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On Chess: How Chess Gave Me Opportunities In Different Aspects Of Life

Grandmaster Pepe Cuenca visits a school in Peru.
St. Louis Chess Club

I began to play the game of chess when I was only 5 years old. My father taught me the rules of the game, and I will always remember how my mother bickered with my father for not letting me win even a single game!

During primary school, I signed up for chess as an after-school activity. I was kind of hyperactive, so I combined chess with many other sports such as soccer, basketball, handball and tennis. 

As a teenager, I became a strong chess player and managed to win the Spanish national under 16 and 18 championships. When I turned 18, I decided to go to college to study civil engineering at the University of Granada. From that moment, I began to realize that chess could help me in many different areas of my life outside of just the game itself.

I found the first example when I was trying to find a supervisor for my master's thesis. We were many students and few professors, so it was not easy. When I sent my personal resume to one of them, he was immediately attracted by the item “professional chess player,” and he offered me the opportunity to work with him. A short time after he realized that I was a fool, but it was already too late for him.

After I graduated from college, I received different scholarships to study abroad. I had the opportunity to come to the United States and study in Texas for an MBA and a wind engineering program on a sports scholarship, and again these opportunities were possible to me because of chess.

In the end, I decided to stay in Europe, and I got a job as a researcher and teacher at the University of Hamburg in Germany, where I earned my Ph.D. in applied mathematics. I remember that at the job interview we talked roughly 1% of the time about mathematics and 99% about chess; once again chess was the key.

Pepe Cuenca working with biomass ashes at the University of Granada in 2010.
Credit St. Louis Chess Club
Pepe Cuenca working with biomass ashes at the University of Granada in 2010.

Since 2014, I’ve worked for the chess website chess24 as a commentator for some of the top tournaments. That is something that started as a hobby and ended up being my current full-time job.

It is a job where I travel to many countries doing commentary, teaching, giving speeches and more. Chess has given me the opportunity to meet many people from different cultures and walks of life. I’ve gotten a chance to work with and enjoy the game of chess with players and friends from all over the world. Chess helped me professionally and personally. It has given me more than I ever imagined.

Chess has provided me the opportunity to travel to St. Louis, the chess capital of the United States, a few times a year as part of the grandmaster-in-residence program at the St. Louis Chess Club. Chess has truly given me experiences that I would have never dreamed it could.

Pepe is a grandmaster originally from Spain. He is a member of the St. Louis Chess Club, a partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.