In a society where attitudes and behaviors are easily swayed by what’s viral or trending on social media, the 1,500-year-old board game called chess might help improve how people approach some of the most pressing and complex issues, mold them to be better observers, and improve their critical thinking.
But first, the Philippines needs to rediscover its love of the game.
Indeed, chess, so popular here in the ’70s and ’80s, has fallen on hard times. Even the number of tournaments has shrunk to a handful. These days, our best players are in the United States: Super grandmaster Wesley So is playing for the American flag, having become a US citizen; GM Julio Catalino Sadorra coaches full-time at the University of Texas in Dallas, where he graduated in 2013 (he was a three-time World Olympiad top board player for the Philippines as well as the country’s highest rated chess player as recently as 2020).
Of course, it would be too much to expect more from Filipino chess icon Eugene Torre. Now 71, he has devoted 43 years of his life putting the Philippines on the chess world map, and last Oct. 4, he was inducted into the World Chess Hall of Fame of the World Chess Federation or FIDE.
With his induction, Torre became the first male chess player from Asia to be bestowed the honor. Women’s world champion Xie Jun, the Chinese GM, was inducted in 2019.
Torre is a chess trailblazer in the Philippines and in Asia. His milestones include formidable firsts: first Asian grandmaster when he clinched the board 1 silver medal at the 1974 Nice Olympiad in France; first Asian to defeat a reigning world champion, Russian chess player GM Anatoly Karpov, in 1976; and first Asian to reach the Candidates stage of the World Championship in 1982 (this tournament decides who will challenge the reigning world chess champion).
Another highlight of Torre’s career was when he became the official second—or one who assists a higher rated player in preparations for a tournament—of his close friend, the legendary American GM Bobby Fischer, in Fischer’s rematch with Russian GM Boris Spassky in 1992.
But it was in the Chess Olympiads—the biggest chess event in the world held biennially—that Torre would make a lasting mark. He was a member of the Philippine Olympiad team for a record 23 times—the most for any player in the tournament’s history. He also holds the distinction of having played the most games in the history of the Olympiad: 270, where he recorded 103 wins, 124 draws, and 43 losses, for a total score of 165 points—a mark regarded as second overall in Olympiad history.
In the 1988 Thessaloniki (Greece) Olympiad, Torre led the Philippines to its all-time best finish at 7th in the world. For the individual medal, he won three on Board One (silver in Nice 1974 and bronze in Malta 1980 and in Dubai 1986).
It was in the 2016 Baku (Azerbaijan) Olympiad when Torre, at the ripe age of 64, put up his most sterling performance, clinching the Board 3 bronze medal and emerging with the highest point total (10 of 11) among all participants.
Interestingly, it was So who won the individual gold while powering the US team to gold. In that 2016 Olympiad, the Philippines finished 58th out of 180 participating countries.
Passing the torch
So, born in the Philippines on Oct. 9, 1993, was once the Philippines’ best prospect for a world championship after Torre.
Now ranked 5th in the world, So rose to prominence rather quickly. In 2007 at age 14, he became the youngest Filipino ever to earn the grandmaster title. In 2008, he reached the 2610 Elo rating (Elo is the method for calculating the relative skill levels of chess players), becoming the youngest player in the history of the game to break the 2600 Elo barrier—even surpassing the record held by the reigning world champion, Magnus Carlsen of Norway.
But, alas, So decided to transfer to the US Chess Federation in 2014, two years after arriving in the United States. By February 2021, he had become an American citizen.
In an interview then, he said he loved it that anyone could strive to succeed in the United States: “You are not held back by your color, lack of connections, or the amount of money you have.”
So was probably referring to his frustration with Philippine sports politics, which likely peaked in 2013 when not only was he not given official recognition by but was also denied the P1-million incentive from the Philippine Sports Commission and the Philippine Olympic Committee after winning the gold medal at the 27th Summer Universiade (World University Games) in Kazan, Russia. His victory was a first for the Philippines.
