The Grandmaster | Translation
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Translated by MC Editorial
[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Today we are going to Lima, Perú.
[Luis Wong]: Hello. Yes, Daniel. My name is Luis Wong. I’m 34 years old. I studied engineering and now I am engaged mainly in making video games.
[Daniel]: Above all, what you need to know about Luis is that he is someone who is always looking to learn something new. I met him many years ago, at a time in his life when he had tried his luck at journalism with a Peruvian magazine called Etiqueta Negra.
Then he went to France, to a small city with a name I won’t even try to pronounce, but I am told it is like the Mecca of comics and animation in Europe. He got a Master’s degree in video games, but it wasn’t the only thing he studied. He also learned some tennis. There was a small court next to his residence, and one day he came over to ask whether he could take lessons. The coach told him yes, of course; he would even lend him a racket.
But there was one small thing:
[Luis]: And he told me, the only problem is that it may be women over 70 years old. I don’t know whether you’ll feel comfortable. I told him yes, no problem. So for the next six or seven months, I think, I was playing every Friday at 6 p.m., an hour and a half of tennis with… these ladies in their 70s.
[Daniel]: And how did it go?
[Luis]: At first, well, I was just starting, so it was very bad. I couldn’t even get past the net. But they were also very kind and encouraged me to continue, you know?
[Daniel]: Did you become friends with these… these ladies?
[Luis]: Yes, we talked a little bit about . . . pastries, basically. Because the ladies would bring some kind of French pastries to eat after the training session. We stayed for a while, eating. I would take some wine.
[Daniel]: That’s how Luis is: He has never worried about being… different. He can be an engineer in the middle of a newsroom or a guy who talks about cakes with his 70-year-old French lady friends. In fact, after that experience in France, he spent a semester in Guangzhou, a large city in southern China, alone, without knowing one word of the language. He was going to work at a technology company and took Mandarin Chinese classes at night, in a small booth surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of computer parts stores, inside an industrial warehouse.
He wrote down words on his phone, memorized them, and managed as best he could.
[Luis]: So basically, I communicated—well, I tried to communicate in English. And if it wasn’t English, I would communicate using signs or words in Chinese, but very basic, like saying, “this,” “this here,” things like that, right? And well, trying to smile and trying to go somehow unnoticed.
[Daniel]: But today we’re not here to talk about tennis or languages. What interests us is Luis’s latest extracurricular obsession. For the last year, he told me, he has been headlong into the world of chess. He started playing online and from there he went on to take lessons. And he got a luxury teacher: none other than Julio Granda, junior world champion in the early eighties and senior world champion five years ago. The third Peruvian to achieve the title of Grandmaster.
[Luis]: One of the best Peruvian and Latin American chess players of all time. I mentioned this to some friends who live outside of Peru, and they said, “So you have a class with a Grand Master?” That is not so common anywhere else.
[Daniel]: So, did you feel some kind of pride?
[Luis]: Yes. Yes. I was very proud to be taking classes with a great teacher.
[Daniel]: To make it clear, reaching Grand Master is the highest category and honor for a chess player. It is a lifetime title that very few players achieve. Around the world, the players who have achieved it are less than two thousand in total.
Luis, who had started playing during the pandemic on a website, was surprised that a chess legend accepted him into his academy. It was a privilege: He was in love with the game, but he was a beginner. Anyway, he didn’t want to ask too many questions.
[Luis]: And they said, “OK, give us your Chess.com profile.” I gave it to them, and they said, “OK, we are going to put you with the right group for your level. You start on Thursday.” I said, “Excellent.”
[Daniel]: That Thursday at 6 pm, after finishing his day at the video game company where he works, Luis waited anxiously. They added him to a WhatsApp group.
[Luis]: And I started to see the members.
[Daniel]: You, being a curious person, you start looking at the photos of your new classmates.
[Luis]: Yes. Sure, to find out who they were.
[Daniel]: And normal—it was people like you.
[Luis]: Yeah, they gave us a link through the WhatsApp group, I click on it, I enter, I configure my camera, the microphone. It was a Google Meet session. The teacher greets me and all the children appear.
[Daniel]: All the children. His classmates, the young children of the people on WhatsApp.
[Luis]: And there were six. Seven children. Little children that were not even 12 years old… little children. Some of them could not even reach the camera.
[Daniel]: Tell me, what did you feel at that moment?
[Luis]: On the one hand, it was a surprise. What is this? Then I felt it was cute! And then I said, “Well, it makes some sense, doesn’t it?”
[Daniel]: Because of course, he was a rookie. And did the children look at you strangely?
[Luis]: No, they didn’t look at me strangely. And in fact, I later found out why they didn’t. And it’s because everyone thought I was 15 years old.
[Daniel]: You had a clean shave.
[Luis]: Yes, yes, yes, yes. That’s what their parents told me. And the children, too.
