The first time I had coffee with Evo Morales, he had not yet been elected president of Bolivia, and I was a long way from winning the title of World Chess Champion. My mother was coming back from Australia, where she had been to visit my brother. She was returning to Brazil on a connecting flight from Buenos Aires. Shortly before her scheduled arrival, I discovered that her flight was going to be almost two hours late. I decided to have a coffee to pass the time. At the counter, when I was about to order a second cup, I noticed a strange figure beside me.
A short, stocky man wearing a poncho typical of the indigenous peoples of South America was trying to chat up the waitress. Obviously uncomfortable, the girl managed to disappear. The man was left with no alternative, and so asked me where I was flying to. I explained I was waiting for my mother and asked him: And you, are you from Peru?
I saw he understood Portuguese well. No, replied Evo, I’m Bolivian. As if sensing my curiosity he told me he was hoping to run for the presidency of his republic, and had come to Brazil to meet the leaders of some social movements. Evo seemed particularly impressed with the Landless Workers’ Movement. I recall that he smiled when he mentioned one of their camps, which he had visited.
I asked two or three more questions, and then we said goodbye. It was time for Evo to board his plane. When I told my mother the story, she said that she also seemed to meet some weirdo whenever she flew. Being in an airport brings it out in people.
Two years later, I was shocked when I saw Evo Morales on television. My friend had become the first indigenous president in the history of Bolivia.
The second time I met Evo Morales was in the transit area of Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. I was on my way to Moscow, where I had to take an internal flight to the tiny town of Khanty-Mansiysk to compete in the Chess World Cup. My illustrious friend was returning from a meeting in France.
Evo recognized me and signalled to me from inside the cafe. When I went in, after congratulating him on his victory in the election, I joked that he had one of the essential requirements of a chess player: a good memory. Evo laughed and replied that he didn’t even know how to move the pieces. I promised to teach him the next time we met. My friend was delighted, and said that, as soon as he came into office, he hoped to give the sport as much support as possible in Bolivia.
I realized how good I felt in his company, and all at once that made me sad. Now that he was the president of Bolivia, he was only going to travel in a private jet. Evo laughed and told me that Bolivia was in no position to permit such luxuries. Only countries like Brazil could afford privileges like that, he said.
He wanted to know more about my profession. I explained that I had started to play chess as a child because, according to a psychologist, practising a sport would help me overcome my shyness. I was a very lonely child – I couldn’t make friends at school, and preferred to spend my time playing shut up in my room. But if I had to go out to play chess, I would have to come into contact with other people.
My parents first tried football, and then basketball, because of my height. It was my grandfather, a Lebanese immigrant who made his fortune setting up mills and selling textiles, who first taught me how to play chess. He soon realized I had a great talent for it. Later, I began to take classes, and at nine I took part in my first competition.
Evo showed great interest in my story and, when we said goodbye, he wished me luck and told me that at our next encounter he would like to learn how to play. I think he meant it seriously.
The flight to Moscow was uneventful. On my computer I checked a few openings I was planning to use against my first opponent, a young Romanian who seemed very promising but who would find it difficult to match me. I had a great deal of sympathy for him, perhaps because he reminded me of myself during my early days as a grandmaster.
I slept for the rest of the trip and woke to find the Russian capital on the left-hand side of the plane. It did not take me long to meet up with my coach Mark Dvoretsky in the exit hall. I was going to spend three days with him before flying on to Khanty-Mansiysk.
Despite knowing I would not find him there, every five metres or so I looked round to see whether I could catch a glimpse of Evo Morales. Twice I thought I had recognized him, but soon realized I was mistaken. My two encounters simply showed that Latin Americans are everywhere, even in the freezing car park of Domodedovo airport in Moscow.
Seeing that I did not feel like chatting, Dvoretsky said nothing in that garbled English of his that makes him seem even more friendly, apart from asking if I had put on weight. When I expressed surprise, he explained that it looked as though my cheeks were a little rounder.
