Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Jose Rizal - The Chess Player

Jose Rizal – the Philippine’s National Hero is considered as a man of immense and multifarious talents and personality.  Among others, Rizal is an ophthalmologist, linguist, poet, philosopher, sculptor, and a novelist. But, aside from his many talents and personality, Rizal is a Chess Player.  He played chess with almost anyone, foreign and local players, and ironically including the Guardia Civil!

I would like to quote a part of the lecture of Angel R. Hidalgo giving proof that the National Hero was an avid chess player and that Rizal played chess even with the Guardia Civil.  Hidalgo dwelled on the reminiscences of his Tio Leoncio (or Dr. Leoncio Lopez Rizal the son of Narcisa Rizal, who married Antonino Lopez). This was “delivered on the Fourth Annual Lecture in commemoration of the 74th Anniversary of the Martyrdom of Dr. Jose Rizal, Dec. 30, 1970, at Rizal Shrine, Dapitan City” -

“But in 1896, as we very well know, his exile at Dapitan was terminated. He arrived in Manila on August 6, 1896. Continuing his narration, Tio Leoncio said: ‘This afforded me an opportunity to see him personally. Eagerly, I went to the steamer Espana, which was moored at the foot of the Puente de Espana. I found him on deck seated near a square table, conversing with a lieutenant of the Guardia Civil. He greeted me, and then he asked me if I could get a set of chess from the house of his aunt Concha Leyba. I eagerly performed the task and watched him later as he played with the lieutenant. This was the last time that I personally saw him.’ ” (Hidalgo, Angel R. “Reminiscences of the Only Three Living Nearest Kins of our National Hero.” Selected Rizal Day Lectures. 1st ed. National Historical Institute. Manila: Philippines, 2002. 113-114.)

It would have been very interesting if Rizal and the lieutenant of the Guardia Civil recorded their chess game. How many games did they play? Who might have won? What was the opening used? As a chess player, is Rizal a strategist or more of a tactician? What is his playing style in chess?

I am no clairvoyant but I can safely assume that Rizal won the game or the series of games they have played. Rizal, as we all know, is an intellectually gifted hero. He is even hailed as a genius. Thus, Rizal would definitely have the advantage in chess.  If we were to read his famous novel the “Noli Me Tangere”, where he described the house of Capitan Tiago in its first chapter would give us a clear idea that Rizal has that uncanny ability to create or re-create microscopic details within the realm of his mind.  This ability is a lethal weapon in chess. A player who has that keen observation of details can easily find the most effective continuation in complicated chess positions. Thus, it can be assumed that Rizal can easily defeat the Guardia Civil who was primarily trained in military combat.  If in an instance, Rizal was defeated, he may have allowed the Guardia Civil to win a few games but only as a friendly gesture.

Playing the white pieces, I can imagine that Rizal employed the “Giuoco Piano” or the “Ruy Lopez Opening” against the Guardia Civil. I think that either of this chess opening may have been used by Rizal since the game occurred in 1896. It is known that the Giuoco Piano and the Ruy Lopez are considered as two of the oldest chess opening ever invented. It is also reputed as the most popular. Since the chess game played by Rizal and the Guardia Civil is not a serious tournament game, but more to past the time, the Giuoco and the Ruy, which both aim for immediate development and centralization of the pieces, would most likely be used. I often see these openings during friendly games.

I really think that Rizal is more of an “e4” player than a “d4”.  But, this is just a wild assumption. I have yet to read historical accounts on what type of chess opening Rizal plays. But if we look at chess history, the world champion during Rizal’s time (or from 1894 and twenty-seven years thereafter) is Emanuel Lasker who, more often than not, would start his game with “e4”.  Thus, it may be concluded that there is a higher probability that Rizal also started his chess games with “e4”. He may have also followed the games of Lasker where the Giuoco and the Ruy were often used during the World Championship Event. Rizal being a voracious reader and a well-traveled person is certainly updated with the latest chess happenings during his time.