[Daniel]: What Luis didn’t know was that that first class wasn’t actually a class, but the end-of-the-month tournament. And those kids— they weren’t such beginners, either. And his education in chess and humility. was about to begin.
We’ll return after a break.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Luis continues the story.
[Luis]: The first surprise was learning that my classmates were children. The second one was that we were about to start a tournament. They did it at the end of each month, and at the end the ranking was announced with the positions. I looked at the Grand Master and the seven children, but they didn’t seem to be looking at me. They were already on the tournament website, where we would all watch the matches.
I didn’t know whether it was a mistake that I was there, but no one seemed to care much about my presence. It was kind of strange—and funny. If they had told me that in my first class with Grand Master Julio Granda I was going to face his seven students in a tournament, I would have been scared. Maybe I wouldn’t have even signed up. But now I was thinking, “Well, they’re children; I don’t think I’ll do badly, right?”
And I was right: it was not bad for me. It was HORRIBLE. The children went on and beat me with almost ridiculous ease. As if I knew how to move the pieces, but someone had forgotten to explain a couple of the rules of the game. There was only one girl I beat, but only because she ran out of time to make her moves. Maybe she had been disconnected from the internet—I don’t know, but it was a dubious victory. The others destroyed me mercilessly, one after another.
The one I remember clearly is the game against Mariano. He was the only kid with the camera off, and for a moment I thought I was going to beat him. I had captured many pieces from him, but he carelessly attacked me with his rook and BAM! —checkmate. I remember, above all, his euphoric shouts; he said that I had been more than 20 points ahead of him and that he had beaten me. The other children asked who, who. I felt very embarrassed when I heard that a child say, “It says here that his name is Luis Wong.” From that moment, everyone began to call me that, with a first and last name: Luis Wong.
[Kids]: Good afternoon, Luis Wong. Good afternoon, Luis Wong.
[Luis]: I came out of that first session completely defeated. My wife Denisse was in the living room watching TV. I went over to tell her what had happened in that first hour with my rivals… and as I told her, I realized how absurd it was.
[Denisse]: I remember that you left your class and you began to tell me, laughing, that you got there and suddenly there was a tournament and there were many children and that you were last and I asked you, “What happened? How can you finish last?”
[Luis]: She told me she didn’t find it so strange that I had classes with children. That I was a bit like a child myself: curious, competitive. She is even more so. She hates losing, even when we play board games against each other. It made my wife laugh, and me too, although another feeling was already beginning to grow: I wanted a rematch.
[Luis]: I remember that in those days I started obsessing over chess videos on YouTube—openings, checkmates, common mistakes. I downloaded books from the internet. I even subscribed to the premium plan of an app so that a computer would analyze all my games. My wife stared in awe at my new obsession.
[Denisse]: Every time we have a spare minute, or we… I… we are watching a series, suddenly you lose interest in the series, you start playing Chess.com, which sometimes causes tension between us.
[Luis]: Even though I am engaged in creating games—and I even once designed a board game that was sold in Peru—I had never managed to be good at chess. At least not like my brother David, who is 13 years older than I am. As a child I lived with my parents in an apartment in Lima, and he came to visit us. In those years I didn’t have so many friends, and when David came, we stayed up playing video games for hours. One day he came with a board and showed me the pieces for the first time: the knights, the bishops, the rooks, the queen, the king.
I got very excited when he said that he was going to teach me how to play chess. Although that joy would also bring frustration: I would try dozens of times, but I could never beat him. Not one time. And I remember, because as a child I did not tolerate losing at anything. I was very competitive, especially at school. I cared a lot about being the best in the class.
My school was very traditional, the sort that prides itself on having politicians or businessmen among their most outstanding alumni, and that competitiveness was drilled into you from a very young age. I remember that in third grade I received a letter from an unnamed classmate, that said, “I know who you are. This year I’m going to beat you.” Another told me that his mother was going to give him a dog if he managed to get a better grade point average than mine.
And I, who even then wore glasses and was the stereotype of the nerdy little boy, felt that everyone around me expected me to be the best, and that made me anxious: I believed that if I had a bad grade, I would be a disappointment to everyone. Maybe that’s why, I think now, I was such a fan of video games: because in those parallel worlds, mistakes were allowed. They were part of the game. If you were wrong, you just started over and that was all.
Over the years, I gradually abandoned that competitiveness and kept the love of those other worlds: first, I started writing about video games and then creating them. I did not return to chess until the pandemic arrived and with it the series “Queen’s Gambit.”
So I started playing online, and you know what came next: Just like my brother David all those years ago, a bunch of kids ripped me apart in a tournament I didn’t even know we were going to have. The following Thursday I logged into the class, and the Grandmaster began to speak:
[Grandmaster[: Well, Luis just logged in at exactly 6:00 pm on my computer, and we’re going to grant just one minute of tolerance in case someone else logs in.
