Chess History: Hispanic & Latin American Players

Every day, the game of chess is played with gusto and brilliance by people all over the world, especially in Spanish-speaking countries and Hispanic communities here in the United States. Right now, millions of Americans are observing National Hispanic American Heritage Month, the thirty-day period from September 15th to October 15th that encompasses the independence days of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Chile.

As ambassadors for chess and steadfast proponents of diversity within the game, we’re excited to celebrate this year’s Hispanic American Heritage Month by exploring the lives and legacies of Latin American chess greats from history and the current world stage.

chess player

Carlos Torre (1904–1978)

Carlos Jesús Torre Repetto was born in Merida, Yucatán, in 1904, but spent much of his childhood in New Orleans. As a boy, Torre honed his chess skills by training with Edwin Ziegler Adams, a prominent New Orleans chess player, before rising to international prominence at the Manhattan Chess Club’s fabled “New York 1924” tournament.

Between 1924 and 1926, Torre’s brilliant performances on the world chess circuit made him a celebrity, especially in his home country of Mexico. But fame also brought a deluge of requests to attend the social gatherings of Mexico’s ruling class. At the time, refusing the invitation of a top general or politician was dangerous, and by 1926 the pressure to be everywhere at once was too much for Torre to bear. Following a mental breakdown on a New York City bus, he retired from professional chess at the age of twenty-two.

Even later in life, Torre’s prodigious memory allowed him to recall decades-old games with total accuracy. In 1977 Torre was awarded the title of Honorary Grandmaster, making him Mexico’s first-ever GM. Today, chess players the world over still study his signature innovations, such as the Torre Attack.

But Torre’s wisdom went far deeper than tactics. On the topic of perseverance, Torre once wrote: “...often we will experience an analogous feeling to the one of a shipwreck in the middle of the ocean…Later…our accumulated progress…will gradually give the possibility of handling each game…in a more personal way…This way we will…construct [our] chess eye and…find…chess creativity.”

José Raúl Capablanca (1888–1942)
Simply put, José Raúl Capablanca was one of the greatest chess players of all time. A true prodigy, Capablanca was born in Havana in 1888. So the story goes, four-year-old Capablanca watched his father play chess against a friend, spotted an illegal move in the game, then sat down and promptly defeated his dad.

By late adolescence, Capablanca was a perennial contender for the Cuban national championship. In 1905, he enrolled in the engineering program at Columbia College (New York). At the same time, he joined the Manhattan Chess Club and quickly became the prestigious institution’s best player, particularly in rapid chess. After that, he dropped out of Columbia to pursue chess full-time.

From 1921 to 1927, Capablanca was the reigning World Champion, repeatedly vanquishing the greatest players of his day, including Frank Marshall, Alexander Alekhine, and Emmanuel Lasker to name a few. In addition, he’s credited with inventing a wildly creative chess variant called Capablanca Chess, which uses a 10x8 board and two unique pieces: the “chancellor” and “archbishop.”

Capablanca’s tactical brilliance, dominant rapid chess play, and deep understanding of the endgame inspired generations of players. One of his many books, Chess Fundamentals, is still considered required reading, and even Alekhine (his bitterest rival) couldn’t deny Capablanca’s singular genius: “Neither before nor afterwards have I seen—and I cannot imagine as well—such a flabbergasting quickness of chess comprehension as that possessed by…Capablanca.”

María Teresa Mora Iturralde (1902–1980)
No list of Latin American chess giants would be complete without María Teresa Mora. Born in Havana in 1902, Mora was a chess and violin prodigy. By age eleven, her incredible talent caught the eye of none other than José Raúl Capablanca, who took her on as a student—the only student he would ever train. In his 1920 book, My Chess Career, Capablanca wrote that he learned more from Mora (particularly about openings) than she learned from him.

In 1922, as the only woman in the tournament, Mora won the Copa Dewar, Cuba’s national championship. She would go on to win every Cuban Women’s National Championship from 1938 to 1960, boasting an undefeated record year after year. She played for the World Championship twice, and though she never won the title, she eventually became the first Latin American Woman International Master (WIM) in history in 1950.

Mora permanently retired from professional play in 1962. Having kept her passion for music alive throughout her storied chess career, Mora also served in the Cuban Ministry of Education for many years. Mora’s games are still studied by chess students around the world who remember her as a true hero of Cuban chess, a pioneering female player, and the first Latin American WIM.