In his apartment, before I finally collapsed into bed, I saw it was true that my cheeks had grown a bit fatter. But I didn’t pay much attention to it. The next day, Dvoretsky said it must be my swollen cheeks that had helped me make such great progress since our last training session. According to him, my powers of analysis would develop still further. It would be hard not to win the Chess World Cup. At the end of the day, despite the cold, I insisted that we go out to have coffee somewhere.
Evo Morales was not in the cafe Dvoretsky took me to. Bitterly disappointed, I decided to make the best of it and channel all my energy into the World Cup. There were seven rounds, with two games in each round.
I became convinced I would win after my two-nil victory over the genial Vassily Ivanchuk, the Ukrainian chess legend. Anyone who understands sport knows that confidence is essential. In addition, winners are all aware of a special kind of feeling: at some point in the competition, we know we are going to win. It’s very different when you lose. Each time I’ve lost, I’ve only found out the moment it happened.
After Ivanchuk, I won against an out-of-sorts Topalov, and in the final I faced the Armenian Levon Aronian. The first game was very tense. I managed to save a weak endgame and earn a draw. In the second, when I had white, I had no problem consolidating my position, and slowly ground out a victory.
That night back at my hotel, I phoned my family, who were really happy for me. My sister had seen the result on the Internet, and my mother, who has always done everything she can to help me, burst into tears. Afterwards, I sent three or four emails to the people in Brazil who always support me, took a call from Dvoretsky, and finally found myself alone.
Once you get used to it, being alone is no longer sad. It’s like feeling cold, for example: you simply have to get used to it. Those with experience know that the ideal (both for the cold and for loneliness) is to slip under the duvet until you fall asleep, or, on the contrary, to get up and move around. That night, I decided to venture out into Khanty-Mansiysk in search of a cafe.
The hotel porter was surprised when I said I wanted to go out: the cold, he explained, is almost unbearable, and we could serve you in the hotel, in the restaurant or your room. When I insisted, he showed me how to find the only cafe in town.
It wasn’t far off, but there was not much to admire on the way. Apart from freezing temperatures, there are strange sounds in the Russian winter at night. I almost ran.
The cafe was not exactly empty, but I can’t say I met many people there either. Two old men were playing chess in a corner, three others must have been discussing some shady business (there are quite a few arms traffickers in Siberia) and an unlikely young couple was canoodling at the bar.
I ordered soup, which came served with an enormous quantity of bread. When I was halfway through it, I saw on TV that they were announcing my victory in the World Cup. I know a bit of Russian, so I was pleased when the presenter praised the patience with which I had won my last game against Aronian. No one in the cafe noticed I was the champion. Only the man behind the counter was watching the TV set. Then Vladimir Putin’s face replaced mine on the screen. Loneliness also makes our victories melancholy. Sometimes I can scarcely believe I’m the best chess player in the world.
Between the World Cup and the Candidates Tournament, I had three months to prepare. Dvoretsky invited me to stay in Moscow. He is the best trainer in the world (that goes without saying), but I decided to return to Brazil. In the Paris airport I had a coffee at each place it was served, but I never came across Evo Morales.
On the flight to Brazil I ran into a girl who has been pursuing me since the days of school contests. Naturally, she congratulated me effusively on my victory in the World Cup. When we arrived at the airport in Brazil, she suggested we share a taxi. I considered the idea of inviting her to spend the rest of the night with me, but decided against it.
After spending two weeks in São Paulo, I chose, on the spur of the moment, to spend the rest of my preparation time in Buenos Aires. Three days later, I went round the whole of Ezeiza airport twice. I did not see Evo Morales. I began to think I had been right about the presidential aeroplane. He would be in the VIP section of the airport.
Disappointed, I returned to Brazil a few days later. I realized I had wasted almost a month going up and down the continent. Even though I was the favourite in the Candidates Tournament, it wasn’t going to be easy: my opponents, who were among the strongest players in the world, had the habit of playing even better when what was being decided was the right to take on the world champion. I was ranked number one, but I still had to win the official title. Vladimir Kramnik was still the king.
I spent the next two months holed up in Brazil. As usual I decided not to take any assistants with me. I felt pretty confident leaving for Mexico, where the event was taking place. I felt even more certain of victory when I saw Evo Morales waving to me from the airport arrivals hall.