[Luis]: All the children who had beaten me a week before were there.
[Grandmaster]: We are going to review the games; it’s always very important to review the major errors, right?
[Luis]: I braced myself for the teasing. But when it came to my defeat against Mariano, the boy I was 20 points ahead of, the Grandmaster explained my mistakes very calmly.
[Grandmaster]: But of course, if we take the knight there, they capture a central pawn; we move the queen forward, which is not convenient to do here, and now, very well, Luis takes advantage of this and defends the knight here, threatens the bishop…
[Luis]: When we finished the review, I felt better, and I began to attend classes every Thursday. The Grandmaster presented us with problems on a virtual board, placing the pieces in different situations, and we proposed our best ideas to solve them. Mine used to be wrong, of course, and in those first classes I was always corrected by a little girl with pigtails, Safrys.
She was one of the children most involved in the lessons. I don’t know why, but she asked the Grandmaster a lot of questions about geography, and sometimes she told us about the tournaments in which she competed. One week she had traveled to Cusco to play, another week to Ecuador. And she used to come back with medals. She seemed like a very sweet girl, but when we clashed, she was ruthless. I looked at her out of the corner of my eye and her concentration scared me a little…
One day the Grandmaster shared a post from the Instagram account that her parents handled for Safrys. I went in and saw her in Machu Picchu, posing with a chessboard. In a school, teaching other children to move the pieces. At a lake, reciting the poem Chess, by Borges.
[Safrys reciting]: In their grave corner the players govern the slow pieces. Inside, the forms radiate magical rigor: Homeric rook, light knight, armed queen, last king, oblique bishop and aggressor pawns. Dim king, slanted bishop, fierce queen: on the black and white of the road they seek and wage their armed battle.
[Luis]: I thought that if I wanted to beat Safrys and the other children someday, I had to get to know them a little better, ask them how they practiced, what chess books they read, what strategies they used. So I wrote to her mother, introduced myself, and told her that I was a classmate of her daughter’s. She, who is a molecular biologist, told me that she was very proud of her achievements, and that Safrys had talked about me. I told her that she beat me without a sweat. She was amused that I wanted to defeat her little daughter, and the three of us agreed to have a Zoom meeting.
[Safrys]: My name is Safrys Valenzuela Reynoso. I’m seven years old.
[Luis]: Safrys told me that she loved geography, history and reading all kinds of books. There were a few on the desk, and I asked about her favorites.
[Safrys]: Moby Dick, the Biography of Anne Frank, The Diary of Anne Frank and One Hundred Years of Solitude, Leaf Storm.
[Luis]: Moby Dick, The Diary of Anne Frank, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Leaf Storm. Woooow. If I had been in Safrys’s classroom as a child, perhaps I would have been the one to send her that note, “I know who you are. This year I’m going to beat you.” Even though I wouldn’t have succeeded, of course.
I wanted to know when she learned to play chess, and I assumed she was going to say it was about the same time she learned to speak or something like that, but her answer hit me like a bucket of cold water. She told me that she had only started a few months before we met. In fact, she had learned to move the pieces in the lessons. I couldn’t believe she already played so well.
I asked what her favorite opening was. In chess, openings are the first moves you make, the ones that position you on the board. They have been studied for centuries and there are some that are already classic, such as the Spanish opening or the Italian opening.
I immediately thought that Safrys must know them all and that’s why she won easily. Probably because that was what I was trying to do: memorize patterns from YouTube tutorials. But she said no; she didn’t memorize any openings. All she did was play obeying the principles of chess.
[Safrys]: The principles of chess are dominating the center, developing pieces, castling, and developing the rook and then the queen.
[Luis]: Dominate the center, develop pieces, castle, and then the queen…
[Safrys]: It is a game where you lead your army to check the king, checkmate. And you are responsible for what happens to your army.
[Luis]: That’s what she liked best: that the future of her army was in her hands. Mine must not be very happy about how I make them suffer, but anyway, Safrys told me that I was already improving a lot. From one to ten, she generously gave my game a level four.
At least it wasn’t level one…
[Luis]: In the days that followed, I kept thinking about what Safrys told me about the principles of chess and using imagination instead of memorizing moves, as a formula for success. And it made me want to contact my brother David, to see whether he could help me a little. He remembered, as much as I do, our afternoon games together when we were children.
[David]: And it was very nice. Besides, it was you and me and… We had to… to have fun doing something, right?
[Luis]: At the time, David was the second-best player in his school. And not in any school, but in a Russian one, where they had chess as a sports subject in high school. He had a teacher who was an International Master, so I imagined him like those Russians in Hollywood movies, trained from the age of five to destroy his rivals.
David came close to becoming a Master, a couple of categories below Grandmaster, but he never made it. He didn’t care so much about being the best; he just wanted to have fun playing.
