Typhoon Haiyan Can't Erase Chess Culture of Philippines

  • FM MikeKlein
  • on 20-11-13 12:44.

Recently, the massive Typhoon Haiyan directly hit the Philippines, a country with a rich tradition of chess. The country is easily the strongest island nation in the Pacific, with Australia and Indonesia a distant second and third, respectively. With a dozen active grandmasters and a top-30 world player, the Philippines is behind only China and India as the best chess country in Asia.

The country also has more depth than you might think. The November Elo rating of their 100th-best player is 2122, higher than China's 100th player (2121). Chess.com itself is certainly aware of the game's popularity among Filipinos, as the island ranks fourth in terms of total members per country on our site. The tragedy taking place in the Philippines and the wealth of chess history inspired me to write a piece on the history of chess in their country.

The historic storm, which is known as a typhoon in the Pacific Ocean and a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean, made landfall on November 7. Haiyan (called Yolanda in the Philippines) had sustained winds of nearly 200 miles per hour. The classification was known as category-5, which is the highest on the scale, and by some estimates this was the most ferocious storm ever to make landfall.

As of this writing, almost 4,000 are confirmed dead, with thousands more missing. Property damage is expected to be in the multi-billions of U.S. Dollars, with the country's economy suffering losses several times that amount.

Coupled with a recent earthquake, the country needs to bolster its infrastructure and provide basic supplies to its people before picking itself up and beginning to heal and rebuild. If you would like to help, please consider making a donation to UNICEF or the Philippine Red Cross.

Below is only a small sampling of how the Philippines has shaped the chess world. Comment below if we missed any of your favorites!

Any retrospective of Filipino chess must begin with the exploits of GM Eugenio Torre, the continent's first grandmaster. He cemented the title in 1974 by also winning an individual bronze medal at the Olympiad in France (going undefeated over 19 games). Two years later, while on home soil, he beat reigning World Champion Anatoly Karpov.

At that Category XV tournament (which featured Karpov, Ljubomir Ljubojevic and Walter Browne), Torre won by 1.5 points even though he was rated last by a long margin.

Torre stayed at the top for quite some time. He played in 19 consecutive Olympiads for his country, with 17 of the them being on board one. He won two more bronze medals. Then after sitting out in 2008, Torre has come back to play in two more. His last appearance, in Istanbul 2012, set the record for most Olympiad appearances (21 - GM Lajos Portisch has 20) and his 149.5 all-time points are the second-highest ever (to Portisch).

Torre as a top-20 player in 1984

Here's a great final position from the 1976 Olympiad in Haifa, Israel. Look at how helpless Torre made his opponent's army:

Chess politics was complicated that year - the Soviet Union and many Eastern bloc countries boycotted since they didn't recognize Israel. Some nations set up an alternate Olympiad in Tripoli, Libya. Chess-crazed Philippines was one of only three nations to send teams to both "Olympiads"!

Torre's fame no doubt helped in bringing the 1992 Olympiad to the capital, Manila. Numerous notable events happened that year, including a newly-independent Russian team winning the first of their six straight team golds. Though only an FM and technically playing as an alternate, Vladimir Kramnik scored an incredible 8.5/9 for a performance rating of 2958 and individual gold.

The famous game Averbakh-Kotov was also resurrected, with GM John Nunn ably channeling his fellow accomplished author:

Later, Torre would also represent the Philippines in several Asian Team and Asian City Championships. In 1992, he seconded Bobby Fischer in his rematch with Boris Spassky. Later this friendship would partially tarnish his image, as he assisted in Fischer's diatribes on Philippine radio. Despite being in his 60s, Torre remains quite active, having played 24 rated games in the last FIDE rating period.

Torre's mantle was passed several years ago when a budding youngster by the name of Wesley So came along. At the age of 15, he became the youngest person ever to pass the 2600 threshold (besting the mark set by a young man named Carlsen). A year later, he won the Corus "C" Group and set the Pinoy all-time record rating of 2627, passing GM Mark Paragua's 2621.

GM Mark Paragua, winning the 2012 Philippine National Championship (often called the "Battle of the Grandmasters") [courtesy Chessdom.com]

Paragua has been at the top of the Philippine's charts for a while, becoming the torchbearer as Torre aged. Look at how he used a bevy of open lines to beat the current world number two:

So's most notable achievement that gave him worldwide notoriety came six months later. At the 2009 FIDE World Cup, he beat sixth-seeded GM Vassily Ivanchuk in the second round, then took out reigning champion GM Gata Kamsky the following round.

So is now the undisputable top player for the Philippines. He has board one firmly locked up at national team events - and in four Olympiads, he has only lost one game, and that was as an FM in 2006. He now attends college in the United States, but that hasn't stopped him from having an incredible 2013 campaign. In just this year he has won or tied for first in the Reykjavik Open, Calgary International, Las Vegas International, World University Championship and Unive Chess Tournament. In January, he will compete in Wijk aan Zee's Tata "A" Group for the first time.

