The Cuban Chess Scene

Cuba – photograph by Michael Petit.

Chess and Cuba have a long history, one that began with the Spanish colonisation of the island from the late 15th century – at a time when chess took on the general form we know today – and has remained constant in Cuban life. It boasts one of the greatest players of all time, was favoured by Fidel Castro and his Argentinian ally, Che Guevara, and is part of the country’s national education program. In 2004, Cuba broke its own world record for “the most people playing chess simultaneously”(1), when close to 13,000 people came together to play in the city of Santa Clara, including Castro himself. In many ways, with its sub-tropical climate and old world vibe, the Caribbean island is an ideal setting for outdoor games off chess, and games are not an uncommon sight on the streets of Havana and other cities.

José Raúl Capablanca

Chess, which to me, far more than a game, is an art.”

José Raúl Capablanca

José Raúl Capablanca (1888 – 1942)

Cuba’s chess scene is perhaps best known for producing José Raúl Capablanca (1888 – 1942), who held the title of world chess champion from 1921 to 1927. Capablanca proved himself a true chess prodigy at an early age. In 1901, at just thirteen, he beat reigning Cuban chess champion Juan Corzo (shortly thereafter he played his only Cuban championship), and, in 1909, beat U.S champion Frank Marshall.

He took the world champion title from Emanuel Lasker in 1920, who chose to resign it, citing Capablanca’s “brilliant mastery”. The decision to confer the title, rather than for it to be contested in a game, was unpopular, and Capablanca wished to secure the title by means of competition, rather than bestowal. A match between the two was scheduled to be played in Havana in 1921, under the stipulation that Lasker was now the challenger for the title. He stated that no matter the outcome of his participation he “[shall] no more be champion. Should I win the title in the contest at Havana, it will be only to surrender it to the competition of the young masters.” (2) After much back-and-forth, the match took place and Capablanca won, securing his place as champion for the next several years by play, rather than by Lasker’s resignation.

Indeed, it is partly through these events that the World Chess Federation was born, citing the need for organisation and the enforcement of consistent rules regarding the championship. Soon after, Capablanca drew up what begin known as the “London Rules”, which stipulated financial commitments for players ($10,000 at the time), a cap on the amount of games played, a time-limit for said games, among others.(3)


17th Chess Olympiad

The 17th Chess Olympiad Poster

The 17th Chess Olympiad Poster

In 1966 Cuba hosted the 17th Chess Olympiad, a biennial event in the chess world in which teams from across the globe come to play against one another. The event was hosted by Castro himself – who even participated – in the famous Habana Hilton, renamed Hotel Habana Libre after its nationalisation in 1960. However, the event was inevitably tainted by the unfolding politics of the Cold War, and the tournament was as much an ideological showdown as a chess competition. Whilst West Germany boycotted the event, the U.S team, including Bobby Fischer, was still in attendance, undoubtedly eager to face down the Soviet Union over the chess board.

The circumstances of Fischer’s attendance are intriguing, given only a year prior to the Olympiad he was denied entry to Cuba to participate in the 4th annual tournament of the Capablanca Memorial in 1965. The State Department allowed only journalists to travel to barred countries, but even though Fischer had secured a writing assignment for the Saturday Review, the State Department didn’t buy it and were steadfast in their refusal. This led to Fischer famously participating via telex, a text-based communications device! Interestingly, the text was relayed by the son of José Raúl Capablanca himself.

Ultimately, the Soviet team won, with the U.S coming in second. The Soviets would retain their superior position until 1972, when Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky in the World Championship, making him the first American to achieve the title.

Images courtesy of the wealth of media forum user Macrinus dug up over at – it’s well worth checking out, with shots of Castro, Spassky, Fischer, among others.
Bobby Fischer and Fidel Castro

Bobby Fischer and Fidel Castro

The Olympiad was arguably a great success for Cuba. It was grand in scale, and Castro, however one may view the man and his legacy, could rightly claim it as a success for the country. For a full review of the event, see Olimpbase’s excellent write-up.

