Torre: "Chess at that time was a mystery"
An interview with a living legend! IM SAGAR SHAH spoke with GM Eugenio Torre who reminisces about the years of his prime, talks about his struggles and reasons his failures. He also talks about the advents of Vishy Anand and Wesley So, his love for Chess960 and suggests an interesting scoring system to reduce the rampant draws in top level chess. | Photo: David Llada
Interview with Eugenio Torre
Eugenio Torre is best known for being the first grandmaster from Asia. In his prime, he achieved marvellous feats that included beating the then World Champ Anatoly Karpov, being a world championship candidate himself and seconding Bobby Fischer in his 1992 match against Boris Spassky.
SS: How did you start playing chess?
ET: I came from a chess playing family. I was the seventh of my ten siblings. It so happened that my elder brothers were good players. So I got my practice from them. My parents, especially my father was very supportive and he wanted us to be involved in chess rather than other things. (laughs)
SS: But Philippines had no chess culture back then. How did your father choose the game of chess for you?
ET: I think it helped a lot that at that time the late Florencio Campomanes was very active. But as you rightly pointed out there was no culture or support, not only in the Philippines but also in Asia. Even at the world level, there was very little awareness about chess. It was important that we, in the Philippines, had someone like Florencio C who not only spread chess but knew how to bring in sponsors to the game. (laughs)
SS: Who was your first trainer?
ET: It’s not a part of our chess system in the Philippines to have a trainer. Unlike the Soviet Union or Eastern European countries, we had no trainers in general.
SS: How does one get better at chess without a trainer?
ET: Books! My father loved reading chess books. He bought a lot of them. I tried to upgrade my level of chess with the help of these books.
SS: Was it not very difficult to get chess books back then?
ET: Yes, it was very difficult. We must thank Informator which was the main source for checking latest and annotated games. Like we have the computers now, back then it was the Informator. I studied the openings from the modern chess openings. We were on our own. As compared to the current generation you can say that our prep was lacking. But on the other hand, there was an abundance of mystery in chess. There was a lot that remained to be discovered. It was wonderful that chess at that time was a mystery… like a woman, you know. It was intriguing! (smiles)
SS: When you play now what do you feel? All worked out or is there still the mystery element?
ET: It's becoming difficult. The mystery is reducing each day! That's why I was very glad when Bobby Fischer suggested chess 960 or Fischer random chess and tried to promote it. I think eventually we have to welcome this development if we want to have creativity from the very first moves. I know this will happen in the future. I just don't know when. I hope I will be around to see it. FIDE should welcome Chess 960 and give an option to organisers whether they want to hold a chess 960 tournament or not.
One way to promote Chess 960 would be to have its own rating. It's like having rapid and blitz rating which was a very good move by FIDE. Now we have 3 kinds of ratings and organisers have the option to choose which format of the tournaments they would like to hold. Including chess 960 would increase the options further. This will boost the popularity of chess and is the need of the hour especially because we are relying too much on computers.
SS: So you think chess 960 is the future of chess?
ET: Chess 960 along with standard chess is the future of chess. Classical chess has been with us for hundreds of years. We have an emotional attachment with classical chess and organisers will hold standard events. But we have to get ready for the future also and one way is by supporting chess 960.
Change has been seen in other sports also. So, why not in chess? You know, in Basketball, they did not have three-point shots before. But now, if you score from a bit farther, you can score three points. Also, the dribbling rules were changed for the betterment of the sport. So we have to go with the demand of the modern time and embrace chess960.
Also, I have always suggested changing the points system in tournaments. These days you see a lot of organisers exasperated due to the high number of draws. Stalemate, for example, can be changed to a minor victory or defeat. So let’s say we assign four points for a win, two for a draw and zero for a win. In case of a stalemate, the side that cannot move will be awarded one point while the stronger side will be awarded three. So, if a player ends up stalemating his opponent in a king and pawn endgame, he still gets three points, which is better than a draw. With this scoring system, many games will be played till the end. Many players will push for a stalemate; many would try to avoid it. And in amid this cat and mouse, maybe the game would be decided. This would make the game more exciting. I think it’s time to bring about some changes.
I also understand that people are too attached to the traditional chess but this change in the scoring system wouldn’t change much in terms of the game itself. Some have argued saying there are many beautiful combinations that lead to stalemate and that it would be a pity if a draw isn’t awarded for such a stalemate. To answer this, well, it’s not that the side that finds the stalemating combination has no incentive; you do get one point. What do you prefer, 0 or 1?
And this also reflects life in a better manner. A minor loss only gets the king imprisoned while in case of a checkmate, the king is executed.
SS: Do you think that the game of chess will be fully solved?
ET: Oh no. If we start making changes, it won’t be solved anytime soon.
SS: But what if we don’t make changes? Do you think the game will be solved then?
