Friday, July 27, 2007

Meet your Pinoy grandmasters

By Frank “Boy” Pestaño

A CHESS grandmaster is as rare as a five-carat diamond. Out of the estimated 600 million players worldwide, only 946, at the latest count, are grandmasters. Five of them are Filipinos. Six if you consider the late Rosendo Balinas.

Eugene Torre has the distinction of being the first grandmaster from Asia, the world’s most populous region.

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He became GM in 1974 when he won the silver medal in board one, behind future champion Anatoly Karpov, in the Nice Olympiad, France. Bombi Aznar was the team manager or captain then.

Eugene has played in the Olympiad for 19 consecutive times and is on his way to beating the record of 20 appearances by Lajos Portisch of Hungary.

In 1982 he qualified for the prestigious candidates matches. Incidentally, he was our guest in 1990 and I played several games with him at the then Cebu Plaza.

Tall and good-looking, he was voted one of the 10 sexiest celebrities in the 70’s and even starred in a movie Basta Isipin mo Mahal Kita, opposite Vilma Santos, who was once romantically linked with him.

It is well known that Eugene is Bobby Fischer’s best friend and he was his second in the 1992 rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia.

Although Rosendo Balinas Jr. died in 1998, no list can be complete without mentioning his achievements. He was a lawyer by profession and a journalist. In 1967 when Bobby Fischer visited Manila to play the country’s best 10 players in a series, only Balinas held the future World Champion to a draw.

He achieved his greatest victory at the Odessa International tournament in 1976, where he won with a score of 10/14 and was undefeated against all Russian opponents.

It was only the second time that a foreigner won on Russian soil. The last was 35 years before by Capablanca.

Back in the mid-80’s it was my habit to go to Luneta on Sundays and waste my money playing with the masters who congregate there. One of those I played with was a young lad whom I later knew as Rogelio “Joey” Antonio. I lost very badly even though he gave me odds of two pawns! Back then, most masters, even IMs, were wary of him although he was relatively unknown and untitled.

He has played many times in the Olympiad mostly on board 2 behind Torre. In Istanbul 2000, he scored 7/10 for a performance rating of 2682.He has a reputation of being one of the best-dressed player in the local and international circuit.

Another fixture in Luneta in the 80’s was a little boy of about 7 who, during weekends, came with his father or uncle and an elder sister.

He was already playing with the crocodiles there and his sister was holding her own. Nelson Mariano II is now a grandmaster and his sister, Christine Rose has become a five-time Ladies National Champion.

Nelson earned his third and final norm in the Asean Masters in Bangkok in 2004. He is also a many time Olympian, and his
three wins and 3 draws record in Bled, Slovenia in 2002 is considered his best performance.

Our fifth grandmaster, Bong Villamayor, is mostly inactive. According to him, he has semi-retired three times. He currently works as director of training, programs and development for Power Chess Asia based in Singapore. He became a GM in 2000.
He is also offering his services as coach/trainer for a fee through the internet.

Finally, Mark Paragua has the distinction of being the youngest National Master when he was nine years old and the youngest Filipino GM at 20.

At the 1998 Disney World Championship, he emerged champion in the 14 under division, beating current sensation Bu Xiangzi of China via tiebreak.

He qualified for the World Championship in Tripoli, Libya losing to Victor Bologan in 2004 in the first round. He also qualified for the World Cup 2005, where he upset GM Sergei Movsesian, whose rating was a high 2632 in the first round. He narrowly lost in the next round via tiebreak to an even stronger opponent Alexey Dreev, who is rated 2697.

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