That chess has taken on such a prominent role in mainstream Cuban life is to its credit, and it continues to pay off. In the case of Thalía Cervantes, who now lives in the U.S, and was recently selected “as one of the 10 best female chess players under the age of 21”, it was the chess games played out in the streets of Havana that spurred her interest and skill. As she says in an interview with the Miami Herald, “I grew up playing chess on the streets of Havana with older men, smokers. They were always bragging and saying, ‘No girl can beat me.” (4)

Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, and it’s heartening to think of chess as prominent educational tool used to sharpen children’s minds. Indeed, in Cuba, chess is promoted as something everyone can get involved in and be part of – where anyone might be the next Capablanca.

For those interested in the 17th Olympiad, there’s also some great silent footage of the event here: 

(1) Novinite

(2) Chess History

(3) Chess History

(4) Miami Herald

Queen of Katwe – The Ugandan Chess Prodigy

In Katwe, Uganda, two children sit restlessly on a bench, watching their peers play a game of football. Their coach, Robert Katende, spots their reticence, and offers them an alternative. 

“There is another game you can play.” he suggests.

He refers to a board-game – chess. At first, the boys scoff at the suggestion – they’re not interested. That is until Katende describes an anecdote in which he defeated his more privileged peers at university. For these children, the prospect of proving themselves against such opponents – the “city boys” – is too good to pass up, and so they join Katende’s small chess academy – the Pioneers.

To be Born in Katwe

Katwe is the largest slum in a district of Kampala, Uganda. Impoverished and devoid of sanitation, its streets run with sewage, layered with mud and debris. To say many of its overcrowded citizens struggle to survive would be a gross understatement; they must scavenge food and water, live within often roofless shanties at risk of flooding, and endure the torment of a high crime rate born out of desperation and poverty. Although there are small signs of change, that change is slow in coming, and will likely take a very, very long time to reach the lowest echelons of Katwe’s poor.

Enter Phiona Mutesi. Born within Katwe, she lost her father to AIDS at around the age of three, and lived, often homeless, with her tenacious mother and family, selling maize in the streets. Like many of Katwe, opportunities to transform her life were few if almost non-existent – she had to drop out of school at age nine – and she seemed locked into a life of destitution and hardship. “We had become hopeless”, Mutesi said of their situation. The chance to change it for the better came with the arrival of chess.

Meeting the Pioneers

Phiona Mutesi

Phiona Mutesi’s introduction to chess came through Katende, an engineering graduate who created the Katwe Chess Academy – part of the Sports Outreach program – for the impoverished children of the district. Mutesi joined Katende’s group and quickly distinguished herself as his best player. Katende recognised that he had in his midst a true prodigy; Mutesi was smart, quick-thinking, and able to see several moves ahead. But whilst she came to enjoy the strategy and depth chess offered, it started off as something far more than just a game: it was a means of survival. In the beginning, Mutesi attended Katende’s chess program for the food offered to those who played. “[I] kept going back because there was something to eat.”

In time, the idea of chess as a survival tool would come to mean so much more to Mutesi, as it took her from contests in Uganda and Sudan, to an Olympiad in Russia. Chess developed her intellect and confidence, giving her the chance to escape the trappings of her origins. Her story is an extraordinary one – so extraordinary that in 2016 Disney released a film of Mutesi’s rise, titled after the book on which it was based:

Queen of Katwe.

Female-led with an all-black cast – and with chess as its sport of choice! – Queen of Katwe is a biographical sports drama that sees Disney moving away from its comfort zone of white, Western narratives, and giving Phiona Mutesi’s (Madina Nalwanga) story the mainstream, crowd-pleasing treatment it deserves. Even spotted with the occasional sports drama cliché, the film is nonetheless a heart-warming triumph. Director Mina Nair never shies away from the realities of life in Katwe, but she equally revels in its rich, colourful culture, creating a film as beautiful and vibrant as it is stark and desperate.

Chess: A Way Out

In the film as in life, Katende (David Oyelowo) seized upon the idea of sports as a means of social mobility; chess, he would instruct his students, is much like life itself. Its movements required planning, forethought, and strategy – skills that would equally serve the lives of the young children outside of the game itself. As he teaches the children how to perform certain manoeuvres, Katende uses metaphor to explain the situations they might find themselves in within the game. “When you fetch water for your mother, do you just go any time of the day, or do you think a bit first?” he asks his tutees. He uses chess to teach them their situation is not hopeless, that its applications are broad and universal, and that through it they can reach even greater heights.

