Reflections on a talented friend…
Oscar Castro. Part I
With the weather here in Portugal quickly turning summer-like, I found myself the other day fondly reflecting upon the summers of the early 1990s when I was a regular on the popular Catalan Circuit (Barcelona).
In 1991 I spent some 2 months playing one tournament after another. Looking back, I must have been crazy, but my wife did join me for a couple of weeks.
In July (or was it August!?) at the Sitges International Open that I got to play against Oscar for the first time. I did not really know him before then, though of course I had played over many of his games from his younger days.
I had the bad luck to play Oscar immediately after my first Spanish experience with food poisoning. A sleepless night hugging my hotel room’s toilette, I was really in no condition for playing the next morning. Oscar gave me no chance and crushed me mercilessly in 24 moves.
Catalan Circuit 1991 (Sitges)
In retrospect, I suppose I should be grateful to Oscar for not making me suffer very long…
Over the next two seasons of the Catalan Circuit (’92 and ’93) we became close friends and I got to learn a lot about his fascinating life back in Colombia.
Of course, I am not going to betray any confidences, but I can share some juicy tidbits that Oscar would have approved of. For instance, Oscar was a long time friend of Pablo Escobar, the head of the infamous Medellin Cartel.
Right before Oscar was to leave for Europe to play in the Biel 1976 Interzonal, Pablo Escobar organized a big party for him. At this party, Escobar gave Oscar a gift of $50,000 so that he could have fun during the tournament.
Fun is relative, but what I can say with some certainty is that when Oscar returned to Colombia later that year he was broke. The tournament was very difficult for the relatively inexperienced 23 year old, but he did have the compensation of delivering two very painful losses to the Soviet heavy-weights Efim Geller and Tigran Petrosian:
Biel rd.7 1976
Biel rd.9 1976
Of course, neither game was a clean win or even a good game, but Oscar loved being the underdog and would never allow a slightly worse position to depress him…For his win against Petrosian, Victor Korchnoi sent Oscar a $100 and his most hearty congratulations.
Grandmaster Gennady Sosonko, who was also playing in Biel, remembers well the incident:
‘When he was playing the Colombian Oscar Castro, one of the outsiders in the tournament. Having underestimated his opponent’s tactical opportunities, Petrosian came under attack and got very agitated. Of course, before the game he was counting on the point, but when he fell into an unpleasant position without a second’s hesitation he offered a draw three times in a row. This loss for Petrosian delighted Kortchnoi, who was playing in Amsterdam under the Soviet flag for the last time. Calling Biel, he asked me to give the Colombian master a gift of 100 dollars.’ (NIC 2012)
Returning to the fascinating relationship between Pablo Escobar and Oscar Castro, it must be made clear that Oscar was never part of Escobar’s cartel. Oscar detested violence and their friendship was purely personal.
Escobar himself was a chess player (this is little known to the outside world) and he respected Oscar’s chess talent. Curiously, at that time (in the mid-1970s) many of Colombia’s top chess players received financial support from one or the other various drug cartels.
I remember very well one night (1993) Oscar telling me that Escobar had recently asked him to try to see if he could get some tournament invitations in Spain for Escobar’s son Sebastian. (This was at the time when Escobar was trying to move his wife and family to Europe to avoid becoming targets.) Nothing of this bore fruitation because by that time Escobar’s family was already considered personae non gratae in Europe.
Another juicy bit from Oscar was when he personally witnessed an acquaintance gunned down in front of him by a hitman of the Medellin Cartel.
Readers will no doubt have heard of the notorious Medellin Cartel hitman Popeye (Jhon Jairo Velasquez, 1962-2020). He is thought to have assassinated some 300 people.
One night in Medellin, Popeye telephoned Oscar and they agreed to meet at a local bar. They met, had a drink and a friendly chat was on going when Popeye mentioned to Oscar that a mutual acqaintance had also been invited to join them.
A short time later this person appears and sits down and joins the conversation. Everyone is having a friendly drink when Popeye, without any warning, pulls out a gun and shoots him in the head. Popeye then got up, said nothing to Oscar and then calmly walked out the bar!
Oscar was of course shocked, but what I remember most of how Oscar told me this story is how he genuinely felt betrayed and used by Popeye. He was angry and would not have anything to do with Popeye for a long time after.
End of Part 1