Costa Rican Alejandro Ramírez’ earliest memories are of playing chess. His dad taught him the game at age four.
At 9, Ramírez already was considered a chess prodigy. And by 15, he became one of the world’s youngest grandmasters after defeating a former Russian champion in the Dominican Republic. His biggest achievement to date came earlier this month when Ramírez won the U.S. Open in Irvine, Calif. – a chess tournament previously won by all-time greats like Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky.
Ramírez is the first-ever Latin American winner, beating out 467 other competitors. The road to his championship hasn’t been easy, since Costa Rica has such a mild chess scene. He took advantage of chances to compete in Bolivia, China, Cuba, Russia, Argentina and many European countries to earn the prestigious grandmaster ranking.
Ramírez would love to see chess’s popularity grow in Costa Rica. Currently, the 22-year-old San José native is an arts and technology graduate student at the University of Texas at Dallas. He spoke to The Tico Times by phone about his chess triumphs.
TT: What were your expectations going into the U.S. Open?
AR: I wanted to see how it would go. I was one of the top seeds but not the top. I hadn’t played in a tournament this strong in a while. I wasn’t really forcing myself to win it, but by the time the sixth round came, after defeating Grandmaster (Melikset) Khachiyan, I really pushed myself to finish strong in the last two rounds.
What does a victory in a tournament previously won by Fischer and Spassky mean to you?
It’s a very big win. It puts me even more out there internationally. I’m not pressuring myself to win more tournaments just because I had success in this one. I just take it easy. I’m pretty happy with my results lately. I’ve been playing pretty good chess. So take it slow.
Is chess more like a hobby now – especially in America where the sport has become less mainstream?
I wouldn’t say it’s completely a hobby. But I am leaning more about using my master’s degree (in video game engineering). I just finished an internship in California (at Blizzard Entertainment). I wouldn’t say that chess has become less mainstream, but I have felt that it has lost some of the attention of the American public. However, if you go back to Europe, you’ll find it hasn’t lost its appeal.
What does it mean to you to be the first-ever Latin American winner of the U.S. Open?
Of course Costa Rica, and Latin America as a whole, don’t have a lot of chess tradition, but it was pretty cool to be up there and be against ex-Soviet champions and U.S. champions, and to be able to win the tournament nonetheless.
How did you learn to play chess so well?
I started playing pretty young, when I was 4. And then I worked pretty hard with my dad and I started playing chess professionally when I was around 12 or 13, and I just dedicated all my free time to chess.
You’ve traveled the world as a chess player – is there much opportunity for chess players in Costa Rica?
You have to travel a lot if you’re going to be a chess player, especially a chess player in Latin America because competition is pretty thin around there. I don’t really go back and play tournaments here anymore. I still represent Costa Rica, and I still go back and visit my family. But I wouldn’t say I play Costa Rican tournaments very often.