I told my brother that I was taking lessons and that my classmates were the same age as Gonzalo, my nephew. He told me that Gonzalo, who is also taking chess classes, had recently played against an older man at a shopping center.
[David]: Ha, ha, and they had those huge chess sets on the floor, and he started to play, but the man was an older person who had no mercy on my son, who was seven years old, eight years old.
[Luis]: So my brother started telling him what pieces to move.
[David]: Hey, the man got angry when he was about to get into a checkmate. Man! Wow! With all those people around. “Sir, don’t get angry, don’t get angry, don’t get angry”…
[Luis]: “Don’t get angry.” Then my brother had a moment of compassion and told my nephew to give him the draw, which in chess is to offer your opponent a draw.
[David]: Well, I told Gonzalo, “Give him the draw because you have to give him a draw when… out of respect, right?” It’s a man who… an eight-year-old boy offering him a draw…
[Luis]: Pretty embarrassing to tie with a child, isn’t it? I told him that the same thing happened to me with the children in my class. Only worse. They didn’t give me a draw—they all beat me.
[David]: Listen, but do you give it your all, or do you let them win? Because I imagine that you have a heart and you say, “Hey, I’m not going to beat them”… they would feel frustrated, right?
[Luis]: Oh no, I try to beat them.
[David]: I would let them win, for example.
[Luis]: What happens is that I can’t beat them!
My brother would laugh on the other end of the line… he was probably thinking that I was always very bad at chess and that the years had simply not changed me. When I told my parents, the reaction was the same. This is my dad:
[Father]: What a shame! Aren’t you embarrassed to be beaten by a six-year-old girl?
[Luis]: At least my mother did not fall for the bullying, but tried to comfort me: she told me that children learn faster. My friends told me it was like the Seinfeld episode where Kramer signs up for karate and gets to wrestle eight-year-olds. Since they are on the same level, it seems fair to him and all he wants is to beat them.
And they weren’t so far from the truth. While everyone laughed, my desire to beat these children was growing stronger and stronger. It was a bit like going back to school, when life was a competition to be the best with no clear purpose. Although at least I was making some progress: I began to solve some problems well in class, and you should have seen my excitement when I won my first games against the less advanced children.
With a little more confidence, one day I stayed behind to talk with the Grandmaster. The most important thing, he told me, was to understand the three essential concepts, those that define any strategy: development, time and space.
[Grandmaster]: It seems very easy, doesn’t it? But applying what is so logical takes time and you have to insist on it, apply it. And well, some time later, if you manage to master that, you will take an important step toward probably understanding more advanced concepts.
[Luis]: It reminded me a bit of the things I heard from Safrys, whom I still couldn’t beat. But the dynamics of the class had changed: there was another boy who also did great in the tournaments, and he was fighting with Safrys for second place. Second place, because of course, the winner was always the Grandmaster.
This boy beat me so easily that it made me feel embarrassed. More than anyone else, he was soon the one who began to make me more curious. Perhaps because he reminded me of myself when I was his age. He seemed to be very much into his own fantasy world, he wore huge blue glasses, and at Christmas time he logged in wearing a small Santa’s helper hat.
I wanted to beat him at least once, but every time we played, it was worse. Sometimes, he tried to do a scholar’s mate, beating me with only four moves. And after defeating me, he always said:
[Nicolás]: Good game.
[Luis]: One day, after asking his mom for permission, I called him. I wanted to know whether he experienced chess the same way Safrys did or he had another type of training, other insights.
My classmate answered the phone and introduced himself naturally.
[Nicolás]: My name is Nicolás Garrido. I’m nine years old. I am in 4th grade. I’m going to start 4th grade. And my favorite subject is math.
[Luis]: Right away, he started telling me, in detail, his vacation routine:
[Nicolás]: Hum. In the morning sometimes I wake up at 6 a.m. and play until 11 or 10, then I have a little chess tournament. Then I play my normal video games, more or less what the crystal generation does.
[Luis]: Then he took a break for lunch.
[Nicolás]: I play chess again for a little while, now let’s say a shorter period of about an hour and 35 minutes approximately; I play video games again, 30 or two hours of playing video games; I play chess again. What a sad routine I have… And then I have dinner normally and I go to bed. Fine, but very tired of playing so much (he laughs).
[Luis]: It made me laugh that he said “what a sad routine I have.” It is exactly the routine that I would like to have! Holidays, chess and video games, all day. Well, Nico told me that sometimes, even when he’s not playing, it’s like he’s playing.
[Nicolás]: Sometimes I play games in my head, so that I don’t know whether I’ve gone crazy in the head. I don’t know whether I’m paranoid, but it’s OK.
[Luis]: Listening to him, I was beginning to get an idea of why I had never beaten him. Nico seemed to love chess more than anyone I had ever met. Even more than my brother when we were kids. His mom had taught him to play when he was four years old, and he immediately set a very clear goal for himself. And a very high one.