So, after winning this year's Unive (courtesy Lennart Ootes)

Other top players have come out of the Filipino system, including GM Julio Sadorra, who is now number three on the country's rating list. He came to the U.S. on a chess scholarship to the University of Texas - Dallas, and played sparkling chess in the United States Chess League. Last season his performance rating in the USCL was 2869. One of his wins won Game of the Week and was even featured in the New York Times.

GM Julio Sadorra (courtesy uschessleague.com)

Many of the other top players are similarly young. Like Sadorra, the Philippine's number two and four, GM Oliver Barbosa and GM John Paul Gomez, were all born in 1986, solidifying the national team for years to come. In Istanbul, Barbosa beat or drew many 2600s and played 100 points above his rating. All five players outperformed their level, including Paragua.

A complete accounting of the most influential Filipino chess figures would be incomplete without also discussing former FIDE President Florencio Campomanes. Twice a national champion and Ivy League educated, he made his true mark later in the world of chess politics. As president for 13 years, he presided over the controversial decision to abandon the first Karpov-Kasparov match, but also greatly increased FIDE's member nations.

Campomanes in 2008 (photo courtesy karpidis, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license)

Previous to his leadership, he helped organize the 1978 Karpov-Korchnoi title match in Baguio City, Philippines (one of the qualifying Interzonals was in Manila). In the first of two grueling title defenses against Korchnoi, Karpov needed a full three months to edge his challenger. The protracted antics and gravitas of the match even created a mention of the Philippine's in the musical Chess - other elements of the musical were likely inspired by the match.

After falling behind 5-2 in the race to six wins, Korchnoi won three out of four before losing the next game, ending the match. This is the penultimate game that evened the score 5-5. Notice the similarities between this and Magnus Carlsen's game six win in the current World Championship Match - the enemy king is hemmed in on the edge by his own pawn as an enemy bishop's pawn races up the board.

The country is also still very much on the FIDE power map, as Kasparov himself just visited this week in his campaign for his own presidency.

Even boxing champion and politician Manny Pacquiao got in on the act recently. Pacquiao is several magnitudes more popular than anyone else in his country, and he lent his name and sponsorshop to this year's Asian Individual Championship. He played a prescribed 20-move game with Torre, which was agreed drawn, perhaps out of sportsmanship.

Torre (left) and Pacquiao (right) at this year's Asian Individual Championship (courtesy Fide.com)

Lastly, the current World Champion Viswanathan Anand also spent a brief period of his formative years in the Philippines. Despite mostly growing up in India, he spent one year in the Philippines, where he claimed to watch a television program devoted to chess. In an interview with GM Susan Polgar, Anand described what happened next:

And there they had a TV program that was on in the afternoon, one to two or something like that, when I was in school. So she would write down all the games that they showed and the puzzles, and in the evening we solved them together.

Of course my mother and her family used to play some chess, and she used to play her younger brother, so she had some background in chess, but she never went to a club or anything like that. So we solved all these puzzles and sent in our answers together. And they gave the prize of a book to the winner.

And over the course of many months, I won so many prizes. At one point they just said take all the books you want, but don't send in any more entries.

Once again, if you wish to support the Philippines in this time of great need, UNICEF and the Philippine's Red Cross are two excellent options.

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  • 3 jaar geleden


    Thank you for a well-researched and well-written article. I just want to add some details that I feel should also not be missed in any discussion of Philippine chess:

    Philippine chess history has to include Rodolfo Tan Cardoso (he died August 21 just last year), the country’s first international master who at 21 joined an elite bunch of world class chess players in the 1958 Portoroz Interzonal and achieved a sensational upset win over David Bronstein, a then prominent aspirant for the world championship, who subsequently got eliminated as a qualifier (by half a point!) and resulted in then 14-year old Bobby Fischer becoming one of the six qualifiers to the world championship candidate matches.  Leonard Barden, a well-known British chess writer wrote in the Guardian in his piece on David Bronstein in 2006: "At Portoroz (Slovenia) 1958 he could have qualified, but lost dismally in the final round to a little-known Filipino, Rudolfo Cardoso, a result which allowed the American Bobby Fischer to become a candidate at the age of 14. Then at Amsterdam 1964, when he met an unknown Peruvian, Oscar Quinones, near the end, he was a bag of nerves." 

    "At that time chess players could still converse with spectators, and Bronstein came up to me in an agitated state. He could not concentrate, Cardoso was still on his mind. The game was drawn, and with it Bronstein's last realistic chance to qualify as a candidate again."

    Though Cardoso finished 19th, in that Interzonal, he drew his games with the tournament winner Mikhail Tal, Bent Larsen and Yuri Averbakh and won four. (I also have a side story, which I read in the original tournament book of the Portoroz Interzonal, a rare find in a garage sale in Hawaii many years ago, which sadly I subsequently lost.: During the tournament, a straw poll was conducted among the women spectators in the tournament hall to vote on whom they consider the “most eligible bachelor” among the chessplayers. Rodolfo Tan Cardoso was their choice!)

