Chess mania in the ’70s: Queen’s Gambit, anyone?
The current interest in chess after the highly successful Netflix series, “The Queen’s Gambit,” takes me back to the time when there was a chess craze in the Philippines that was ignited by the Fischer-Spassky world championship match in 1972 in Iceland. Many Filipinos, including activists, took to chess, membership clubs sprouted, and the sales of chess sets increased. I was also told that at Plaza Miranda at night, expert chess players would set up their sets on flimsy tables and, hoping to lure innocent bystanders and make a fast buck, would offer odds like one less pawn, one less piece, or even giving up the first two to three moves. I never got to verify this highly interesting tale, though, as the only times I would be in Plaza Miranda would be during protest rallies in the afternoons.
At the academe, though, chess had long been a favorite pastime. During my freshman and sophomore years at the Mindanao State University in Marawi, chess was a tournament sport and part of the yearly athletic games. Lesser players like me, however, contented ourselves with playing each other in our dormitory rooms for nothing more than a cup of coffee and sandwich (when our allowance from home had not yet come), or simply for “honor.” It might be of interest to the reader that the “Queen’s Gambit” became my favorite opening because I loved the offer of an early pawn sacrifice, knowing that (barring any stupid move) I would surely win it back while gaining positional advantage.
I owned a small magnetic chess set with authentic-looking pieces that was a favorite with the ladies as they found it “cute.” That chess set helped me win a seat at the College of Liberal Arts Student Council, as I won handily in the Ladies’ Dorm while narrowly losing at the Boys’ Dorm.
When I transferred to the University of the Philippines Diliman in 1968, chess had already taken root but became an obsession by 1970, inspired by the international successes of Filipino whiz Eugene Torre who would later become Asia’s first Grandmaster and reach the Candidates’ tournament for the World Championship. Student activists played chess when they were not marching in the streets or staging protest rallies. In Vinzons’ Hall, the café at the first floor rented out chess sets and chess clocks by the hour. I guess having this service enabled the café to attract customers, as its food was really not that good.
It was at Vinzons’ that I had the fortune of playing with Glenn Bordonada, a UP student and Philippine national chess team member known as the “Mad Attacker.” I even managed to beat him once (after two dozen or so attempts), but only because he absentmindedly allowed me to double rooks and threaten mate in an improbable end game. Glenn would win a gold medal at the 1978 World Chess Olympiad while playing fourth board for the Philippine team, and pick up a few more golds in several Asian Chess Championships.
At the UP philosophy department where I was an undergraduate, the chair, Dr. Armando Bonifacio, became a patron and ordered several tournament-size chess sets from a Makati shop. I even purchased one of those sets for myself. Faculty and students from other departments at the Faculty Center would come and play with each other in the conference room while discussing politics and philosophy. Some games would get so heated that a losing player would sometimes overturn the set, scattering the pieces all over the room and storming out of the department fuming in anger. A major attraction was the nationally-ranked philosophy undergrad (and later faculty) Leonardo de Castro regaling us by playing simultaneous and/or blindfold chess and winning all the time!
A few weeks after martial law was declared, I showed up at a chess club in Cubao and saw Glenn Bordonada, who remarked: “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be in the underground already?” To my dismay, he declined to play a game with me.
By the way, I still have the tournament-size chess set I bought back in 1971—preserved in mint condition. As for the “cute” magnetic chess set, a lady friend borrowed it in the late ’70s and never gave it back. If she can read this piece, can I ask her to kindly return it now?
Eduardo C. Tadem, Ph.D., is a retired professor of Asian Studies, University of the Philippines Diliman. He has not played chess with another human being in the last 15 years.
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