The reason for the denial of both recognition and incentive was that he had somehow defied the National Chess Federation of the Philippines that wanted him to compete in the Asian Indoor Games. Moreover, under the Incentive Act of 2001, the Universiade was not on the list of events in which incentives were given to medal winners.
Still, So lamented his situation. “No player should be treated this way, especially when I worked so hard to bring pride to my country,” he said then in an interview.
‘A way out’
So’s big opportunity arose in 2012, when he was offered a chess scholarship by Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, in the United States. In an interview with Chess.com at that time, he explained that the scholarship was his way to finally get out of the Philippines, get a degree, and then find himself a job.
“I guess you could say chess was a way out for me,” he said.
Accepting the Webster scholarship proved pivotal as his training with the university coach, the Hungarian-American chess grandmaster Susan Polgar, allowed him to rise “from around #100 in the world” to No. 15 in less than two years. He would win five major tournaments in 2013, including the gold medal for the Philippines at the 27th Summer Universiade.
These series of victories steered So back to chess.
In fact, after winning the $100,000 first prize at the inaugural Millionaire Chess Open in Las Vegas in October 2013, he decided to leave Webster University to embark on a full-time career as a chess player. It was around this time that So met a Filipino-American couple, former actress Lotis Key and her husband, former basketball star Renato Kabigting, at a private dinner hosted by a common friend. The couple eventually decided to adopt So and take him into their home in Minnetonka, Minnesota.
Key, now So’s adoptive “mother and manager,” related in an interview that it was she who had advised So to focus 100% on playing chess as she could take care of all the arrangements (air and ground transport, lodgings, scheduling, even interviews,) while he pursued the No. 1 ranking in the world.
His pursuit of the goal is unrelenting. In December 2020, he stunned world No. 1 Carlsen on the latter’s 30th birthday, to win the Skilling Open. He repeated his success over Carlsen at the Opera Euro Rapid in February 2021.
Early in November, he won the inaugural Chess.com Global Championship, defeating the 18-year-old sensation GM Nihal Sarin in the final to bag the $200,000 (about P11.6 million) champion’s purse. It is his most lucrative prize so far this year.
US good for So
As early as 2018, Torre believed that So would not have achieved the same success had he not moved to the United States. Said Torre in an interview then with ChessBase India: “There are so many reasons, you know. Funding is one of the main things. [So] has been the beneficiary of a lot of support by the foundation. The family that he is with now is nice. He is comfortable with his life. Also, the level of competition in the United States is very high.”
In that same interview, Torre said no one should blame young chess players for turning their backs on the sport when sponsorships dried up along with the prize money. In 2016, for example, chess player GM Joey Antonio won a local tournament and took home the first prize amounting to a measly P18,000.
Torre was himself a victim of Philippine chess’ diminished status: In 2016, the Philippine Sports Commission slashed the monthly allowance of four GMs (Torre, Antonio, John Paul Gomez and Darwin Laylo) from P40,000 to P9,600 because chess was not played at the 2015 Southeast Asian Games.
At the height of chess’ popularity in the Philippines in the ’70s-’80s, there were countless lucrative chess events sponsored by the government and private institutions. Even the top players of the time were employed by certain government agencies and big corporations, which provided them financial support as they bolstered their respective chess clubs.
These days, with government funding provided on an ad hoc basis, chess players are forced to dig into their own pockets to join international (and rated) tournaments, which make up their only chance to improve their Elo ratings and elevate their chess title in the process.
When they arrive in the host country, they often have to rely on the generosity of Filipino expatriates for lodgings and other logistical support for the duration of their chess campaign.
Torre, now very selective with the tournaments in which he participates , believes that the Philippines can be steered back to chess glory, as in the old times. It only needs to encourage more players in grassroots competitions, he says, and, of course, provide steady sources of funding.
Needless to say, the determination to recover lost ground is imperative.