[Nicolás]: I would like to be a Grandmaster first and then a world chess champion.
[Luis]: Nico seemed so competitive as I used to be at his age, although there was something about his ambition that seemed more genuine than mine, more like a dream. In the championships, some children could look annoyed if they lost, but Nico lived it in a… different way. Sometimes, in the middle of a game, he would get angry and start blaming the “big-headed pawns”—that’s what he called those that didn’t help him win. But he was noble: he always recognized when it had been a good game, whether he won or lost against someone.
I asked him whether he believed that I would ever be able to beat him, expecting him to say no, that I was never going to be as good as he was, because he was going to be the best in the world. But that didn’t seem like his way of seeing things.
[Nicolás]: I know that one day you will beat me because it is natural. I mean, it’s natural.
[Luis]: According to Nico, it was a lot harder for him to beat me lately, although I didn’t notice that very much. Sometimes, he said, he thought he was going to have to give me a draw, and suddenly, without knowing how, he won. He must have been trying to be nice. At one point, Safrys had said that my game was a level four on a scale of one to ten. I asked Nico what level he saw me at now.
[Nicolás]: I give you an eight. And I think you have improved a lot.
[Luis]: Shortly after my conversation with Nico, I finally did well in a tournament and came out second only to the Grandmaster. And I’ll be honest: at first I told everyone and even sent them screenshots of the podium. My name under one of the best Peruvian chess players in history. But I knew it wasn’t real. Safrys had been absent that day; Nico beat me, as usual, but he unexpectedly lost some of his other games; another girl had lost her internet connection; others lost because they had taken too long to make their moves. I was still happy, but as the days passed, I was left with a bittersweet taste… it was a bit ridiculous to have boasted about that fictitious victory, so I decided that at the next tournament, I had to achieve a real victory.
I didn’t know how I would achieve it, but I had to show everyone—my parents, my wife, my brother, the Grandmaster, the other children—that I could win at chess. That I could, for once, give my army a destiny of glory.
[Daniel]: But to do that, Luis needed a teacher to train him to reach a new level. One who thought like a child… One who was a child.
We’ll be back after a break.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante, I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before the break, we heard how Luis Wong, a 34-year-old Peruvian, started taking chess lessons with children between the ages of 6 and 9. And he got frustrated that he couldn’t beat them.
So he would look for a teacher to win the next tournament.
Luis continues the story.
[Luis]: It was an idea that I had been thinking about for a few weeks, when Nico’s mother gave me some bad news: they had decided that Nico was going to have to leave chess lessons for a while, because school was going to start and the money wasn’t enough to cover everything. Without him, it was a better possibility of winning a tournament, or rather, to come in second, which is like winning if you’re playing against a Grandmaster. But without Nico it wouldn’t be the same. Besides, I had already begun to grow fond of him.
Then he made me a proposal:
[Nicolás]: That, since I have classes until March 10, I would like to know whether… after I finish my classes we could sometimes play a game on Thursdays, or whenever you want.
[Luis]: I thought that was sweet: He wanted to continue playing, even if it was only with me. In the following days I kept thinking about it, and an idea occurred to me: what if I asked him to be my coach? As Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed had been, first great rivals and then disciple and teacher.
I was sure he would be excited about the idea. So I brought it up with his mom first. We had already talked the previous time, when I called Nico to interview him. Her name is Isabel, and she told me that during the pandemic she had become a housewife in order to spend more time with her two children.
When I called her, she said something that impressed me: Nico, at 9 years old, was part of the Children’s Council of the Municipality of Lima. He had sessions with the mayor and had made him a proposal to help abused mothers and children.
And she told me that he took chess tournaments very seriously, perhaps too seriously: in the days prior to the tournaments he would get quite nervous and then he would review his games and those of his teammates. She knows that her son wants to be a world champion and she supports him, although his passion has caused her some awkward moments.
[Nico’s mother]: The first time he came in second, even above Safrys, who is a frontrunner, he ran and ran looking for me, to tell me, “Mom, I came in second place. I was second over Safrys,” and he was very excited.
[Luis]: So much so that he made her run to look at the screen.
[Nico’s mother]: And I came running and he said, “Come, look, look.” So I went to the screen to see and I said, “Very good, son, great, and how are you? And what did the Grandmaster say?”, right? And then we realized that the camera, the audio, everything was on. [Laughs] And we were very embarrassed, but, well, the emotion was noticeable.
[Luis]: I found out that I used to make him happy too.
[Nico’s mother]: When he has beaten you, he has played against you and he has beaten you, the truth is, he has felt quite happy. Sorry, sorry. But he felt happy.
[Luis]: Thanks to chess, she told me, Nico had become more analytical and had gained the self-confidence to speak in public. It surprised me that she said that. When he talks to me, his enthusiasm and desire to talk always seems inexhaustible.