Katende teaches his “Pioneers”.

As much as the film focuses on personal and communal triumph in the face of staggering odds, of kindness and determination enduring in even the most squalid of habitats, it is Mutesi’s idea of her “place” that I kept thinking about, kept coming back to. In his original article for ESPN – later the spark for his book that brought Mutesi’s story to the world – Tim Crothers describes her position as “the ultimate underdog.”

“Phiona Mutesi is the ultimate underdog. To be African is to be an underdog in the world. To be Ugandan is to be an underdog in Africa. To be from Katwe is to be an underdog in Uganda. And finally, to be female is to be an underdog in Katwe.”

The film emphasises this point throughout, exploring Mutesi’s doubt and fear at simply not belonging in the place she has earned for herself. Mutesi sells maize, has no real education to speak of (she cannot read or write), and is at first rejected by the chess academy because of the way she smells – later for being a girl beating boys. This is a world in which she has been led to believe she cannot aspire for more than the life she’s been given – after all, to her mind, what else is there for a girl from the slums of Katwe? Initially, apart from her her mother (Lupita Nyong’o), she has only her sister Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze) as an example – a young woman who has become a prostitute to avoid destitution. And even as her achievements grow, Mutesi continues to question her self-worth – to question her place in the world that’s developing around her. Does she deserve this place? Is there something she has missed, something wrong? Is it all just a fluke?

You Belong Here

In the film’s first contest, a tournament at the prestigious King’s College, Katende struggles to admit his “slum children” to, he pairs Mutesi with the school’s best player. The competition organiser slyly whispers in Katende’s ear that it was “good strategy, putting your weakest player on the champion’s board”, laced with all the attendant sexism that comes with it. And yet, in spite of her opponent’s goading, Mutesi triumphs, winning the Board One Gold Medal. And yet, in spite of her victory, Mutesi still questions her accomplishment “Did that boy let me win? [How] could I win a boy who goes to school here?” Even in spite of the disbelief on the boy’s face, that he snapped his pencil and toppled the pieces with a petulant swipe of his hand, Mutesi still doubts herself and her abilities.

Of course, he did no such thing, but the film’s Mutesi, and presumably her real life counterpart, would continue to struggle with the question of whether or not she deserved her place in the world that was opening up for her. In the film’s final contest, as Mutesi struggles against her opponent, Katende breaks in, and shouts, “You belong here! You belong here!” rooting her in the moment and reminding her that everything she has, everything she has earned, is right there inside her.

Now, Phiona Mutesi is the three time winner of the Ugandan Women’s Chess Championship, has been awarded a Woman’s Candidate Master Title in chess, and is currently enrolled at an American university in Washington. This young girl of formidable intelligence and, like her mother, of considerable tenacity, has more than proven her place as a master of chess, earning herself, and her family, a life beyond the deprivation of the worst of Katwe. 

Although the trailer’s heavy on the corny side, the film offers far more – see it.

We are Hiring! : Digital Marketing Technician

Digital Marketing Technician  

Location: Frome, Somerset

Salary: £20,000-£23,000 per annum + annual bonus

Position: Permanent Full Time 35 Hrs p/w

Sector: Online Retail / E-commerce


Let your creative juices flow!


A fantastic opportunity has arisen for a Digital Marketing Technician at JDS Toys & Games Ltd based in Frome.


Your core skills in Photoshop, combined with your eye for a good marketing stance will be integral to pushing this thriving, leading deluxe chess and backgammon retailer into it’s next growth phase.