ET: No, because humans have limitations when it comes to memory. Also, at the top level, this isn’t something that is encouraged. It’s still necessary to rely on principles and the logic of the game. The proper implementation of these principles is what makes a player strong. Today’s top players are forced to use computer assistance and memorise because they would risk being outprepared. This is because computers have penetrated deep into traditional chess. Therefore, to sidestep all of this, Chess960 is a necessary change. Also, once computer assistance and theory is out of the picture, chess professionals and their seconds could have more sleep and relax. Preparation, then, would be limited to studying the style of a player, not tons and tons of opening theory. This will also allow players to be creative in the opening phase.
SS: Who was your favourite player in your formative years?
ET: The name of Bobby Fischer comes to mind right away. At that time, the Russians dominated world chess. And Bobby demolished them on his own. He did not get much support from the US chess federation or the US government. Even from the private sector, he had little support. Perhaps, a part of the reason was that Bobby was tough to deal with.
SS: But I think you were a good friend of his and you even helped him in his 1992 match against Spassky. Could you tell us something about this episode?
ET: Well, I was surprised when I received this call from FIDE. They asked me if I would like to be the second of Bobby Fischer. What kind of a question is that! (laughs)
I revered Bobby. To be a part of his life, therefore, was like a dream. So I asked them if they were joking. It was a very pleasant and a very rewarding surprise. I accepted the offer immediately.
I think, whatever humble contribution I made as a part of his team was as a friend, as someone he could talk to. More than coming up with chess ideas for him, my job was to help him motivated. When he was down or after he had lost, I would say to him “It’s OK, Bobby. Father time is a great hero” and he would answer with a “yeah”.
SS: But do you think that in ‘92 when he played against Spassky, he was at par with the top players of that time like Karpov or Kasparov?
ET: It’s a very difficult question to answer. And I think it’s unfair to judge Bobby like that. I could say, though, that even at his age in 1992, he played tremendous chess – very high standard – especially in the first game. Had he played more chess after that, who knows what might have happened. The younger champions definitely have an advantage because of age but Bobby had a great will to win and very strong nerves. So, you never know! But definitely, Bobby was one of the greatest – if not the greatest – champions of the world.
SS: What is your academic background? Had you taken up academics at the time?
ET: Yeah I studied to become an engineer but by the time I reached college, because of chess, I took up commerce. It was so difficult to combine chess and engineering, I took up commerce and decided to do a major in Banking and Finance. But during my third year, I had to decide between completing my degree and playing in Europe to complete the requirements for my Grandmaster title. For that, I had to forgo college. I still had a little over a year to graduate, but I decided to pursue chess. Back then, it was very expensive to play in Europe. It’s the same even now but especially then. So, we decided that after the Olympiad, I will stay in Europe to campaign for my Grandmaster title, making Madrid my base.
Until now, I am still an undergraduate. I did not complete my degree in Banking and Finance due to the demands of professional chess. Especially at the time, I got many invitations as I was the Asian Champion for several years. The European organisers also liked to have someone from Asia and add some colour to the tournament.
SS: You were the first Asian to become a Grandmaster in 1974. How was the feeling?
ET: Great! I was very proud as a Filipino and an Asian that finally there was a Grandmaster in Asia. I really believed that chess is for all. It was disappointing to see that the level of chess in Asia was not that high. Of course, it was obvious to me that there were several limitations like lack of tournaments and travelling to Europe was both difficult and expensive. That’s why I decided to campaign for the Grandmaster title in Europe for an entire year. This was my dream as well as my mission. But after that one year, I did not get a single norm! I came very close at one point but I missed it. And finally, when I got back to the Philippines, they saw that I had the chance of getting this title. So, I got additional support and got back to Spain.
I think it was in Malaga that I scored my first GM norm. It was not easy; I had to win all of my last five games to secure it. It wasn’t easy to foresee that I would be able to make it but I decided to take it one game at a time. So after I won my first two games, I played against a local player and won rather easily. By this point, I had gained some confidence. I won the fourth game as well but the final game got dramatic. It was very long. It was a tough game, my opponent was defending hard. I think even the award ceremony was delayed. Our game was adjourned and then we had to play again in the morning. At the time, there were adjournments. But eventually, I got it.
And then, I completed the title in the 1974 Chess Olympiad in Nice, France. I had a good result there. Even I was surprised by my result on board 1. It also helped the Filipino team qualify in Group A. At the time, we had these preliminary tournaments in Olympiads.
SS: During that same period, Vishy Anand was in Manila. Do you have any memories or recollections of him as a player?
ET: No, I didn’t know him. But I had heard that there was this boy from India who was solving chess puzzles on TV. My brother, who organised some tournaments for the TV at that time, told me that he had participated in one of their tournaments. But I had not seen him at the TV station. He was only solving those puzzles over the phone. But his chess achievements, here in the Philippines, have been memorable. It was here that he won the World Juniors in Baguio.
SS: And he was also, I think, the second GM after you in Asia.
ET: Maybe not. I think Balinas [GM Rosendo Balinas Jr] became a Grandmaster in 1976. So, I think he was the third GM from Asia.
SS: Tell us about your rivalry with Karpov. You were a young Grandmaster when you defeated him in Manila. Back in the day, he was very strong and would almost never lose. Can you tell us about your mindset during your game against him?
