Mexican Chess

At Christmas I received a Mexican chess set, complete with Mayan pieces, purchased in Merida. I used to have a small collection of chess sets, including a rather fancy 3D Star Trek board. None of which ever got played, thanks to the invention of internet chess. But they looked nice. Chess is a great game, one I’ve played for years. It’s also a great way of creating analogies. Only yesterday, during a discussion with a student on the subject of intelligence, I used my own chess abilities to describe how my own system of intelligence works. If I play a new opponent at chess, I will almost certainly lose the first three, four or five games. At least. Because my ability to work things out sucks. But my memory is reasonably good. I’ll learn from my defeats, remember my opponents patterns of play, and start winning games.

I’ve also used chess to explain stereotypes. An Englishman will play a very intense but sporting game of chess. If he wins, he’ll beam from ear to ear and remind others of his victory to his deathbed. If he loses, he’ll shake hands, with not a shred of emotion on his face. And point out who it was, exactly, that won the damned war anyway. Italians will play with much more camaraderie, but every time one of them speaks, they’ll knock a few pieces over. They’ll finish the game, but no one will ever really know if the game was completed properly, according to the rules. Germans will motivate themselves by playing White against Poland, ensuring a quick march across the table and a prompt checkmate. Americans will play an equally quick fire game, with plenty of goading and cursing, but with backslaps and beer at the end regardless of who wins. The French use chessboards as ornamental ashtrays.

But the Mexicans. A Mexican game of chess is very unique. Brand new moves, unrecognisable to any other chess player are invented, but forgotten again before the next game, dashing any chance of consistency. The queen is highly unlikely to be referred to with the dignity her status demands, with various phrases (all including the word ‘madre’) used instead.  Neither player will harbour any hopes of winning, but may prematurely claim victory several times anyway. And the game will probably never be finished, as both players wander off to take part in other distractions, leaving the chess board an unplayable mess awash with spilt salsa, tequila and bits of taco. Unless the game were being playing about 600 years ago, in the Yucatan penisula. In which case the game will be taken so seriously that there will be hours of ceremonial ritual beforehand, and the beheading of the victor the moment a king is forced into checkmate. Anyway, I’m waffling again. Another method of trying to comprehend the madness of Mexico. Perhaps another failed analogy. Maybe I never will quite understand…


34 thoughts on “Mexican Chess

  1. Nez says:

    I’ve always had a bit of a fascination for chess, though never felt motivated enough to try and master it. I remember how fascinated I was as a child, whenever I’d go to the park and I’d see all the local old men play chess with one another for hours on end. The older gentlemen with their caps and cane’s and that charming Brooklyn accent that seems to be dying off captivated me for hours. Every time I see a chess set or one of those slightly mangled concrete chess tables in the park…I get all nostalgic and daydream of my Brilliant potential 😉 This Mexican (Mayan?) chess set brings that feeling right back. Except I’ve got no one to really teach me the art of chess. I don’t know about other Mexicans, but you’ve described my family SPOT ON with their style of play….they’re not much help.



  2. Daniel Sosa Tellez says:

    I was a hardcore chess player when I was a teen in Mexico. One time I got to play in the Carlos Torre tournament in Merida, which the most important Mexico (and some claim in all of Latin America). Yucatecos are kind of obsessed with chess, perhaps due to the legacy of Carlos Torre (the greatest Mexican player of all times, who once famously defeated Emmanuel Lasker in a memorable game, with a dazzling queen sacrifice). Surely Yucatan has the most chess players per capita in the country, and Merida has many a chess store.

    When I was a regular player, and competed in tournaments, I found Mexican players to be gentlemen-like and polite. They were serious players. A few years later I ended up playing in Welsh, French and English leagues, and it wasn’t much different from playing Mexicans. It’s true that in friendly matches people may “prematurely claim victory several times anyway”: one of my favourites to date is to announce check mate in 17 moves…

    Perhaps you should go to Gandhi bookstore on Miguel Angel de Quevedo (the old one), in the cafe upstairs they play chess on the evenings. Bring your chess clock. Several players above 2000-2200 ELO go there regularly. I can give you a chess game one day when I’m back in Mexico City if you want, I promise not to spill salsa or tequila on the board…!


    • My story, of course, is an analogy, not a literal telling of the game! I walk past that bookstore regularly…one day I will have to check it out. I’ve also found chess tournaments taking place by a park near Balderas. I was tempted to see if I could get a game once, but everyone was way too intense with their games!

      Anyway, so long as you promise not to spill the salsa, I’ll take you up on that game one day. From the sound of it, I’d best start practicing!


  3. Thethreesisters says:

    I love your post about Mexican chess!! I am teaching in Monterrey right now and your description of the game very nicely explains everything I have learned about Mexican culture during the two months I have lived here.


    • I think you’re reading more into my post than there is, amiga. Or amigo…whichever Sooks may be!

      If you’re complaining about the ‘white’ aspect’ – there are only two colours on a chess board. I could equally have said black. And you could equally have complained about that. And there would still not be a racist element in the choice of words on my part.

      If you’re complaining about my use of Germany/Poland/WW2, well then you just don’t understand the British sense of humour. Right or wrong, it’s most definitely a big part of our culture! I certainly mean nothing serious by it. This is a post about stereotypes, after all, which are never the best guide to the truth.

      Hope that explanation was decent enough for you!


    • As far as I know in Mexican chess the king can only move one square at a time but his mother is on hand to remind him that he still the most important piece on the board (and that he should never ever take a queen that his mother doesn’t approve of).


  4. Loved your post and using chess as an analogy. When my son used to play, I loved that it was such an international sport. The parents set outside in lawn chairs for hours sharing what they were reading and whatever snacks they’d brought along. Russians, Indians, Mexicans, Asians… as with other sports, the game created a common connection.


  5. erebusetnox says:

    My aunt and uncle live in Puebla (they’ve been missionaries down there for ages and help run the Amistad hacienda church) and the big outdoor market in the Cholula section was where my mini chess set was procured. I’ll have to ask my cousin which culture might be represented by the carving style – but it’s a great souvenir of a wonderful time there – especially as my aunt and I walked around together, gathering goggling stares, she’s six feet tall, and I am just an inch shy of that. We nearly caused a platoon of Mexican Army enlistees to walk, as one, into a building.


  6. I played a lot of chess from a young age and then lost interest completely. I was surprised the other day to realise that I am still actually quite good. Still not interested though.


  7. Kim G says:

    Your chess analogy reminds me of an old joke my father, a Dane, used to tell.

    Heaven in Europe? Having an English butler, a German driver, a French cook, and an Italian lover.

    Hell en Europe? Having an Italian driver, a French butler, an English cook, and a German lover.


    Kim G
    Boston, MA

    P.S. Congrats on all the new visitors!


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