My great friend Evo Morales and I chatted for almost two hours. After congratulating me, he said in a very good-natured way that my cheeks seemed to have grown fatter. I laughed. In order not to upset him, I decided not to respond, but Evo is the guy with the chubbiest cheeks I’ve ever seen.
We talked a bit about my victory in the World Cup. I was happy when he told me he had heard about it. I noticed that one of his assistants also seemed very interested in our conversation. That’s because he knows how to play, Evo explained. I told them how the games had gone, explained my strategy, and said how confident I was that I would win the Candidates Tournament.
Evo nodded. I’m going to have a friend who’s a world champion! I realized that it was true, I did feel very good in his company. If I do manage to challenge for the world title, I’d really like you to come to at least one or two of the games, I said. OK, but isn’t Lula going to feel jealous?
I replied without the slightest bitterness that Brazil has never supported chess. In fact, with the exception of football, we have never had a grass-roots structure for any sport. Evo frowned, looked serious and asked how was it possible then for me to become one of the strongest players in the world.
I explained that in chess, above a certain level, it is individual talent that counts. But how do you reach that level? I remember I felt no shame replying that my family was rich. My grandfather made a fortune out of textiles. All at once, Evo cast a thunderous glance at his assistant. His round cheeks went bright red. In São Paulo, a lot of Bolivians work in slave-like conditions in factories like the ones he had. But my family doesn’t run that kind of business. Nowadays, we live from investments and buying and selling properties, I insisted. When he said goodbye, Evo again wished me good luck and said he would like to see me help create a grass-roots structure for chess in Bolivia.
I won the Candidates Tournament without great difficulty. Contrary to my expectations, it was Alexei Shirov who gave me the most trouble. At one point, I even thought I was going to lose. I have not analysed the game calmly (I still haven’t even put it up on my computer), but I think that when time was running out, he was winning. Then, with five seconds to make three moves in, Shirov made a mistake and ended up losing two pawns in one go.
I noticed after the tournament that my cheeks really had become a bit fatter.
When I returned to Brazil, I got news that a European telecommunications company wanted to sponsor my preparations for the World Championship. My only obligation would be to spend the last month of training in Spain. I accepted at once and asked Dvoretsky to accompany me both for the preparation and the contest.
In Brazil, I gave two or three interviews, and then concentrated on my preparation. Kramnik has never been an easy opponent for me. Since he had the advantage of keeping his crown if there was a tie, my training needed to be intense. But I didn’t want to neglect my promise to Bolivia, and so I sent an email to what I thought was the right address on the official presidential website. When I got no reply, I decided to send a telegram to Evo at the presidential palace in La Paz.
friend evo won candidates tournament challenging champion cheeks growing all time want create chess structures bolivia discover champions together friend come see title contest germany june see you coffee your great friend.
Two months went by and he did not answer. So I decided to go to Europe for a week to get a bit of rest.
Dvoretsky approved of my journey. It was to be a week’s rest, a visit to Madrid and then Paris. I insisted we had to suspend my training schedule for ten days rather than seven, and he grudgingly accepted this as well. I disembarked at Barajas airport in Madrid at eight in the morning. All the cafes were very full. I looked for Evo Morales in each of them. By midday, I thought I had better have a bite to eat, and give my friend time to disembark. While I waited for him to leave his plane, I checked my emails. At two in the afternoon I looked for him again, but he wasn’t in any of the airport cafes. I searched the restaurants, the shops and even the toilets. The worst of it was a pain that I began to feel low in my chest. I made arrangements to fly to Barcelona at seven in the evening because I had heard that was where Evo had gone. But by eleven, and remember I have an excellent memory, I began to think we had perhaps missed each other. Evo Morales is my friend, I explained to the guard at the departures gate, but he said I could only go in with a boarding ticket, and at the proper time. I went back to the desks, but Evo did not appear. So I was only going to meet my best friend in Paris. But my ticket for the French capital was via Madrid. And it seemed to me I had been heading for Barcelona to have a coffee with him. But something must have come up, so he said we should meet in Paris. There are lots of flights between Barcelona and Paris. That night I discovered several of them. I got a ticket for four in the morning, which made me a bit anxious. But Evo is a true friend: no doubt he would be waiting for me in Paris. Just in case, I looked for him again in Barcelona airport. On the screens I saw there was a flight to London before mine to Paris. After mine, the next flight was for Rome. I remember that I thought to myself: no, not London or Rome. I’m going to meet my best friend in Paris!
