Three weeks ago we ran a column on chess entitled, “Random chess is the future of chess and Philippine-born Wesley So.” We wrote the column after news came out that reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen explicitly accused 19-year-old American Hans Niemann, on Sept. 29, of cheating in the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, Missouri. Carlsen posted his accusation on Twitter and rocked the otherwise generally placid chess world. Carlsen withdrew from the tournament without providing specific evidence of how Niemann cheated. Carlsen however said that Niemann did not appear stressed throughout their match. In short, Niemann’s demeanor was inconsistent with the ordinary behavior of grandmasters when competing against the world’s best.
As expected, the column drew reactions from a mixed bag including plain chess enthusiasts in the corporate world, and credible veteran sports writers and editors. Interestingly, it did not elicit any “profound” reaction from sports writers who have for years commented with some sarcasm that “chess is not a sport.” Perhaps these parties, some of whom appear to serve as propagandists and apologists for pseudo sports leaders and so-called sports associations, will do a 360-degree turn when it is to the interest of their principals to declare chess a sport. More about this issue of chess as a sport or just a “parlor game” further below. But before we leave the topic, it must be pointed out that the Philippine Chess Federation is a member of our national Olympic committee. And so is another “parlor game,” tournament bridge. So, are both chess and bridge sports? Is membership of a sport in our national Olympic committee a basis for calling a game or sport, a sport?
One of the most interesting reactions we received was from Grandmaster and The Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) awardee, Eugenio (Eugene) Torre. I met Torre for the first time early in his career and interviewed him for a magazine article in Baguio which the Iloilo-born Torre had then chosen to be his base. Much of the information we have on Torre came from that interview, which we subsequently updated based on conversations with him and articles about him.
Torre, who will turn 71 on Nov. 4, became, at 22, the first Filipino and Asian to qualify for the Grandmaster title after winning the silver medal in the 21st chess Olympiad in 1974 in Nice, France. As Torre turned 30 in the 1980s, he continued to dominate Philippine chess, and did so well into the 1990s playing Board 1 in 17 chess Olympiads. Like Rafael (Paeng) Nepomuceno who was reigning supreme in Philippine 10-pin bowling from the 1970s to the late ’90s, Torre’s name became synonymous with Philippine chess, He eventually made it to the World Chess Hall of Fame. Torre’s best world rating in 1983 was 20.
Torre has a number of achievements, the most pivotal of which was beating world champion Anatoly Karpov in Manila in 1976. That victory gained for Torre a slot in the Candidates’ matches that lead to the world championship. Torre eventually earned a spot in 1992 in the World Chess Championships. He however lost to Hungary’s Zoltan Ribli in their series.
EUGENE TORRE AND BOBBY FISCHERTorre would develop a solid friendship with the controversial Bobby Fischer. Torre would be Fischer’s second in the latter’s successful world championship match against the then USSR’s Boris Spassky. Torre and Fischer were ranged against the entire Soviet chess structure which had, with state backing, analyzed all openings, variations, moves, and every aspect of the sport. In 1996, Torre got involved with Fischer when the American (turned Icelander) launched Fischer Random chess or chess 960 which stands for its 960 different opening moves.
With respect to the accusations of Carlsen, Torre said: “One in the know here thinks that Carlsen has basis for his accusation [as cheating could have been done] with the aid of a friend by transmitting signals via high tech ways. Hence the games are now 30 minutes delayed when following in the internet. He (Niemann) won his first-round game against a lower ranked opponent. Let’s wait and see his performance for the whole tournament.”
Torre emphasized that “Fischer Random Chess or Chess 960 will completely erase opening memorization and preparation. Right on the first move, players will be forced first to assess the position before making a move. Hence, opening preparation will no longer matter.”
Torre says that “as Bobby mentioned, it will be mano-a-mano right from the start.” Obviously, Fischer was taking potshots at the Russians who had a whole organization studying opening moves and their multiple possible variations. For the USSR, supremacy in chess — in sports for that matter — was a serious political statement. The lengths to which they went to establish supremacy ended in disaster as State-sponsored doping and use of performance enhancing drugs and state-managed cover up led to the suspension of the athletics team and later the entire Olympics delegation.
Torre believes that Chess 960 is part of the struggle of humans against technology being used for the wrong purposes or to create undue advantage. While he believes that Random Chess is a step in the right direction, “in due time though, the computer will overcome man even in Fischer Random. But for human chess struggle (or for human vs. human confrontation), it will always be new and constant in Fischer Random. Hence, the 30-minute delay of live chess might still be needed unless we discover new measures to prevent cheating when shown live.”
IS CHESS A SPORT?Now, we go back to the question: “Is chess a sport?” For whatever its worth and for the information of misguided purists, chess has been recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) since 2000. It was an event at the Asian Games in 2006 in Doha and again in Guangzhou in 2010. It is also, according to various reports, considered for inclusion in the Pan-American Games.
In July 2021, the International Chess Federation (FIDE) officially launched a campaign to get chess into the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. Recently reelected FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich and French Chess Federation President Bachar Kouatly met with French journalists as part of the offensive to include chess in the Paris Olympics.
Advancing the cause of chess as a sport is Chess.com which attempts to answer the question. Chess.com is, among others, an internet chess server and news website. Its response to the question starts with, “chess is both a game and a sport. Here are some ways that chess is a sport. Chess is:
1. Physically demanding — chess players do not compete based on athletic prowess but it is essential for elite chess players to be in excellent physical shape.
2. Competitive — anyone who has played a chess game has felt the drive to win.
3. Demands skill — elite players spend a lifetime honing their craft, practicing openings, studying end games.
4. Players practice sportsmanship — etiquette is extremely important in chess.
5. Is recognized as a sport — the IOC has recognized chess as a sport.
There are several other ways chess is a sport — it is universal, it is a mind sport, the sport inspires national fervor, it has doping controls. All these qualities and more truly make chess a sport.
Eugene Torre, a product of Philippine chess development, and a gentleman, continues to be a model of sportsmanship and decency as he competes in the professional circuit.
Philip Ella Juico’s areas of interest include the protection and promotion of democracy, free markets, sustainable development, social responsibility and sports as a tool for social development. He obtained his doctorate in business at De La Salle University. Dr. Juico served as secretary of Agrarian Reform during the Corazon C. Aquino administration.