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Webster Groves' Chess Wiz Thalia Cervantes Seeks National Championship

Chess prodigy Thalia Cervantes started playing in Cuba where she says the game runs through people's blood.
St. Louis Chess Club

A Cuba-born teenager who lives in Webster Groves is trying to add to her already impressive chess resume over the next few days at the St. Louis Chess Club. Sixteen-year-old Thalia Cervantes is among 10 phenoms vying for the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship

She moved with her family to the U.S. roughly five years ago seeking better opportunities. They settled in the St. Louis region mainly because of the international reputation of the chess club in the Central West End.

Cervantes is the current Pan American Girls under 20 champion and tied for fourth at last year’s World Youth Chess Championship. She is also a women’s international master and a national master.

We caught up with her as she prepared for this year’s U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship.

Competing in a Game Often Dominated By Men

She has noticed a large difference on average between the number of male and female players but doesn’t think it’s an issue. “I think it’s important to just play,” Cervantes said. “It doesn’t matter who your opponent is. Just look at the board.”

Chess Role Models

She cited fellow Cuban José Raúl Capablanca along with Hungarian sisters Judit and Susan Polgáramong her chess idols. Cervantes said her other influences include former world champion Boris Spassky. “I think we have a lot of similarities in our style,” she said. “I just love to watch his games and read interviews about all of them. It just makes me happy.” 

Family Influence

She doesn’t come from a long line of chess players. Cervantes’ mother took up the game after realizing her daughter was a top competitor. Cervantes’ success also prompted her younger sister to compete. “She was very, very talented. Probably more talented than I am,” Cervantes said. Her sister qualified for international tournaments but quickly lost interest and quit the game.

The U.S. Girls' Junior Championship is taking place at the St. Louis Chess Club in the Central West End through July 20.
Credit Wayne Pratt | St. Louis Public Radio
The U.S. Girls' Junior Championship is taking place at the St. Louis Chess Club in the Central West End through July 20.

Chess in Cuba

She played chess in her home country for about five years leading up to her arrival in the U.S. in 2014. “I think it’s a very good country for chess. Maybe not one of the top, but chess is definitely appreciated there,” she said. She was one of the best junior players in Havana, but never made it to the national team. “But I always looked up to them. I admired them. Up to this day, they are very strong players.”

Love of the Game

Cervantes goes to an online school so she can devote up to eight hours a day to chess. “Oh, it’s fun. At least for someone competitive like me," she said. “I just have fun trying my best and seeing what that brings.” 

Follow Wayne on Twitter: @WayneRadio

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Wayne Pratt is the Broadcast Operations Manager and former morning newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.