Jose Juan “J.J.” Guajardo (1956–)
As educators, we’re extremely proud to honor one of the most influential American chess teachers in living memory, Jose Juan “J.J.” Guajardo. Hailing from the border town of Brownsville, TX, Guajardo has said that upon graduating high school, he felt “directionless” until winning a life-changing scholarship to Texas Southmost College. His college professors’ care and compassion helped Guajardo realize that teaching was his calling.

After transferring to the University of Texas at Austin and earning a bachelor’s degree in education, Guajardo returned home to Brownsville and took a job at Russell Elementary where, in his words, the game of chess “discovered him.” Though he wasn’t an expert, he began teaching his students to play and used the game to reward good behavior and academic achievement with outstanding results. In 1989, the school’s principal took note, and asked Guajardo to start a chess club for Russell Elementary’s most at-risk students every day before school.

Though violence and unemployment were hitting Brownsville’s youth hard, Guajardo used chess to turn his students’ prospects around. Their grades and test scores improved dramatically and, in 1993, they played in their first Texas state championship. Though they lost that first year, Guajardo’s club would go on to win seven consecutive state titles, earning him recognition in an episode of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, and silver screen immortality in the 2015 biopic Endgame.

Through compassion, determination, and steadfast belief in his students’ potential, Guajardo touched off a wave of chess enthusiasm in the Brownsville region that endures to this day. In the years since he first taught his students to play, schools across southern Texas have founded their own chess clubs, seen their students’ test scores and self-esteem soar, and fielded championship-caliber teams in tournaments around the world. Guajardo’s efforts even prompted the local UT branch to establish their own, now-vaunted chess team, which takes us to our next player spotlight…

Daniela De la Parra (1993-)
Born in Mexico in 1993, Daniela De la Parra found her way to chess at age ten, when her elementary school organized an intramural chess tournament. Despite never having played, she says, “the mental game fascinated me.” Her father, an amateur chess player, taught her the basics in a single afternoon and De la Parra went on to win the tournament.

Less than a year later, after racking up local, state, and national titles, ten-year-old De la Parra traveled to Greece where she represented Mexico in the World Youth Chess Championship. Her success won her a scholarship to the University of Texas at Brownsville and a spot on their renowned chess team. In 2011, De la Parra won Mexico’s women’s championship, as well as the Central American and Caribbean Junior Girls Championship, earning her the title of WIM.

After twelve years of brilliance on the world chess circuit, De la Parra retired to pursue a career in business and academia. She now holds a PhD in Accounting from Rice University and is currently an Assistant Professor of Accounting at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

Beatriz Marinello (1964-)
Beatriz Marinello’s remarkable chess career began in Chile, when she learned to play at age thirteen. Three years later, she was the Chilean Women’s Chess Champion. Marinello continued to rise through the global ranks after her first big win, attaining the title of WIM in 1980. After moving to Miami in 1990, she continued her professional career, representing the United States in interzonal tournaments in 1991 and 1993, and at the 1994 Chess Olympiad in Moscow.

During the early 1990s, Marinello also became a sought-after chess teacher, first in Miami, and later as a coach at The Dalton School in New York City. After helping numerous other schools start chess programs of their own, she became the National Scholastic Director of the US Chess Federation (USCF) in 1997.

But one of Marinello’s greatest achievements was being elected the first female president of USCF, a post she held from 2003 to 2005. Marinello’s incisive decision making not only saved the federation from financial ruin, but ensured its prosperity for years to come. Marinello continued to serve on USCF’s Executive Board until 2007 and has remained a powerful, inspiring leader in the chess world ever since.

kids playing chess

By no means is this an exhaustive list; in my research, for this blog, I learned about countless historic and current Latin American and Hispanic game-changers who we simply didn’t have the column inches to feature.

My hope is that this blog can serve as a jumping-off point for your own exploration of the great Latin American chess minds who have contributed so much to competitive chess, its governing institutions, chess education, and our shared love of the game.

As always, we’d love to hear from you; leave a comment and tell us about a Hispanic American player or teacher who’s had a profound impact on your life. Thanks for reading, and have a happy, inspiring Hispanic American Heritage Month!

Experience the magic today!