I asked her whether Nico could be my teacher and she said that she had no problem, as long as he wanted to. She asked me to coordinate it with him, but it had to be in the afternoons, after he got back from school.
I wrote to Nico on WhatsApp and he accepted immediately: We would have our first training session on Monday afternoon. There were three weeks left until the tournament at the end of the month, so I had time to prepare. I started reading a book by a Cuban chess legend that the Grandmaster used to mention, I kept watching tutorials and competing with strangers on the internet. I was anxious for my classes with Nico to start.
So the day arrived. Nico had just returned from school and I had managed to get off work early.
We connected at five-thirty in the afternoon. I had high expectations. Nico was a child, yes, but still, he was an extraordinary player.
[Nicolás]: First we are going to review a little bit of… the French defense and then, if you want, we can play a game and analyze it.
[Luis]: The French defense: a way to dispute the center of the board, playing with the black pieces, from the first move. He said that we were going to learn a bit of theory and do a practice game, to see whether I could get the hang of it. It was obvious that he took it very seriously.
I thought about how generous he was. He could have been with friends, doing homework or whatever, and yet he was explaining how to play chess to an adult who, for some reason, wanted to win a tournament against a group of children. Soon, he began to teach me an opening.
[Nicolás]: The idea for the white pieces is to consolidate their center because… [fade down]
[Luis]: Nico was a patient teacher, and I would say that he even inspired authority. He believed everything he told me. In that first class, he taught me theoretical concepts and also some terms used by chess YouTubers, such as “big-headed pawns.” There were also the “lettuce knights.”
[Nicolás]: You call a knight a lettuce knight when it is in fertile lands, when he does not stay on his own side, on his own land; he just goes out to conquer others.
[Luis]: At the end of the class, we played a game that lasted very little.
[Nicolás]: Well, actually, aside from that, you haven’t played too badly, I mean…
[Luis]: Too badly.
[Nicolás]: Let’s analyze it a little.
[Luis]: After each game, Nico analyzed all my mistakes, methodically, while giving me encouragement. He always highlighted my progress and gave me confidence. He said that I would soon beat him and the other children.
He was an excellent teacher: it seemed as if he had given lessons many times before, and I got the impression that he wanted me to fall in love with chess as much as he did. Although at one point he confessed to me that, when he saw me arrive for class, his first reaction was the one I would have had: competitive.
[Nicolás]: At first, I felt strange. In other words, when you turn on your camera and I see an adult, at that moment I said in my head, “Nicolás, say goodbye to your third place, because they are going to take it away from you, and even Safrys, say goodbye to your second place, because they are going to take it away from you!”
[Luis]: Well, now we know that those fears were unfounded, and now the idea was for him to help me occupy one of those places. After that first lesson, I felt a lot more optimistic. I was convinced that Nico was going to help me see the game as he saw it, much better than any tutorial.
[Nicolás]: Well, thank you very much for your time. See you next Monday at 5:30.
[Luis]: All right.
[Nicolás]: Uh… have a good week. See you.
[Luis]: Thank you, Nicolás. Have a good week.
[Luis]: All that week I kept practicing and trying to follow Nico’s advice. At our second session, he taught me ways to close a game and get to checkmate, especially when you have only the king and a few pawns left. He explained the ideas behind those movements, and I tried to be attentive, like a student trying to impress his teacher. Finally, it was time for our third and last lesson before the tournament.
I was feeling a bit nervous about the tournament, maybe because I was filming this episode, or because Nico, at that point, had a lot of confidence in me. The last thing I wanted was to disappoint him. He kept telling me that he trusted my effort.
[Nicolás]: I think that you are going to beat Safrys and everyone in the class at some point, because I see that you put in a lot of effort.
[Luis]: In that last class we did a “little review”, as Nico says. We reviewed all the moves and concepts that he taught me, and in the end we finished with a game. I took it very seriously; it was my last practice before the final exam. And the unexpected happened. I don’t really know how, but all of a sudden, I realized that we were starting to end up with few pieces each, and I was ahead. He had a couple more pawns, and we had each lost our queen. Nico defended himself, and he began to take a long time on each move, which was unusual for him, as if any wrong step could be decisive. I tried to play calmly: it had happened to me before that, because I was winning, I lost concentration and ruined it.
[Luis]: In the end, we had only a few pawns and the king left: Nico had just prepared me for situations like these, and how to close these types of games. And there seemed to be no going back. My pawns were better positioned, but I had a hard time convincing myself: I thought my teacher had an ace up his sleeve… until, suddenly, the message appeared on my screen. Nico surrendered. He later said over the Google Meet call:
[Nicolás]: Well played.
[Luis]: Yes, did you let me win or… ?
[Nicolás]: No, the truth is that I played the best I could. I always play seriously because letting yourself be beaten is unsportsmanlike.