Role Responsibilities:


  • Turning raw product photographs into stunning images for the websites
  • Ensure product images are created to a consistently excellent standard
  • Responsible for new products being added to the websites promptly
  • Liaise with product photographer
  • Increasing sales through product listing optimization
  • Creating new product listings
  • Developing compelling product descriptions
  • Completing pricing and competitor analysis


Your Skills:


  • Advanced Photoshop skills essential
  • High level of IT literacy
  • Excellent written communication skills
  • Ability to work fast, efficiently and on own initiative
  • Intermediate Microsoft Word & Excel
  • Previous experience of E-commerce / .com industry preferable
  • Intermediate Google analytics and Zen Cart/Word Press skills are desirable
  • Previous experience of Amazon Seller Central platform preferable


Remuneration & Benefits:

Annual salary £20,000-£23,000 depending on experience, annual bonus of up to £2,000, pension, 20 days paid annual leave + bank holidays. Plentiful free parking.


Your employer:

The company takes pride in both the quality of products they sell, as well as the high ethical standards they maintain regarding the production and sourcing of their products. They sell their luxury products through online sales channels including Amazon marketplaces worldwide, their own website and a sister site.

As a Digital Marketing Technician you will be responsible for taking control of the company’s online selling channels.


The company operates in a hardworking but light-hearted environment and offers an on-site, staff only, speciality coffee shop.


If you wish to apply for the role of Digital Marketing Technician please submit your CV with an accompanying covering letter to Detail how your relevant skills and experience make you an ideal candidate for the job.


We will not invade your right to privacy or cause unfair work place discrimination by carrying out any form of criminal record check on you. We are a genuine equal opportunities employer. 

Chess Apps – How Functional Are They?


Mobile Chess Interface

Mobile Chess Interface

We live in a culture of apps. Without apps, our smartphones, albeit powerful devices, would be stripped to the bare minimum. Even texting is an application! The ability to utilise third-party software on your phone is what makes it an extraordinary utility. Once, you were limited to the applications your phone provided, but not anymore; now, we have the luxury of choice, an essential component to customer experience So, whilst it’s certainly true to say we live in a “culture of apps”, it might be more appropriate, and accurate, to say we live in the ‘age of customisation’.

When we came to sit down and write this blog post, we initially decided to select four or so chess apps and review each one in turn. But given the size and scope of the app world, we didn’t feel comfortable selecting a handful at random and passing judgement without a better sense of context and a wider knowledge of what was available. It was plainly too arbitrary. As such, this post will principally serve as an introduction to chess apps, why they’re such an interesting development, and a broad look at what they have to offer more generally.



Chess on your iPhone

Chess on your iPhone

We can shape our handheld devices and cater them to our specific wants and needs – if we so choose, of course. The basic utilities remain, but with a few clicks on your device’s store page, you can make it into a whole lot more. From installing your preferred news outlet to alternative instant messaging apps, such as WhatsApp or Hangouts, your phone is a thoroughly malleable item. There are millions of apps available (for an example of the enormity of this trend, check out Apple’s trajectory of apps available, measured against the amount of times downloaded – that’s over one million apps in four years) many of which are free and most likely cross-platform (there’s also a lot of money to be made in microtransactions, ads, app costs, etc.). Anyone can develop an app, upload it, and instantly gauge peoples responses to it, and then tweak it accordingly – updates are rolled out continuously in response to feedback, bugs, and so on. It’s an enormous enterprise, and it barely existed until a few years ago. Now, it’s bigger than ever.


So it comes as no surprise, then, that are quite literally hundreds of chess apps there. Hundreds! A couple of weeks ago we wrote about the world of digital chess and cursorily looked at the computer programs powerful enough to usurp world champions (see Kasparov and the Deep Blue event). It’s worth noting that we find it unlikely that the increasing power of computer systems capable of playing extremely skilled games of chess will supplant the nature of chess itself. That is to say, we don’t see it leading us away from human-to-human interaction, but it does have something very important and valuable to say about chess, the game, itself, which we’ll get to in the coming weeks.

