Why PH chess icon Eugene Torre isn’t bothered by So becoming US citizen

Manolo Pedralvez

Posted at Mar 06 2021 06:24 PM | Updated as of Mar 06 2021 08:39 PM

Filipino revered Grandmaster Eugene Torre doesn’t begrudge Wesley So for becoming an American citizen, stressing that the heart and soul of the former chess prodigy “will always be a Filipino.”

“It’s OK with me. What is important is that Wes (So’s nickname) declares in his interviews that he still has the heart and soul of a Filipino,” Torre said Saturday, a day after the United Chess Federation announced on its website that So had acquired American citizenship last Feb. 26.

Torre pointed out that before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, So would proudly don a barong Tagalog, the country’s national wardrobe for men, whenever he would accept an award for his chess accomplishment anywhere in the world. 

“In the future, kapag nag-world chess champion na siya (So), palagay ko barong Tagalog pa rin ang suot niya. (In the event So becomes a world chess champion, I believe he will be still wear a barong Tagalog in accepting the award.)”

Torre felt blessed to be among those who saw So’s rise from the ranks from being a wunderkind to a formidable world-class player.

“Even then when he playing in the under-10 age group international tournament I told others that we had in So was a rare find and would need the country’s full support,” he noted, referring to the child standout’s 19th-place finish at the 2003 world youth championships in Haikidiki, Greece.

So switched chess federations in 2014, two years after he was accepted as a chess scholar at Webster University located in Webster Groves, Missouri.

This was through the recruitment of woman Hungarian GM Susan Polgar, who founded the Susan Polgar Institute of Chess Excellence, and headed the school’s chess program at that time.

The 1996 women’s world champion, Polgar herself changed allegiances and played under the USCF starting in 2002, emerging as the American chess body’s Grandmaster of the Year in 2003, the first woman to hold the distinction.

On changing federations

Torre said a likely turning point in So’s shifting to the USCF was what occurred in 2013 when the youthful chess player represented the Philippines at the University Games, an Olympic-style competition for student athletes, held in Kazan, Russia. 

The delegation was accredited by the Federation of School Sports Association of the Philippines, which was controlled by former Basketball Association of the Philippines secretary-general Graham Lim.

Lim was heavily involved in the basketball leadership intramurals that led to the country’s suspension by the International Basketball Federation, the world sports body known by its French acronym FIBA, in 2005, and the emergence of Samahang Basketbol ng Piipinas as the new National Sports Association for the sport.

Lim was pitted against businessman-sportsman Manny Pangilinan, the SBP’s first president, who found a staunch ally in former Philippine Olympic Committee president Jose Cojuangco Jr.

The fallout from that controversy would ripple several years later, with So an unwitting casualty despite his outstanding golden achievement in the 27th Universiade.

It was no mean feat for the Filipino player, who needed two tie-breaks, capped by a solid win playing with the black pieces in beating Armenian Savian Andriasian in a nerve-wracking Armageddon game to clinch the country’s first gold medal in the meet.

While the milestone was met with popular acclaim back home, local sports leaders appeared lukewarm rewarding So’s achievement since FESSAP was still identified with the Manila-born Lim, who was deported in 2012 over questions of his citizenship. 

The POC noted that the US-based So did not play for a local school and it had not authorized FESSAP to field a team to the Universiade. Meanwhile, the National Chess Federation of the Philippines led by Rep. Prospero Pichay Jr. kept a low profile on the issue.

PSC chairman Richie Garcia, who is a golfing buddy of Cojuangco, said then that it was unable to grant an incentive to the player without the POC’s endorsement.

“Eto yata yong isang naging tampo ni Wesley since hindi siya nabigyan ng incentive (I believe this was what upset So, because he was not given an incentive),” Torre said.

But he was quick to defend Pichay and the NCFP, “because usually Wes got more than that from the federation and whose allowance from the PSC was often higher than myself and the other senior GMs. Cong. Pichay gave him all-out support.”

Second home away from home

Torre, Asia’s first grandmaster, said that another factor that might have prompted So in playing for the US was the nurturing environment that he found in the household of his adopted family, former pro player Renato “Bambi” Kabigting and his wife, ex-actress Lotis Key, in Minnesota. Key acts as So’s manager.

The Kabigtings are evangelical Christians, with Kabigting known for taking Key to his basketball outreach games with the ministry Sports Ambassadors in Manila during their courtship stage.

Kabigting suited up with fellow PBA players Alex Tan, Eddie Boy Mendoza, Padim Israel, Joy Carpio and Avelino “Samboy” Lim Jr. Israel, who is married to actress Rio Locsin, and the US-based Mendoza, who had a “bad boy” image during his playing days, are now both pastors. 

So has embraced the Christian beliefs of his adopted parents, giving an interview with the magazine Christianity Today about his faith. 

“Kasi naramdaman ni Wes yong home-away-from-home atmosphere kay Bambi and Lotis so yun ang nakita kong reason why he also decided to stay in the US,” said Torre, noting that the young chesser’s family was in Canada.

“Nakita ni Wesley yung ideal family environment. Hinahanap hanap niya pa rin yun. (So saw an ideal environment and he has been looking for that).”

Since staying with the Kabigtings, So’s chess career has thrived immensely, his latest victories coming from the Skillings Open and Euro Rapid events of the Meltwater Champions Tour, both at the expense of Norwegian world No. 1 Magnus Carlsen.

He pocketed the top prize of $30,000 (roughly P1.45 million) in each leg.

While Filipino sports fans may rue the fact that So is the “one who got away,” Torre remained supportive of his former compatriot.

“Filipino blood still runs in Wesley’s veins. What happened to him was positive. Let’s leave it at that,” he said “Let’s embrace the situation. A victory by Wesley is not only for Americans but also for Filipinos as well. He will always be proud of that.”