Monday, April 21, 2008

Theres The Rub - Time out
by Conrado de Quiros/Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines - It’s not really that we don’t have alternatives, it’s simply that for the strangest reasons we somehow cannot see them. This time around though I don’t mean that in the political sense, I mean that in the sports sense.

Case in point is the Dubai Chess Open that ended early last week. That tournament drew a fairly tough field: 131 contestants from 25 countries and a score of grandmasters. For a couple of weeks, the gladiators battled it out on the board—if you’ve ever played the game, you know that isn’t an exaggeration, even if, or precisely because, the gladiatorial combat takes place in the mind. When the smoke cleared, a champion emerged. That champion was a Filipino. His name is Wesley So.At first blush his feat might not rank along with Eugene Torre becoming the first-ever Asian grandmaster in 1973 or Torre beating then reigning world champion Anatoly Karpov in a game when he came here in 1976. But that is only at first blush.

At second blush, it is an astonishing accomplishment. That’s so because Wesley So is 14 years old! He is the seventh youngest person in the world to have earned a GM norm. He is currently the world’s youngest grandmaster.

So why aren’t we jumping for joy? Why aren’t we dancing in the streets? You tell me.

We have in our midst a chess phenomenon, someone who doesn’t just have world-class potential—that potential has already unraveled—but vast possibilities. What So can do over the next few years with a little help from his friends, well, the world is there for the taking. It’s the little help from his friends that’s problematic.

I read and saw the item about his Dubai victory in the papers and TV last week, but it was only one of several sports stories. For the next couple of days after that, I looked for follow-up stories, for some sidelights about the tournament, for some interviews from him, for some peeks into his personal life, but ... nothing.

When Manny Pacquiao wins over even obscure opponents, it gets front-page treatment in newspapers or lands among the top stories on TV. It gets to run for days, the public regaled with every detail from the ads on his shorts to what he ate before the fight. On the occasion that he fights abroad, he comes home to a welcoming parade and confetti. Legislators propose to add to his already fat purse and even cite him for heroism. The youngest GM in the world wins a major international tournament and he comes home only to the welcoming embrace of his family and friends.

There are only three sports we have achieved world-class status in. Those are boxing, billiards and chess. We have Pacquaio and Flash Elorde in boxing, Pacquiao being arguably the more illustrious. As a friend said, he must be the most hated person in all of Mexico. We have Bata Reyes and Django Bustamante in billiards. Though Reyes’ game has dipped over the last several years, he still commands awe and fondness when he plays. And we have Torre and now So in chess. Unfortunately for chess, only boxing and billiards have gotten the attention and support they deserve.

Public officials troop all the way to Las Vegas to boost Pacquiao’s morale (and income). Several private groups and individuals are backing our billiards bets and provide them if not with kingly accommodations at least with commodious ones when they compete abroad. Chess players have to beg for their fare money and make do with barely livable lodgings. Half the time they’re freezing their butts off while pushing wood in the cold countries where chess as much as football sets people afire.

Surely we can throw some help their way? Just divert a portion of the money given to basketball to chess and it’ll go a long way. Hell, forget a portion, give it all to chess. It’s the better investment. We have not, and we will never, get anywhere in basketball, we will only offer the spectacle of self-flagellation. But we have managed to secure a niche in world chess, and can enlarge it. In basketball, height is might, in chess brain is grain, even if that sounds pilit. We do not have the height, but we have the brain. Or at least some of us do.

It’s simply not true that chess is far too esoteric a game to turn into a national pastime, which is the only way we can develop a pool from which to draw future talents. It did become so, or nearly so, in the 1970s as a result of the exploits of Bobby Fischer, who captured our imagination, and later Torre. And it got some support from government, Marcos being anxious to limn the rust of his tin-pot rule with the glitter of the Royal Game. We even had TV shows that featured analyses of tournaments. By the end of the decade, however, both government and the private sector turned their attention to basketball, which had become exceedingly popular. And chess fell back into obscurity.

That our chess players have risen to these heights amid the greatest adversity, it’s a lesson in heroism. Life will never checkmate them. But it’s a shame for us to allow this to continue. Surely we can give them the attention they deserve? Surely we can give them the accolade they’ve earned? Surely we can give them the support they need?

Between boxing, billiards and chess, it’s a no-brainer which sport can give this country more prestige. As one grandmaster said, evaluating the importance of chess: There are only two kinds of games—chess and all others. I doubt anyone will ever be remembered for saying, “There are only two kinds of Filipino passions—basketball and all others.”

The title of this column is “Time out,” but it should really be “Time in.” The shabby way we treat chess and chess players in this country says something more than our low sports IQ. Which is: Truly, we do not lack for accomplishments and alternatives, we just can’t seem to see them.

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