Evo, I guess you didn’t receive the telegram I think I sent you last week. I told my mother exactly what she should do, but she must have made a mistake. Now I’m going to write you a longer letter. My mother has promised to send it with DHL: that way it will reach you more quickly. It’s also safer. I suppose we must have missed each other in Paris. As a friend, you’ll understand. I had a problem in Barcelona, and the airport people insisted on sending me to Rome. I seem to remember I refused, but the confusion delayed my departure. You must have been worried. I tried to warn you, but the information service at Barcelona is not the best. Evo, you know how much I enjoy the coffees we have together. It would take something very serious to make me miss the opportunity to chat with you. As an athlete, I’ve always taken part in competitions, and met many people. I can’t complain that I’m lonely. But we don’t often meet real friends. I haven’t forgotten, I swear, about the promise I made regarding chess in Bolivia. First I have to get out of here. Then I’ll get in contact with you again. Evo, my friend, you’ll be pleased to see me with my cheeks lifted. They were growing very fat. My mother had me interned for an operation on them. Nothing serious; nothing for you to worry about. There’s no need to come and visit me. Not unless you think it’s really necessary. Of course, I wouldn’t say no, but I’ll soon be out of here, shortly after the operation, I think. Then, Evo, we can have that coffee together and talk over the question of chess in Bolivia: I haven’t forgotten that. If you’re in great haste to set things up, perhaps a visit might be useful: we could start to think of what needs to be done when my operation is over. But there’s no hurry. I don’t want to put you to any trouble. And there’s one more thing. I know that with a friend like you I don’t have to stand on ceremony, but the coffee in here is disgusting. As you’ll understand, this is no airport, but of course a chat with you would be fantastic, wouldn’t it?
Dear Evo, I know I wrote not long ago and that probably you don’t have much time to reply to letters. That’s natural for the president of a republic. I decided to send you another letter so that you wouldn’t be concerned – I’m not sure I was clear enough in my first one. I didn’t mean to imply that a visit would be inconvenient. Quite the opposite. My intention was to say that you shouldn’t be worried if you arrived at some airport or other and could not find me. I’ll be staying here until my cheeks have been operated on. They became very swollen, and so my family decided it was time to do something. If it were up to me, I would not have bothered. Between you and me, I think they’re exaggerating. But after our missed meeting in Moscow I decided not to contradict them. As it is, I can relax here. To tell you the truth, it’s a very quiet place, in spite of some of the other patients also waiting for operations who can be pretty unpleasant, in my view. But above all, you don’t need to worry, my friend. If you would like to come, a visit would be fantastic. I can remember our first conversation as if it were today. I don’t know whether I made it obvious enough that I really liked La Paz. And how impressed I was by your humility. The president of a republic travelling on a commercial flight! I’ll never forget what you said: you must come back some time. You have to see the historic centre of Potosí. We were about to land at São Paulo. And I promised I would return as soon as possible to Bolivia to visit all the places you had been describing to me. You’ll have to forgive me if I haven’t done so as yet. I intend to fulfil my promise as soon as I get out of here. Strangely enough, yesterday my mother brought me a poncho very similar to the one you wear. I’ll keep it for my return to La Paz. I miss our conversations a lot, and the coffees we had. Between us (between friends), the stuff they serve here is awful.