[Luis]: After months, after playing a dozen games, I had finally beaten Nico. I had tried to stay focused, not fall into despair. And I had followed the principles of chess that he and Safrys taught me: get my pieces out, dominate the center, castle the king. This triumph marked the end of our lessons together.
[Nicolás]: Have a nice weekend, well, I hope the whole week goes very well for you, OK? Well, see you later, whenever you wish. Good luck to you in the tournament.
[Luis]: Above all, I hoped not to disappoint him.
And finally the day of the tournament arrives. I’m very nervous. All week I’ve been thinking about it. I told my wife, my parents, my friends… and I tried to finish my work in time to play a few warm-up games before it starts. By then, I am convinced that my victory over Nico was pure luck. I can’t be over-confident for a second.
I’m about to connect, when I get a voice message:
[Nicolás WhatsApp]: Good luck, good luck to you, Luis Wong. I’m sure you’re going to be very good, top 2 or top 3 on the podium. And always remember to go for the winning positions.
[Luis]: Nico is looking out for me. I can’t let him down. I won’t let him down. I see who is present, and suddenly I feel that I have an opportunity. There is Safrys, who for me is as if she were Garry Kasparov, but I have beaten the other three children at some point, by luck, time or whatever. The tournament will last exactly one hour and there is one minute left before it starts.
The countdown ends and we begin.
My first rival is Salvador, the boy from space. He is a boy about six years old, maybe seven, who usually appears on the screen with galaxy backgrounds, or inside a ship that is speeding through the cosmos. He has defeated me several times, but I have also beaten him lately. We have 7 minutes each for all the moves we make in the game, and every time we move we gain 3 extra seconds. You have to think fast. Every second is worth gold.
The game with Salvador is intense. He plays aggressively and captures several of my pieces. I start to feel cornered, but I see an opportunity: an opening in his pawn line. His king is unprotected. I decide to risk my defense, and go in to kill or be killed. I find a space, checkmate. And suddenly, I begin to feel it: This could be my tournament. Maybe Nico was right.
I am at the top of the leaderboard, along with the Grandmaster and Safrys, the big favorite. Without Nico in the tournament, the responsibility to defeat her is mine. The second round begins and I have to face her. I fear that a defeat will put me in a hole from which I cannot get out. Our last few games have been close, but none like this. Fourteen minutes later, we’re still even. We each have three pawns and a knight left, and I have time on my side; she has twenty seconds left to play and I have forty. I look at her camera out of the corner of my eye and I can see only half of her head with braids, motionless, completely focused.
I am the one who makes the first mistake. I move a pawn away from my king’s protection, and she captures it immediately, as if she had it planned beforehand. Fifteen seconds. Another two moves and I have no way out. My only option is to stretch the game out and beat her on time. Ten seconds.
I try to run away, to protect my king, but it’s impossible… checkmate.
I came so close… that defeat has a devastating effect. I immediately start to think I’m not going to make it. I don’t understand what my mistake was—I thought each move out in detail, I delayed each decision just enough. I kept control of the game, but Safrys was in full control of her army, just the way she liked it: it was as if she could read my mind.
I’m still on the podium, but now in third place. And, as if that weren’t enough, the screen tells me that I’m going to play against the Grandmaster, Julio Granda, the legend. I have never seen him lose and, of course, I am not going to be the exception. He beats me easily, gracefully even. But I don’t get frustrated: it was an inevitable defeat. My new goal is to at least be on the podium, but I see that Salvador, the space boy, has snatched the third place from me. Although we are only two points apart.
I’m thinking about that when I get a WhatsApp message.
[Nicolás WhatsApp]: Luis, how was your game?
[Luis]: It’s Nico. He doesn’t even let me answer and answers to himself.
[Nicolás WhatsApp]: I think very good.
[Luis]: I’m sorry to disappoint him, but I tell him about my results: one win and two losses. So, as if he could guess what I feel, he writes to me not to be discouraged, to keep hope and never give up, even in the most difficult positions. His message reassures me, but I don’t know whether that will be enough.
[Luis]: I’m up against Luana, a girl who speaks very little in class. She’s a tough opponent, but now, for some reason, she takes a long time on her moves. She’s not playing badly— she’s narrowly beating me—but she’s taking too long, as if her internet is failing her. I win by time. I feel a little sorry for her, but hey, a win is a win. There are ten minutes left before the tournament ends and I have to face Julio Granda again. This time it lasts 3 minutes; it doesn’t even give me time to think about any advice from Nico…
The Grandmaster gives the partial results:
[Grandmaster]: Safrys has already assured a second place and we are waiting for Salvador and Luis’s game.
[Luis]: Everything will be defined in a final game, again against my great rival tonight: Salvador, the boy from space. If I beat him, I’ll get on the podium. But there are only 5 minutes left, and if the time runs out in the middle of the match, the points don’t count. I have to risk everything if I want to be third.
