In a sea of players from 186 countries currently in Mamallapuram for the 44th Chess Olympiad, Puerto Rico’s Natasha Morales Santos is easy to miss.
What isn’t is her special board - a braille variant which instantly catches your attention when the room goes silent at the start of play.
“I can’t see with my left eye and only have partial vision in my right one. It’s a condition I have from birth,” the 24-year-old woman international master explains.
Santos’ introduction to chess a decade ago was not without its bumps. She is the first from her family to take up the game and her struggles with the regular board did not make things any easier.
“Earlier, I did not know about the Braille board so I played on the regular board but I lost many games because, I used to get very tired and get constant headaches trying to keep up with opponents on a regular board. It got to a point where my family and I needed to look for another way for me to continue with the game. I loved chess but I couldn’t carry on that way. That’s when the Puerto Rican federation helped us find a braille board,” she says.
Santos’ competitive process naturally changes.
“”I need to use a special board for blind people. The score, especially the plus score, is a bit higher on the board so I can feel it. I can identify every piece. I need an assistant because I don’t play on a regular board, especially for long games. My assistant tells me the move of my opponent and then I play with my board and then make my move. I can’t see the clock well too, so I need to rely on my assistant for the time and the time of my opponent,” the 24-year-old says.
Her special board has captured the fancy of fellow players, spectators and the media alike but for Santos, it is a mark of her right to play the sport.
“Many players did not know about these provisions. People did not think or agree that I needed to play with this board. They didn’t see why I should get to play. But the federation underlined that it’s my right to play this game,” Santos adds.
Besides support from her family and the national body, Santos found her ‘community’ thanks to the world of online chess, long before the pandemic pushed it into the mainstream.
“For me, the majority of the time, I play with my friends online. I can’t drive so it’s difficult for me to always go over somewhere and play. Playing online with assistance opened a world of possibilities for me because over the years I have developed friendship with players of different countries. I also have a trainer from another country thanks to the internet. We’ve seen this with the pandemic, chess kept going online and has even improved,” she adds.
It’s been quite a ride from there to becoming the second highest-rated player in her country (1924 points). But Santos is just getting started. On her vision board is her one big ambition - becoming Puerto Rico’s first Woman Grandmaster. The Olympiad in Chennai is giving her the right motivation towards this end.
“I am happy to be here and being able to meet players after so many months. I also had the opportunity to meet the strongest player in the world,” she says, referring to Magnus Carlsen, with a wide smile.
There is a big picture too. Santos’ national success and Olympiad experience will be things the Federation will hope to use to encourage more girls to take up the sport in the country.
“Currently, we don’t have many women active in chess, like what the trend is world over. The Federation organises tournaments and even makes videos and interviews with women in chess to promote the game and spread awareness. We also have chess as part of the curriculum in our public schools. Trainers also work and give special attention to promoting chess for girls. But there is much work left to do,” she explains.
Santos also struggles with what her own story symbolises and the pros and cons of the visibility of her impairment.
“I don’t have a problem talking about my disability, because it’s something I am born with. I don’t like it when the only important thing is my disability. Yes, it is a quality I have and an impairment, but it does not describe me as a person or a player,” she says.