ET: There is no rivalry as such. He was really dominating the chess world at the time. He would rarely lose a game. In fact, he would just win tournaments, one after another. Just to play a game against Karpov back then was a great challenge and a great opportunity.
SS: Were you nervous before the game?
ET: Oh yes, of course. But I was nervous in a positive way – I was feeling just enough nervousness.
SS: After you beat him, you were one of the best players in the world. I think your world rank was 19.
ET: Something like that – 17th, 18th or 19th. At that time, my rating was 2580 and it was enough to be in the world’s top 20, unlike now. So yeah, that was my best achievement as a chess player.
SS: But could you tell us why you were not able to take the next leap and win or at least contend for the world title?
ET: Well, I had my chances to qualify for title contention at the Candidates of 1983 against Zoltan Ribli. But I had this problem of looking for the perfect move during the game; I was unable to play pragmatically. I think one of the reasons I lost to Ribli was my bad time management. During the match, I was not able to address this problem. Had I been successful against Ribli, who knows!
Also, I have noticed in me that I am a player who plays extremely well when inspired but I can play badly when dejected. So, I’m kind of erratic as a performer. Take for example my recent tournament in Baku where I played scintillating chess. But then in Vietnam, I played poorly.
That’s not the case, however, with Wesley So. He is very consistent.
SS: I was just about to come to that. What’s your take on Wesley So? How do you think he developed into such a phenomenal talent?
ET: Since a young age, I remember, he knew how to prepare. Even while playing in the Under-10 category, he knew how to prepare using computers. This was quite unusual for a boy so young. He started early and learned on his own. And somehow he appreciated what a chess program could offer, even back then.
And also, I have noticed that Wesley has this ability to save losing positions. I have seen several of his games where he was in danger of losing but managed to draw or even won. That’s why he now has this long streak of undefeated games.
SS: Assuming that Wesley would have stayed back in the Philippines, do you think Wesley would have been able to reach the world’s elite?
ET: No, I don’t think it would have been the same. The chess atmosphere in America is different. He would not have been able to achieve the same success in the Philippines as he has by moving to the United States. There are so many reasons, you know. Funding is one of the main things. He has been the beneficiary of a lot of support by the foundation. The family that he is with now is nice. He is comfortable with his life.
Also, the level of competition in the United States is very high. There are players like Caruana and Nakamura. With all of this, he has had incredible results recently, he has almost everything. This kind of success is a dream for any player.
SS: You played phenomenally in Baku. Do you still train yourself or how did you manage to play at such a high level?
ET: It’s in the system, you know. We now have to check the computers all the time and fulfil the demands of modern chess. It’s, perhaps, easier for the younger players but for us, it’s difficult for us to adapt. But we don’t really have much of a choice here. We will be at a huge disadvantage if we don’t go with the trend. So yes, I do a little practice here and there, sometimes over the internet. Then I check the variations I intend to play with the computers, with Stockfish or the Komodo. This is very different from what we did in our time.
During my time, I remember, I had to take notes, look at the position, analyse on my own and decide for myself whether or not something was good. Now I just have to press ‘save’ on all the options after letting the computer run for some time.
That’s why I am looking forward to the time when Chess960 will be embraced by FIDE. If that happens, I will play most of my tournaments in that format.
SS: And do you work on your physical fitness?
ET: Yes, that’s very important. As you get older, being fit becomes even more important – both physically and mentally.
SS: So what do you do to remain fit?
ET: I just go to the gym for some light workouts. I also like to go on walks and I like to sing while walking! That way, I practice my mental faculties while exercising at the same time. The bonus of singing is that I am able to memorise songs. I can even sing a song for you!
SS: Really! Can you do that?
ET: No. (laughs)
SS: What are your future plans right now and what do you do when you’re not playing?
ET: Apart from chess, I was invited by a friend to try my hand at construction. But my presence there is very minimal. That’s it outside of chess.
I spend most of my time on chess. I am very selective with my tournaments now. I would like to focus on helping our young players in their preparations. I have also been designated as the head coach of chess, here in the Philippines. That is where I focus the most currently. I hope I could impart the knowledge and experience that I have gained during my prime in the players, especially the young ones, I teach.
SS: Any message you would like to give to young players?
ET: The message I always like to give, not only to young players but everyone is that we should use chess to become successful in life. We try to find the best moves in chess; we should try to do the same in life. The same applies to time management and setting priorities.
We have to accept that of all players who take up chess, only a few will go on to pursue chess professionally when they reach their twenties or thirties. For the rest who drift away to careers outside of chess, the game could be used as a tool to become successful.
SS: Thank you so much, Mr Torre. It was a great pleasure chatting with you.
Special thanks to Aditya Pai for transcribing this interview.
About the Author
Sagar is an International Master from India with two GM norms. He is also a chartered accountant and would like to become the first CA+GM of India. He loves to cover chess tournaments, as that helps him understand and improve at the game he loves so much. He is the co-founder of the ChessBase India website.