Reflections on a talented friend
Oscar Castro. Part 2
There is much of Oscar’s history that I do not know. I simply did not have the time to find out. I never asked — thinking that there was time — but Oscar died much too young…
How did he get started in chess? Who were his first heroes? When did he decide to go ‘all in’ into the world of chess? Oscar, unfortunately, did not wrote a book of his life.
1969 World Junior (Stockholm)
Oscar must have shown real talent very early on as he managed to qualify to represent Colombia at the 1969 World Junior Championship held in Stockholm in the month of August.
In those days the format was different from today: Qualifiying groups (2 players advance to the final) and a grand Final, all play all.
Oscar managed to win his section (Group 4), defeating the future Candidate and long time trainer of Garri Kasparov, Andras Adorjan, in their individual game, and thus becoming the youngest participant (at age 16) to qualify for the finals.
Stockholm August 1969
The finals proved to be a tough setback for Oscar, who only scored a point and a half. He lacked a trainer. He lacked a serious opening repetoire. But Oscar never gave up and playing the King’s Gambit against Karpov — who went on and won the tournament in brilliant style — shows that he never stopped fighting. It was just not good enough at this level of international competition.
Above is one of the few photos that still remains from the 1969 Stockholm World Junior. It shows the future #3 in the world , Ulf Andersson (left), playing a deeply concentrted Oscar Castro.
Years of Maturity and Disappointment
Oscar returned back home to Medellin after the Stockholm tournament. Over the next 5 years he continued to play and improve. Oscar managed to win his first three of 6 Colombian Championships: in 1972 , 1973 and 1974.
Oscar played board #1 on the Colombian National Team at the Nice Olympiad (1974) and did fairly well. His best result was a victory against the well known Icelandic grandmaster Frederick Olafsson. Oscar was formally awarded the IM title in 1975.
Nice Olympiad 1974
Oscar’s next big international event was the 1976 Biel Interzonal – which I mentioned in Part 1. The photo above is from the cover of a Russian chess magazine from the era. It shows the first round. Tigran Petrosian is seen standing in the middle.
On the lower right we can see a young Ken Rogoff playing White against Smyslov. On the left we can see Oscar playing Black against André Lombard. Right behind Oscar we can see Robert Byrne playing Black against Jan Smejkal.
It was a good day for Oscar, and was the first of his 3 victories in the tournament.
Biel Interzonal 11.7.1976
After Biel Oscar stayed on in Europe — thanks to Pablo Escobar’s money — for several months playing principally in Spain. His results were disappointing, hardly sufficient to become a grandmaster.
At age 23 Oscar had become a party animal, loving women, drugs and alcohol. It was sometimes difficult to get to the board…he lived the life of a poet.
Occasionally, however, Oscar showed real flashes of brilliance and what he could actually achieve if he put his mind to it, as his win against Bent Larsen with the Black pieces.
Costa Brava 1976
The year was soon coming to and end and played one final event at the Haifa Olympiad for Colombia before returning to Medellin. Broke. With little to show to Escobar.
However, what the final 6 months had shown is undeniable: Oscar’s enormous talent. In those 6 months he had defeated 3 of the top-10 players in the world at the time! How many up and coming IMs can say as much!
Some of Oscar’s best games!
Oscar’s success internationally served as an inspiration for other young Colombian talents. Alonso Zapata and Gildardo Garcia are two names that stand out.
More serious students of the game, not very interested in partying and alcohol, both Garcia and Zapata eclipsed Oscar by the time the 80s rolled around. More solid and less risk taking, they seemed destined to become grandmasters. They were able to achieve the consistent results necessary to achieve titles that Oscar’s lifestyle denied.
Never the less, Oscar continued to be a force to reckon with, winning 3 more Colombian Championships (’92, ’94 and ’99) and playing in 4 more Olympiads (1980, 1990, 1992 and 1994).
But Oscar’s adventurous lifestyle was taking a toll and this meant that chess was becoming a less lucrative endeavor. Oscar soon began to encounter severe financial problems, but refused to stop playing chess.
Below is a small sample of Oscar’s victories. Many of them famous grandmasters. Even today I find it incredible that Oscar never got the grandmaster title!
Costa Brava 1976
Buenos Aires 1985
Novi Sad 1990
The above photo was taken on August 16, 2005, the evening of the prize giving ceremony for the Buenos Aires Continental. The late grandmaster Gildardo Garcia is standing.
It was a bit of a sad story. Oscar decided to participate in the tournament just so as to have the opportunity to meet with his son. He and his ex-wife (who was living in Buenos Aries) had a rocky separation and they had not spoken for a decade. Oscar had not seen his son for even longer.
It was all planned that Oscar would meet up with his son on the evening of the prize giving ceremony, but his son backed out at the last moment. I invited Oscar instead to join me. Saddened, of course, Oscar admitted that his vices with drugs and alcohol had taken a big toll on his personal life. He regretted it.
The last time I saw Oscar was in August at the 2007 Continental Championship in Cali, Colombia. By then Oscar was living on the street in Medellin. The only possessions he had were the clothes that he was wearing.
He had long had absolutely no contact with any of his family. Almost all of his friends and acquaintances from the time of Pablo Escobar had already died or been murdered.
We went out several times during the tournament and Oscar seemed resigned to his fate. His health was still good, he could still play a reasonably high level of chess and spent his weekends travelling from one tournament to another.
Even so, this was not an enviable situation for one of Colombia’s most talented masters. The last time we met up with each other, before I had to return to Portugal, he had tears in his eyes. I gave him some money, but of course it would not change his situation for very long.
Oscar died at age 61 in the early hours of April 12, 2015 in Medellin. Apparently of a heart attack. He was living on the streets. His death made news on all of the media chains in Colombia.
I would like to think that Oscar died peacefully in his sleep. By the position of his body, he must have layed down at his spot on the street. His arms were crossed. At first there were rumours that he had been attacked, but this was quickly dismissed. The week before his wallet had been stolen.