    Before Portoroz, Cardoso won the individual silver medal in the 12th Chess Olympiad in Moscow as 4th board with a won-loss-draw record of +11,-2,=4 for a winning percentage of .765 (Wikipedia). He then placed 5th in the 1957 World Junior Championship which was won by American William Lombardy. Though he lost an 8-game Pepsi-sponsored match against Bobby Fischer in 1957 both of whom were junior champions in their respective countries, Cardoso won one game and drew two. He therefore has the distinction of being the only Filipino who won a game against Fischer.

    It appears that Cardoso won the tournament in Casablanca in 1974 (and not a tie for first place with three others as reported in the Wikipedia, but please correct me if I am wrong) ahead of Alexander Kotov and Florin Gheorghiu whom he beat and drew respectively in their games. He took second place in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1967 which Averbakh won.

    Finally, also before Eugene Torre became well-known, Rosendo Balinas was considered the strongest Asian (if you exclude Soviet Russia) chess player during the 60’s and early 70’s (Wikipedia). He has the distinction of being the only Filipino to win a tournament in then Soviet Russia (at Odessa in 1976) and did so with no loss against all his Soviet opponents! Balinas won the silver medal in the 1966 17th Chess Olympiad in Havana, Cuba by scoring 15-1/2 in 20 games (.775) behind gold medalist Mikhail Tal who was awarded the gold in his 11 wins out of 13 games (.846). In a “Beat Bobby Fischer” series of matches sponsored by Meralco in Manila in 1967, Balinas was the only then national master that held Fischer to a draw.

    Let me conclude with today’s news as I write this (1/11/14) that Wesley So just won his first round game, in one of the world’s strongest chess tournament now underway, the 76thTata Steel Chess 2014 in Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands. A great start!


  • 3 jaar geleden



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  • 3 jaar geleden


    The country's top player is steadily going up and if there is someone out there who can match up style wise with the current world champion, it will be Mr. Wesley So...It is not farfetched in the future that this two will be fighting for the Chess World Championship..

    Thanks for the article,with the recent tragedy we had, you surely uplift our spirit as a nation...

  • 3 jaar geleden


    Thank you FM Mike Klien. This article means so much for us Filipino chess lovers in our times of challenges.

    Maraming salamat po at mabuhay po ang Chess.com!

  • 3 jaar geleden


    i would like to correct CM mortalbovine Russia is not in Asia

  • 3 jaar geleden


    Very informative and inspiring.Thank you very much FM MikeKlein for the article.

  • 3 jaar geleden


    Thanks for the article.

  • 3 jaar geleden


    Youre awesome! Mike. No wonder youre the chess journalist of the year! i watch a lot of youre chess video lessons and so does my daughter. Who will be one of the US representative in the WYCC 2013. We thouroughly enjoyed them and i will tell her about the very well thought, informative article you wrote about Philippine chess! We are of Philippine descent. Thank you!!!!! Julia will play in the girls U12

  • 3 jaar geleden


    Mike. Thumbs up for you.

  • 3 jaar geleden


    Thanks FM MikeKlein for this rich and informatice article about the Philippine chess culture.

    And for the record here at Chess.com, 2 Philippine teams are in the top 10 leader board, namely Philippines' Finest Chess Club (4th) and Team Philippines United (8th).  In terms of a country team, it is second only to Turkey.

  • 3 jaar geleden


    Wow! Well researched article. 

    Chess is a potential sports (potential to be more popular and to be able to produce great athletes) here in the Philippines since it does not involved height and size. 

    If only the politics wil be minimize in chess (as well as in other sports discipline).


  • 3 jaar geleden


    You sir, Mike Klein will have my respect for a lifetime. many thanks

  • 3 jaar geleden

    FM MikeKlein

    @mortalbovine - no problem, happy to explain.

  • 3 jaar geleden


    Great article...

  • 3 jaar geleden


    informative article... for the Filipino chess players. 

  • 3 jaar geleden


    I'm proud to be a pinoy, because I love my country

  • 3 jaar geleden

    CM mortalbovine

    @ MikeKlein:  And I stand corrected.  Thanks for informative research and clarification.  That's why you are a top US chess journalist!

  • 3 jaar geleden

    FM MikeKlein

    @mortalbovine - I actually researched this heavily while writing the article. There is not consensus as to what defines exact continental boundaries, so each sport or activity claims its own borders.

    For example, Israel is usually technically considered to be in Asia, but always plays in the European Team Championship. In Asian championships, teams like Russia, Armenia and Georgia do not play, they also play in Europe.

    Check out the official FIDE lists:




    The usual, albeit arbitrary, measure of a country's strength is the average of its top 10 players (as FIDE defines it on its "Top Country" list). Philippines is indeed the 3rd-highest Asian country on this list.

    So I stand by my facts.

  • 3 jaar geleden


    Very nice article!

    Hope all the Philliphine people are safe.

  • 3 jaar geleden

    CM mortalbovine

    No disrespect at all, but I don't think FM Klein is right that the Philippines is behind only China and India as the best chess country in Asia:  Russia is in Asia (and Europe, of course).  Also, one could make a good case for Armenia (with its recent Chess Olympiad victories) being ranked ahead of the Philippines.

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