The weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal has a fun article describing how the chess team at Miami Dade Community College topped the best players from Harvard, Yale, and MIT to make the final four of the collegiate chess championships last December. Most of the community college's players hail from Cuba; a country, I learned, with a strong chess tradition. Miami Dade has done well in past competitions, but I believe this is the first time its Cuban chess superstars have been profiled in the national press.
The article described one player, Alberto Hernandez, as "a brawny 40-year-old security guard who studies English part time at Miami Dade." Hernandez arrived to the U.S. in a raft from Cuba in 1994. One of his opponents in the national competition was a 20-year biochemistry student at Harvard.
The article reminded me of a book--The Man Who Knew Infinity--about the 25-year-old Indian clerk named Ramanujan who was a self-taught mathematical prodigy. In 1913, Ramanujan sent an unsolicited letter containing several math proofs to G. H. Hardy, a prominent English mathematician. The undeniable genius of Ramanujan's equations impressed and puzzled Hardy, who arranged for the young Indian to come to England. Like a Good Will Hunting story authored by Evelyn Waugh, Hardy and Ramanujan worked together for five years, turning out incredible mathematical discoveries. But the young Indian felt isolated and homesick in England, and returned to India in 1919 where he died of tuberculosis a year later.
This story has always made me believe that the world's greatest celloist is not Yo-Yo Ma, but a child in Vietnam tending rice paddies who has never seen a cello. The best movie director is not Steven Spielberg, but an orphan living in the Rio's "City of God" who knows real anger and passion. The greatest writer on the planet is not sitting in a Starbucks with a laptop computer, but an East African boy herding bony cattle across the savannah whose only stories are the ones he dreams under the wide sky. Because of stories like Ramanujan and Miami Dade's chess players, I believe that there is much more genius in this world than there is time or luck to be discovered.