JUAN DOLIO, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - Disco music filled the small conference center as the audience impatiently munched on dried macarons and downed tropical-colored fruit punch, all breathlessly awaiting the arrival of Luis Abinader, president of the Dominican Republic. It’s not often that the president of a country makes a live appearance at an event where most participants are silent! Finally, at 5:21 pm, the organizers decided to start the tournament—one hour and twenty-one minutes late, with no sign of the president.
While politics and chess are not known to intermingle, President Abinader was a frequent topic of discussion at the XVI American Continental Championships. Over 160 chess players representing 24 countries across North and South America descended upon the Emotions by Hodelpa resort in Juan Dolio, Dominican Republic, each vying for the four coveted qualification spots for the World Cup, one of the most prestigious tournaments on the professional chess circuit.
GM Georg Meier, representing Uruguay, won the event (and first qualification spot) outright with a fantastic 9/11 performance. By the tournament’s end, Americans managed to capture the three remaining qualification spots, truly an extraordinary and unprecedented feat! As GMs Carlos Albornoz and Cristobal Henriquez Villagra had previously qualified through their respective Zonal tournaments, IM Kirk Ghazarian was able to join GM Fidel Corrales and IM Josiah Stearman to grab the fourth qualification spot. Unfortunately, Ghazarian is unable to play and the next eligible player (after GM Gregory Kaidanov, who already qualified last year) is IM Gianmarco Leiva.
On top of qualifying for the World Cup, both Stearman and Ghazarian earned GM norms with two rounds to spare. On his way to earning the norm, Stearman played eight consecutive GMs, scoring an impressive four wins and three draws. Meanwhile, Ghazarian was a stalwart throughout the entire tournament, remaining undefeated and holding draws against the six GMs he faced. After round nine, I saw Ghazarian talking to the chief arbiter, thanking her, and cordially shaking hands. In the moment, I thought he had withdrawn after securing his norm — perhaps because he might not have known that norms, once achieved, cannot be taken away. At dinner, I asked if he had dropped out to which he laughed and replied that he was merely ascertaining that he had met the requirements for a GM norm. Embarrassing on my part!
To make up for the president’s absence on the first day, organizers invited renowned Dominican merengue artist Rafa Rosario to offer some comments and make the ceremonial first move in round three. Funnily enough, my opponent (who snuck into the photo below) and I were seated right next to the board where the merengue master made his move. Rosario’s advice? “For the winners, congratulations; for the losers, I guess you get to enjoy the Dominican Republic.” I was there on a mission, so thankfully I did not get to enjoy the Dominican Republic, yet. However, I did learn from my opponent after the game that the Dominican Republic produces a variety of sweet fruits; in the south of the country where he was from, mangoes are so plentiful that there is a dedicated Mango Fair where fairgoers can try up to 50 different types of mangoes!