Chess Stories: A Cuban Chess Movie

In his film “Historias de Ajedrez”, Cuban filmmaker Emmanuel Martin Hernandez presents three stories about life in Cuba. In fact, there are actually four stories. Chess is the connecting element in the different episodes, all of which are also linked in one way or another to the city of Santiago de Cuba.

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 struggles to manage the rest of his life. The film shows him playing blitz chess with his friends. Here he feels at home.

During a telephone conversation, he tries to appease his creditors. This is when we learn about his gambling debts. His marriage is in ruins. His wife lives with another man. Raul rarely sees their son. In the end, he even loses his job as a chess trainer and has to sleep on the street. The story ends with Raul being beaten up for his gambling debts.

The second story features a female protagonist. Osdalgia Vidaux is a devout Christian, a strong player and grandmaster who competes for the national title.

Winning the title would enable 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. In addition, she also has to take care of her sick mother. Winning the championship would also benefit Osdalgia and her family economically.

Between matches, Osdalgia uses her notebook and ChessBase to prepare for the opponents she will face.

However, the numerous sources of stress in her life negatively affect Osdalgia’s performance. Her trainer suggests using the Houdini engine to cheat, which she declines. While participating in the tournament, Osdalgia’s husband kills her ailing mother, played by the famous Cuban actress Adela Legra, famous for her role as one of the 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 carry on with family life as well as competitive sports.

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

The whole country is obsessed with chess, including Pedro and Pablo, both 11 years old, who gather around a homemade board with other street boys, discuss the best moves and try to teach themselves how to play the game of chess books.

Their love of chess unites Pedro and Pablo all their lives. 52 years later they are both sick. Pedro has trouble walking, Pablo has diabetes. They still meet regularly to play chess, dressed in T-shirts with the image of Capablanca or the emblem of the Capablanca Memorial.

Pablo’s daughter has come to Santiago from Havana to sell her father’s house and take him to Havana. When Pablo finds out that he is about to lose his chess partner, he offers the daughter money so that his friend can stay in Santiago.

An off-screen voice tells an additional fourth story, said to be an urban legend of 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 email in 1975 to organize a match as a private event with a single witness.

Chess Stories ends with a melancholic final shot.

Writer, director and producer Emmanuel Martin is an expert on chess. An in-film conversation between grandmaster Osdalgia Vidaux and a chess enthusiast during the Cuban National Women’s Championship mentions a particular episode during the 2008 Chess Olympiad in Dresden, Germany, where the fictional character Osdalgia Vidaux won an important match, earning her an individual silver medal.

Indeed, in 2008, true Cuban grandmaster Oleiny Linares Neapel, then WIM, won a silver medal at the Chess Olympiad in Dresden: with eight wins and two draws out of ten, 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?

Raul’s character from the first story is a tragic hero, a typical loser, as can be found in large numbers around the world. Director Emmanuel Martin is a chess player himself, has good connections with the Santiago de Cuba chess community and undoubtedly 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 she cannot manage both things at once. The fact that she does not know how her mother died gives her character a particularly tragic tone.

The third story is more optimistic in tone. 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 conciliatory elements. Against all restrictions and obstacles, in the middle 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 that Emmanuel Martin has added to his work. Women feature prominently in each of the three stories, and the director managed to capture some sensual scenes, which don’t feel out of place or unnecessary – a fairly rare occurrence in chess movies.

Emmanuel Martin’s “Historias de Ajedrez” (Chess Stories) was filmed in 2019. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the film 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 won seven awards to date.

In 2022, it may be available on demand on the streaming platform Vimeo.


Emmanuel Martin Hernandez

The director and his actors

Emmanuel Martin Hernandez learned to play chess as a child 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 total of eight years.

He has published a number of articles on grandmasters and international masters from Santiago de Cuba.

Oleynis, the chess player of Christ

El Menor, an atypical chess player

Emmanuel Martin worked for a while as a free journalist. He knows personally and is friends with numerous chess players, amateur players and club players from his native Santiago de Cuba.

chess stories, 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 of the actors are performers of a number of different theater groups from Santiago de Cuba

In Spanish (with English subtitles)

Callela Film Festival…

Translation from English: Hugo Janz

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