Minimalistic, accessible Interface for Android

Minimalistic, accessible Interface for Android

But that human-to-human play over a board has changed in many respects, principally with the proliferation of apps and their ability to allow players access to one another over their smartphones, tablets, and so on. It is possible to have a speed game of chess with someone on the other side of the globe and finish the game within less than ten minutes. This poses exciting new possibilities for chess, at least to some extent. With concentration spans arguably diminishing, and peoples time being ever more precious and limited, there’s a very real chance – and this isn’t backed up with figures, it’s simply conjecture – that less and less people are going to take the time to sit down over a chess board and participate in a game of some length. Unless you’re a chess enthusiast or a regular board game player that, we think, is a fair assumption to make. Now, that is not to say players haven’t participated in games via alternative modes of communication before, but now we’re seeing a different kind of engagement and a different kind of interactivity. With chess at your fingertips – whether you’re a professional, amateur, or just someone keen to know more – there’s a huge opportunity to reach out to a wider community.


As mentioned in the introduction, our plan to review a select few apps was nixed when it was clear there were so many available. So, we thought a broader approach on what chess apps can offer would be appropriate.

In our Digital Chess post we covered a lot of the different features apps have to offer: the ability to retrace your steps and watch replays, correct a move should you be practising (or, as is always a possibility on a handheld device, accidentally3d chess clicked the wrong spot!), and to tweak the difficulty level of your AI opponent. This is often in the form of a difficulty metre, but more often than that now it’s a matter of tweaking the computer’s response time, as they’re generally very quick on their ‘feet’ and able to plan their moves ahead of time essentially instantaneously.

The aesthetic of the apps is also worth mentioning as it brings us back to choice. If you’re going to be playing on your mobile, what is it you want to be looking at? A chess board, obviously, but there’s a choice there between the flat, two dimensional boards and the 3D iterations of the game. Personally, we’re more in favour of the flat, birds-eye-view aesthetic; it’s clean, minimalistic, and simple. Many of them have audio, but that too can be tweaked (we don’t: if an app gets the sound just right, there’s a real pleasure in hearing the ‘click’ as your chosen piece is moved to its designated place on the board). And if you’re in the process of learning the game, almost all apps will happily provide an option to show where each piece can move once you have clicked on it. And besides replays, there are ancillary apps that allow you to keep track of your games and your movements without having to jot them down, allowing you to pour over the game after to plot it out differently.

Returning to the 3D chess apps, the problem begins with the aesthetics: they’re clunky, obtrusive, and, at least to us, are a move away from what apps ought to be: accessible. The idea is obviously an interesting one and it’s been around for some time, but the practicalities of playing on a 3D chess board via your phone seems to fly in the face of what the app should be offering: quick, minimalist engagement with the game. You can’t replicate the feel of sitting down with someone over a chess board, so offering alternative tool with a minimal interface is arguably the better option.


The Magnus Carlsen App

The Magnus Carlsen App

One of the best apps we found is the official Magnus Carlsen app. Endorsed by Carlsen himself, this particular app is one of a kind. Indeed, it pushes up against one of the most important themes running through our posts: that chess is an essential tool in education, and one more than capable of making the world a much smarter place. As we’ve constantly iterated, chess apps bring accessibility, and they bring unity. Such is the mission statement of the team behind this great app.

The unique selling point for this app – which is free! – is that players can challenge Carlsen at various ages, from 5 upwards, when he first started taking an interest in chess. The computer is tailored to the skill set of Carlsen at these ages, and provides some background information on him as you progress. It’s fresh and exciting and allows players to engage with the chess world, which might otherwise remain on the periphery. There are learning videos, some of which are free, others of which have to be bought, and there’s also the opportunity to play Carlsen live should you win a tournament.

Thus far, this has absolutely proven itself our favourite app (alongside chess for android, which is super accessible and easy to use), and if you’re looking for a little more than just a standard chess game, then this is the app for you. Interestingly enough, Carlsen managed to lose at his ten-year-old self… I’m at age 8, the point at which most players begin to lose on average to the computerised Carlsen. Let’s see if I can get to 9…



Regency Chess has a chance encounter – How good are board game cafes?

  Chance & Counters

Last week we paid a visit to a newly opened café in Bristol, Chance & Counters – the first café in Bristol to cater exclusively to board games, created by friends Richard Scarsbrook, Steve Cownie, Alex Ratcliffe and Luke Neal. It’s our intention here at Regency Chess to really reach out to the growing number of establishments that are providing a home for chess, and board games more broadly, within the cosy, vibrant environments of cafés and bars. Whether you’re a board game enthusiast or simply looking for a new experience, the prospect of having a venue to sit down with a group of friends (or strangers!) over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine to play a game of chess, monopoly or whatever you should fancy is an exciting one.


