Cuba

She grew up playing chess on the streets of Havana. Now she’s among the best in the U.S.

Thalía Cervantes, a top-ranked American junior chess player, poses for a photograph at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis . The 14-year-old, who was born in Cuba and emigrated to the U.S., is competing in the 2017 U.S. Girls' Junior Championship.
Thalía Cervantes, a top-ranked American junior chess player, poses for a photograph at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis . The 14-year-old, who was born in Cuba and emigrated to the U.S., is competing in the 2017 U.S. Girls' Junior Championship. Special to el Nuevo Herald

Thalía Cervantes may look like any other teenager, but don’t let her innocent smile fool you. The 14-year-old is considered one of the most brilliant young chess players.

Thalía was selected as one of the 10 best female U.S. chess players under the age of 21 and is now competing in one of the most prestigious national tournaments, the U.S. Girls Junior Championship. The top prize is $10,300, plus an invitation to the U.S. Women’s Championship.

Her age has never been a problem, although she had to overcome her initial fears when she started playing.

“I grew up playing chess on the streets of Havana with older men, smokers,” she said with a laugh during a telephone interview. “They were always bragging and saying, ‘No girl can beat me.’ 

Cuba has a long history of gifted chess players, including José Raúl Capablanca y Graupera, world chess champion from 1921 to 1927, who came to be known as the “chess machine” and is considered by many as one of the greatest players of all time.

Thalía became interested in chess at the age of 7 after taking a basic course in elementary school. She then studied at the Latin American Higher Institute of Chess under Cuban master Walter Arencibia. She won several trophies representing Cuba, including top spot in the under 12 category for the Central American and Caribbean Championship and the Marcel Sisniega international tournament. At age 11, she won the Havana provincial championship for players under 14.

After arriving in the United States in 2014, she won the 2015 Susan Polgar Girls’ Invitational for players under 19 — she was 12 — and the following year won two more championships in tournaments for young female players. This year, she earned a bronze medal in a tournament for players under 18.

SJH THALIA CERVANTES 09
Thalía Cervantes, a top-ranked American junior chess player is competing in the 2017 U.S. Girls' Junior Championship. SID HASTINGS Special to el Nuevo Herald

She said her biggest obstacle with chess was herself and misconceptions about the game.

“I used to be one of those kids always running around, doing something,” Thalía said. “And for chess, you need to be calm and concentrated. … It’s a game for smart people.”

Chess helped her to change slowly, she said, adding that she “became a more logical, calmer person, making better decisions because chess helps you a lot in life.”

Move to U.S.

When Thalía and her family left Cuba for the Panamerican Youth Chess tournament in Mexico in 2014, she had no idea that her parents had other plans in mind. She had represented Cuba in several chess tournaments abroad, so everyone in the family had passports and visas.

Once in Mexico, her parents revealed their secret: They wanted to get to the United States, specifically to St. Louis, Missouri, considered to be the capital of the U.S. chess scene.

Once the Mexico tournament ended, Thalía, her parents and her older sister headed to the U.S. border and the “American dream.” At the time, Cuban migrants who set foot on U.S. territory were allowed to remain and obtain residency one year later under the Cuban Adjustment Act.

Thalía said of leaving Cuba: “That was the best decision.”

Over the past three years, Thalía said she’s become accustomed to the cold weather and has learned English. She studies chess eight hours a day at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, is a junior member of the Chess Excellence program at nearby Webster University — and is taking online courses for high school freshmen.

She has no plans to leave Missouri, at least not for a few years. Once she graduates from high school, she wants to enroll at Webster, which recently won the national college chess championship for the fifth year in a row.

But before pursuing all those plans, Thalía must contend with a string of tough matches through Monday in the U.S. Girls Junior Championship, being held at the chess center in St. Louis.

Among her competitors: 12-year-old Carissa Yip of Andover, Massachusetts, who at age 9 became the youngest U.S. girl to reach the title of Expert, and at 11, became the youngest female to achieve the title of National Master; 12-year-old Annie Wang of La Cañada, California, who in 2014 held the youngest female chess master record; and 14-year-old Emily Nguyen of Austin, Texas, who won the U.S. Junior Girls Championship last year.

The tournament can be viewed at uschesschamps.com.

Follow Johanna A. Álvarez on Twitter: @Jalvarez8.

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