it necessary to flee the country after the economic crisis provoked one of the greatest currency devaluations in history. He decided to relocate to Ecuador, where he spent six months teaching chess at private schools. "Chess has helped me so much", he said, explaining that usually the game is regarded highly among parents and educators.

His time in Ecuador was not all that pleasant though, as it is becoming increasingly difficult to get legal residence for Venezuelans in most Latin American countries...and most of the time they do not have the money to handle the legal fees. 

"People leave the country by bus, with no money but the money for the [bus] ticket. Some even leave on foot, walking for months until getting to Peru or Argentina."

Blanco left Ecuador and travelled South to Peru, where he is giving private lessons and working with kids with disabilities — mostly autism. He plans on conducting further research on therapeutic chess, a field that is being studied more deeply in Spain. 

Latin America and human capital 

A key factor for the under-development of many disciplines in Latin America, according to Blanco, has to do with the lack of appreciation of human capital.

"Most developed countries take advantage of human capital in all areas of knowledge. In Latin America — including my country, Venezuela — we don't do it. Venezuela is wasting the human talent it acquired thanks to the oil money. With that money, people were sent to study in Chile, Germany, the United States, etc. Many good professionals were trained in foreign countries."

As an example, he mentions that it will take him quite a while to get to work within his field in Peru, as bureaucracy only stands in the way of his plans:

"I'm a teacher, but I also have a Master’s degree, a Doctoral degree and a Post-Doctoral degree. In order to use my certificates, I need to be registered, and to register each degree I need to pay 200 dollars, so I'll have to pay 600 dollars to be able to teach at any university, and no Venezuelan has that kind of money right now. Peru also wastes its human capital."

Venezuela's top player Eduardo Iturrizaga spends most of his time travelling to tournaments in Europe | Photo: noticiaaldia.com 

Chess and the Bolivarian revolution

Hugo Chavez's Bolivarian revolution drove the country to a state-led nationalistic economy. Given Venezuela's rich oil reserves — second only to Saudi Arabia — the socialist party was able to allocate large amounts of money to any project they would consider worthy. Sports received big support from the government, and chess was no exception. In 2005, the "Proyecto Estratégico Nacional de Ajedrez" (National Strategic Chess Project) made chess a mandatory subjects from the preschool level until ninth grade. Slowly but surely, chess culture emerged in the country. As Blanco recalls:

"When people saw two people playing [chess], they said, "Look, they are playing Dominoes". [...] Furthermore, I can say that chess is now the second biggest sport in Venezuela, after baseball — one would think football is bigger, but it's not. They questioned my saying this in Ecuador and Peru, but I clarified: we have national championships of all kinds — for schools, for universities, for doctors, for pretty much everything, you have no idea — and chess is always included, while baseball and football are not."

Juan continued:

"Talented kids received support from private companies so they could participate in international events. The Ministry of Sports also gave its support. [...] When we travelled to international events with representatives from other sports, they saw chess players with a lot of respect."

In line with the inclusion of chess in schools, the royal game also reached the level of higher education, as Blanco mentions:

"We have a graduate degree in chess at the Universidad Pedagógica Experimental Libertador — they even have in mind creating a masters course. The bachelor's degree of Sports Science at the Universidad de Yaracuy includes chess among its majors, just like basketball or athletics."

But it was not all rosy, as the boost of funds led to an alarming amount of corruption, one of the culprits of the crisis in all areas. Blanco explains:

"The Ministry of Sports turned into a sort of corruption engine. They started buying low quality material, while presenting receipts for top-notch items. During the national events, intermediaries were hired to deal with lodging, food and transportation...you know how that goes."

Corruption runs not only at the highest levels but also within the Venezuelan federation, according to Blanco, who considers that the two latest presidents have fallen prey to this bad habit. In fact, he started working as a consultant for the current administration, but ended up quitting, as he did not think those in command were interested in promoting chess.

The two top Venezuelan players — Eduardo Iturrizaga and José Gascón — spend most of their time playing in Europe, while Blanco just found out that 19-year-old Fabián Vivas (number ten in the national ratings list) moved to Peru, although Juan does not know yet whether the youngster is still pursuing his chess ambitions. The list of strong players that left the country goes on and on: IM Daniel Pulte, IM Juan Rohl, IM Felix Ynojosa, IM Rafael Prasca, WGM Sarai Sanchez, etc.

"The crisis had a huge impact on sports in the country. Our athletes are not eating properly and they are not competing in international cycles."

Nonetheless, Blanco remains faithful to his passion and explains:

"The knowledge acquired through chess is permanent. The benefits of swimming or athletics are momentary — they disappear when you stop practising."


Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.


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