Outside Chance & Counters

Outside Chance & Counters

Nestled at the bottom of Christmas Steps, Bristol, just off Colston Avenue, Chance Encounters looks very much like a standard café, innocuous in its appearance. What stands out, however, is its quirky sign, attached to the side of the building; and, of course, your eyes are immediately drawn to “board game café”. At first it’s a little bit of a curiosity, but when you stop and think about it, it’s very much an obvious direction for a café or bar to go in. When it comes to creating a diverse, dynamic and inspired environment, building it around inherently social activities is a no-brainer.

Upon entry, both Julian and myself were very much impressed; Chance

A huge selection of board games...

A huge selection of board games…

Encounters is an excellent example of how to put such an enterprise to together. Not only were we treated to great customer service, a very friendly and open chat about how the business came together, but we were able to witness the fruits of their hard work paying off first hand. Although it was quiet when we arrived (roughly 10:30 in the morning), we witnessed a steady stream of customers coming in during our time there, all of whom were sampling the games on offer.


The décor is modern and minimalistic, and although it’s still in the early stages of development, it’s clear that the focus is on the interactions of players and of what’s going on across the purpose-built tables. And that, arguably, is exactly where it should be. The vast array of boards games, tastefully and clearly positioned on a wide black shelf in front of the counter, are the centrepiece of the café’s aesthetic. The selection they have on offer is quite eclectic, and there’s certainly something for everyone within their current selection of over three-hundred(!), a number which is sure to grow as the business picks up speed.

Julian versus Ross (Round 1!)

Julian versus Ross (Round 1!)

The time we spent there was fun and interesting, and we even had a chance to chat with one of the owners, Richard Scarsbrook, enjoying our tea and coffee and treating ourselves to a game of chess. Chance & Counters in part comes off the back of Scarsbrook’s own background, writing his MBA dissertation on small businesses – specifically a case study in board game cafés. When asked about the ratio between customers coming in just for a drink or a slice of cake, against those who do so to play a game, he said roughly “95% of customers are gamers”. That’s quite a percentage, and definitely speaks to the demand for such a business and the interest in alternative venues.


Like many small businesses with nascent ideas, the guys turned to Kickstarter in order to fulfil their goal. Crowdfunding campaigns are a great way to assess interest and get yourself off the ground, whilst also rewarding backers for their support. The team set themselves a £10,000 target, but like many of the best campaigns rocketed on past it to over £13,000, allowing them to stock more games and expand the café. The reward tiers included a variety of different membership deals (discounts, lifetime membership, etc.) and more personal rewards, such as having tournaments held in your name, or “thank you” cards within a board game of your choice. The campaign took place over the course of a month – January to February – and in spite of a few inevitable delays, the campaign’s success allowed them to open at the end of May.

The Kasparov Set

The Kasparov Set

For our game of chess, Julian and I opted for the ‘Kasparov Championship Chess Set’. It comes with a sleek, elegant wooden board with nine-centimetre pieces. The game was short, and Julian lost – too busy enjoying his coffee, I should imagine. I’m sure he’ll have a chance to come back in the future. On the subject of coffee, it’s worth noting how reasonably priced the café is for the quality on offer. Lattes and cappuccinos are in the £2 range, tea a very reasonable £1.80 – coming in a narrow mug – with a good selection of affordable wines (which we hope to sample the next time!)

As we were leaving, Scarsbrook was leaning over the table of a young couple playing a board game that was relatively new to them, and he was enthusiastically, and politely, explaining how to play it. The enthusiasm on display is evident and the guys’ passion for their business clear. It’s fantastic that they’ve managed to get this up and running in Bristol, and we highly recommend you pay it a visit the next time you’re in town.

Coffee and Chess

Fun, refreshing, and relaxing – cappuccino and chess!

The Essential Information

Tel: 0117 329 1700