So I go on the attack. Salvador, in a distant galaxy, feels the pressure. He starts with a French defense: I capture a bishop and am out in front. I have one more piece and I begin to control the center of the board… but I get overconfident, and suddenly, I fall into a whirlwind of errors. I lose my queen; his pawns advance dangerously. I have a knight, a rook and little else. Everything falls apart and Salvador still has three minutes to give me the coup de grâce. He exchanges one of his pawns for another queen and then I know I’m lost. My king is totally exposed. Salvador knows it too. A couple of accurate moves and he beats me. Checkmate, end of the tournament.
[Grandmaster]: The Lichess System has just proclaimed the winners: Safrys in second place with 16 points and Salvador with 8. Congratulations to both of them.
[Luis]: I am fourth, just below the podium. I feel disappointed in myself; everything was going well, and all of a sudden, I let it slip out of my hands once again. I’m embarrassed to tell Nico, because no one believes in me as much as he does, but he must be waiting for my message. I write to him, “Nico, I lost to Salvador in the last game and I came in fourth.” He answers me right away:
[Nicolás]: There is no problem if you didn’t make it to the podium. What matters is that you gave your best and what you have in your brain. That you will always, ah, play the best you can and above all that you have learned a lot.
[Luis]: Sometimes I feel he knows more about life than I do. Nico sends me an emoji of a person pointing to his head and then he tells me to never give up chess. Or to do it, but only if it’s what I want to do. And anyway, he will be there when I need him. I have to laugh a little—it seems almost a cliché that a 9-year-old boy is giving me a life lesson. But that’s how it is.
In the days that follow, the frustration wears off, and I can’t stop thinking about what Nico told me. I didn’t achieve my goal, but I’m happy with my other achievements during these months: improving my game, rediscovering a hobby from my childhood, understanding that competition isn’t everything, and most importantly, meeting Nico.
And I’m also beginning to feel that all this experience should serve me in my work making video games. I had lost a certain passion. For some time, it had all come down to numbers, money, downloads. The beauty of chess, the elegance of its rules, which have thrilled men and women for millennia, makes me think of how much I enjoyed games before they were my job. And I needed to get some of that back.
I think the lessons with Nico and the other children made me fall in love with games again. And I also think that, deep down, Nico never cared that I dethroned him—he was just happy to have another friend to play the game he loved with. I keep practicing every day on chess.com and reading books, although the obsession is lessening. But I’m starting to enjoy the games more.
After a few days, I write to Nico for one last game, like that time Rocky and Apollo get together at the end of Rocky 3, in a dark ring and without an audience, just for the pleasure of boxing. We connected a couple of days later.
[Nicolás]: Hello, Luis. How are you?
[Luis]: I am a little nostalgic, because I think of that session as a kind of farewell. But he is just as nice as ever. I tell him the details of the tournament, how close I came to beating Safrys, the double matchup with Salvador. He doesn’t care at all that I lost in the end.
That afternoon we review some games from the tournament, and I can see my mistakes more clearly. And Nico makes me see something that I had not noticed before: that I think about things too much, and that can also harm me.
[Nicolás]: You concentrate very well. I’ve noticed it because when I’m with you, like now, I don’t hear any music, or you talking, or a glu glu glu. And also that you think a lot about your movements; that’s why you don’t lose concentration.
[Luis]: It’s true: I try to think through each move in detail, see all the possibilities before making a decision. But that i not always a good thing. I should trust myself. Be more decisive.
[Nicolás]: Maybe you should go… I mean, with what you sense is the best, right? Think a little, of course, but in less time.
[Luis]: That is to say, when I go for an opportunity, the train is already gone. I don’t act when I should, and by thinking too much, I think about it so much that I get it wrong. I have to follow my instinct. Stop thinking so much and let the game flow, let my life flow. And above all, have fun, because otherwise there’s no point. Nico wants to be the best, but he has this very clear.
[Nicolás]: For example, if a world champion is very good, but he doesn’t have fun doing it, I don’t think it’s the best thing for… for him to devote his whole life to it.
[Luis]: It sounds so obvious, put like that, but maybe I needed a child to tell me.
[Nicolás]: In fact, I have a lot of fun with you.
[Luis]: Me too, Nico.
[Daniel]: Luis continues his chess lessons every Thursday and he is no longer the only adult taking them. Safrys won the bronze medal at the World School Chess Championship, under 7 category, which was held in Panama. Nico still hasn’t returned to class, but Luis and he agreed to get together from time to time to play games online.
Luis Wong produced this story. He lives in Lima, Peru.
This episode was edited by Camila Segura, Nicolás Alonso and me. Bruno Scelza did the fact-checking.
The sound design is by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano, with original music by Rémy.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Pablo Arguelles, Aneris Casassus, Diego Corzo, Emilia Erbetta, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Ana Tuirán, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas.
Natalia Sánchez Loayza is our editorial intern.
Selen Mazón is our production intern.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.