Dear friend, everything is as it was. There’s no date for my operation, and my mother says I’ll possibly have to wait a bit longer. Fine. I don’t really care if I have to stay in here. To tell you the truth, I’m worn out. I have a room of my own and can go wherever I like. Even into the garden. I’m only not allowed out into the street. I don’t have much inclination to talk to the other patients. As soon as I say I have problems with my cheeks, they all stare at my face. Then they say it looks as though they’ve grown even chubbier. As if I needed to be told. Some of them find it hard to talk. They’re probably waiting for operations on their throat or tongue. I’m sure as well that a few patients are here for psychiatric reasons. I feel sorry for them. But that’s not the cause of the enormous weight I have below my chest. Sometimes it makes me feel I don’t want to get out of bed. The other day I found it hard to breathe. Perhaps it’s the effect of being kept isolated. As you know, my friend, I was never a solitary person. Throughout my life I’ve taken part in all kinds of competitions, and have travelled all over the world. I get on so well with people that sometimes I can even strike up a friendship in airports. My mother and the rest of my family always come to visit me, but they don’t stay long. They often look at me in an odd way. My brother still calls me Grandmaster. Are you there, Grandmaster? But I think he has changed. I don’t want to worry you. It’s going to take a while, but they can’t leave me in here forever. As soon as I’ve had my cheeks operated on, I’ll go straight to La Paz. I’ll send you a mail telling you when I’m arriving and the flight number.
Dear Evo, I feel slightly better today. I decided to get out of bed. My mother says I have to see the doctor soon. Perhaps at the end of this week. Or next week, I can’t remember. I don’t go out that often now. In winter, the garden is not so pretty. And we’re not allowed out into the street. That must be because of those patients who are in here for psychiatric reasons. I came to have my cheeks operated on. I never thought a simple piece of plastic surgery would need such a long rest period. I spend most of the time stretched out. That’s what I mostly do. Not merely to relax. Sometimes I wake up with a heavy weight in my chest. At first. Whenever it gets really bad, I have trouble breathing. That’s why I prefer to stay horizontal. If I fill my lungs very slowly, I can manage to breathe regularly. But only if I concentrate quite hard. Well, that’s never been a problem for me. I’m not bothered in the slightest at spending the whole day stretched out, since they don’t let us out into the street and now in winter the garden isn’t so pretty. But I can see this upsets my mother as well. While I’m on the subject, I want to make it clear that I perfectly understand that you can’t manage to reply to me. I’m not offended. I realize it’s better to chat in an airport, but they don’t let us out into the street here. No, I’m not offended. But listen, my friend, you’ve got the chubbiest cheeks in the world: if they tell you that you have to have them operated on, well, the coffee here is dreadful but, in compensation, we’d have plenty of time to talk.
São Paulo, 4 December 2009
Dear Evo Morales,
Were you offended because I said you had chubby cheeks? I’m sorry. It’s because I always thought good friends should be sincere, isn’t that right? If I offended you, Evo, I apologize. I never denied that God gave me chubby cheeks as well. But you, Evo, you’re the chubbiest-cheeked person in the world. If you’re thinking of having an operation on them, my friend, listen: they don’t let us out into the street in winter, and now that it’s winter, the garden is the same as the street, Evo the Great. Will you be offended if I call you that? The Great Evo, Mister Chubby Cheeks. Evo Morales, the chubbiest cheeks in the world. Evo Morales. Evo Morales. Evo Morales. The Great Chubby Cheeks. Chubby Cheeks. Mister Chubby Cheeks. Yes, Evo, perhaps you should have an operation. But I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy, still less on a friend like you. It won’t be so bad, though, if you come. My mother says they are going to fix the date soon. And as I was saying, Mister Chubby Cheeks, you’ll be in good company here. You’re not going to feel lonely. Of course, I know there are lots of people with chubby cheeks in the world. I myself am one of them. Have I ever denied it? But not like yours, Evo. But as I’ve learned here, people with chubby cheeks are never aware of it. Alone, alone, no one ever complains of being lonely. As you know, I’ve never felt lonely, have I, Evo the Great? Evo, I was never a lonely person, but here there’s no chance of a chubby-cheeks feeling lonely. Still less you, the King of Chubby Cheeks, the Great Mister Chubby, the chubbiest-cheeked person ever to enter an airport, ever to have a cup of coffee, the Great Evo. I can guarantee that nobody feels lonely in here, Evo, especially with those chubby cheeks of yours. Don’t take offence, Evo: you’ve got the chubbiest cheeks in the whole wide world.
Photograph © Johan Borg