The Pigeonholed Queen, Maria Teresa Mora Iturralde

Chess ace from Cuba, Maria Teresa Mora Iturralde. Havana-born and the lone student of Jose Raul Capablanca's, she is a renowned chess player. Mora made history when she became the first female player to ever win the Cuban Chess Championship. She was twice a challenger for the Women's World Champion.

The Pigeonholed Queen, Maria Teresa Mora Iturralde
María Teresa Mora Iturralde playing chess, 1921. Image: Public domain

When Edward Everett, an American lawyer, went to Havana in 1917, the first thing he did was ask to go to the city's Chess Club. Chess was becoming popular on the island, so he would be greeted with excitement, especially if he was thought to be one of the best players in the United States.

Everett must have thought that the best thing would have been to be in the club at the same time as the young chess star of the time, José Raúl Capablanca. But Capablanca was playing much higher than simple amateurs from the provinces, trying to take the title of world champion from Emanuel Lasker.

Everett knew that when he got to the club, the Cubans there would give him hugs and tell him how much they admired him. This is precisely what happened. Then he asked to play the strongest player. He was told that he would get to do that when the time was right, but that he should first play a girl who was excited to meet a great foreign chess player. Even though he thought it was silly, he agreed to face a 14-year-old girl named Maria Teresa Mora Iturralde who was polite and quiet.

Everett started the game very sure of himself, but soon his offense turned into defense, then into the desperate flight, and finally into checkmate. Everyone else around him looked shocked. He said, "One more." This time, he took the game seriously, planned his every move, and thought of a thousand different ways to win, but nothing worked. He looked at his hosts, who were starting to laugh out loud, and was confused. Then they told him that, since that was what he had asked for, they had put him in touch with the best player.

The Cuban Chess Master Maria Teresa Mora Iturralde

Mara Teresa was the only student Capablanca took on. After 12 lessons, he knew that his student was the best chess player at the time and the best person to go to the 1922 World Championship with. In Cuba, the young girl's talent went to waste, and even though she could never compete in that elite group of men, Capablanca was sure that when she went up against the best in the world, she would show what she was capable of.

They had met just a few months before in Havana, in one of those games where dozens of dunks were given out at the same time. It was a fun game that a Cuban genius came up with. The first round was all victories, except for the game with Maria Teresa, which ended in a draw.

Because he was interested, he asked to play chess twice more with this young girl, who had already won several awards in Washington as a problem solver and had been written up in the American Chess Bulletin. Capablanca, who had been called the "Mozart of Chess" and seemed unbeatable since he was four, lost twice at that time.

The world champion noticed Mara Teresa's early talent for a reason other than the fact that she lost matches she shouldn't have. For example, Capablanca could be a very frustrating player. He didn't stay in front of the board for a whole game very often. Instead, he liked to stop and talk to the people watching, drink a cup of coffee, and walk around while his opponent tried to figure out what his plan was.

When it was her turn, she would come back and put the right piece in the right place right away, never making a mistake. Maria Teresa always played the same way, as if she had seen every possible outcome of the game in her head in a split second. Even though she was shyer than her master, she kept her manners and didn't want to embarrass her rival.

Capablanca was the last great chess player from the old days when the game was played with pure passion and almost blind skill. For her part, Maria Theresa was destined to be the style's first great Queen. By the time the London Championship came around, the chess player was invited with all expenses paid. Since she had to pay for her travel and lodging, Maria Theresa could never get the money she needed.

José Capablanca, 1915. Photograph by Harris & Ewing. Library of Congress
José Capablanca, 1915. Photograph by Harris & Ewing. Library of Congress

Maria Theresa's Golden Age and Obstacles

Maria Theresa showed up to play chess twice too late and also too early. Late because in 1927, the Russian Alexander Alekhine, the father of modern chess, replaced her and her master's impulsive style with careful planning and methodical study.

In the days before that year's World Championship, while Capablanca was resting, Alekhine looked at all of his rival's games and found something that not even the Cuban had been able to do: that seemingly random way of moving the pieces had a pattern. Capablanca knew that the spiritual calm that comes with age usually kills natural genius, and cold blood and "thinking too much" come to look for explanations where natural talent was happy with the facts.

On the other hand, Maria Theresa's best time was during a time when limitations were everywhere. At that time, chess was not a job in Cuba, and except for a small club in a small town, women couldn't show how good they were in competitions with men. Capablanca was sure to do well as an athlete on the world stage. Mara Teresa, on the other hand, had to find other ways to make a living.

She studied English, got a bachelor's degree in science and literature, wrote for several newspapers, and improved one of her natural talents, music. She had no choice but to accept that a game was only meant to entertain people and not feed her. Even though it wasn't enough, the violin and mandolin concerts did help. Over time, she got farther away from the boards, and what used to be her passion turned into a simple hobby.

Lack of practice caused her skills to diminish, but not too much. By 1938, when chess was institutionalized in Cuba and the mixed games at the club became professional and divided by sexes, no woman was at her level.

A Short Professional Career in Chess for Maria Teresa Mora Iturralde

Maria Teresa died in 1980, in the house she shared with one of her nephews. Although for a long time she was known as one of the most flirtatious women in the country, with several romances and suitors, she never married or had children. Machismo had already cut short what could have been an extraordinary sports career, and she was not ready to submit to it in other ways. Besides, she barely had enough time for her multiple jobs, and with those free hours, she had left she preferred to dedicate herself to chess rather than to a traditional domestic life.

Even so, she had his moment of glory, a fleeting one, only a paltry portion of what could have been. Between 1940 and 1950 she managed to participate in two world championships. She did not have much luck, although in the second she managed to defeat two American champions and a Russian, only to finally fall to Liudmila Rudenko, the Ukrainian who would take the crown that time. Despite everything, she received the first International Master's title awarded in Latin America. In 1960 she decided to abandon her short professional career. In Cuba, she never knew defeat at the hands of another woman.

For many years her story was forgotten, until a journalist, aware of her relationship with Capablanca, decided to interview her shortly before her death. It was during that meeting that Maria Teresa learned of her former teacher's book of memoirs and an excerpt dedicated to her:

There was in Havana a young girl of 12 or 14 years old who interested me very much. Not only was she intelligent and modest in all aspects, but she also played chess quite well (I think that today she is probably the strongest player in the world)...

Maria Theresa, who memorized each of her games, then revealed the moves that ended in a draw in her game with Capablanca, although she preferred to hide the other two games, according to her, out of respect for her master. But she was not always equally condescending.

Near the end of her career, she reportedly played chess with one of the best Cuban players at the time. During the game, her opponent seemed to get more and more uncomfortable with how easy it was for a woman to control him. While Maria Teresa was having fun, she turned the game into a long and humiliating hunt. When it was clear that she had won, the man was both embarrassed and angry, but he still agreed to shake her hand. She pretended to be shocked, but all she said was, "Oh, it's too bad, how I beat him."

Author: Dario Alemán, Source: Revista de la Universidad

Havana, 1994. He is a journalist. Reporter for El Estornudo magazine. He has collaborated with several Cuban independent media and some foreign media.