Rizal, brilliant as he is, knows a lot of chess tactical finesse. This is evident in Chapter XXIV of his novel “The Social Cancer” or the “Noli Me Tangere”.  In this Chapter, chess and the game between Capitan Basilio and Crisostomo Ibarra was depicted as follows:

“The meal ended, and while the tea and coffee were being served, both old and young scattered about in different groups. Some took the chessmen, others the cards, while the girls, curious about the future, chose to put questions to a Wheel of Fortune.

‘Come, Senor Ibarra,’ called Capitan Basilio in a merry mood, ‘we have a lawsuit fifteen years old, and there isn’t a judge in the Audiencia who can settle it. Let’s see if we can’t end it on the chessboard.’

‘With the greatest pleasure,’ replied the youth. ‘Just wait a moment, the alferez is leaving.’

Upon hearing about this match all the old men who understood chess gathered around the board, for it promised to be an interesting one, and attracted even spectators who were not familiar with the game. The old women, however, surrounded the curate in order to converse with him about spiritual matters, but Fray Salvi apparently did not consider the place and time appropriate, for he gave vague answered and his sad, rather bored, looks wandered in all directions except towards his questioners.

The chess-match began with great solemnity. ‘If the game ends in a draw, it’s understood that the lawsuit is to be dropped,’ said Ibarra.

In the midst of the game, Ibarra received a telegram which caused his eyes to shine and his face to become pale. He put it into his pocket-book, at the same time glancing toward the group of young people, who were still with laughter and shouts putting questions to Destiny.

‘Check to the king!” called the youth.

Capitan Basilio had no other recourse than to hide the piece behind the queen.

Check to the queen! Called the youth as he threatened that piece with a rook which was defended by a pawn. Being unable to protect the queen or to withdraw the piece on account of the king behind it, Capitan Basilio asked for time to reflect.” (Derbyshire, Charles. The Social Cancer A Complete English Version of Noli Me Tangere from the Spanish of JOSE RIZAL. New York: World Book Company, 1912.) [www.gutenberg.org].

What is clear from the said chapter is that chess, even during Rizal’s time, is already popular and attracts attention. And just like in present times, chess games are often used as a means to settle a controversy either seriously or in jest.  Moreover, chess is a very good device to lull away the time during breaks in social gatherings and parties. In this way, chess promotes socialization.

When Ibarra threatened Basilio’s piece with a rook that was defended by a pawn and the latter is unable to protect the queen because the king is behind it, I think Rizal is describing an “absolute pin”.  Here, we can surmise Rizal’s knowledge of tactics.  The use of the pin is a common tactic used by chess players. But, is it proper to “check the queen?” I know that chess rules do not require a player to say “check” whenever the queen is threatened.  But, perhaps Rizal in his novel would only like to stress the status of the game for the readers to appreciate.

But, does this show that Rizal is a tactical player?  I think the depiction of the game between Ibarra and Capitan Basilio is not enough evidence to prove that Rizal is more of a tactical player than a strategist.  Ibarra, who is considered to be Rizal himself in the Noli, has just checked the king of Capitan Basilio showing that the former is on the attack. And since the queen is already threatened, Ibarra has already achieved superiority and is already in the threshold of attaining victory.  It is appropriate to remember that any tactical assault, such as this, cannot be achieved without an effective chess strategy. Ibarra’s chess pieces have to be in the proper position to launch such attack against the pieces of Capitan Basilio.  There is a need for slowly building up of the position by accumulating small advantages and converting it into something concrete and permanent.  I hope that Rizal narrated in his novel how Ibarra was able to achieve an attacking position against Capitan Basilio.  In this way, we can infer how Rizal, as a chess player, plays the game of chess.  I cannot help wondering whether Rizal is a solid positional player like Karpov or an aggressive attacking player like Tal?

While Rizal recorded almost everything that he observed during his travels, I am yet to see a record of his games in chess.  Maybe Rizal never bothered to record his games as he played the game only “casually” and more often as a past time. If Rizal has participated in chess tournaments and took chess seriously, I am confident that he can easily achieve grandmaster status. He can be the Philippines’ or Asia’s first chess grandmaster in 1896 and not Torre. But, Rizal may have been so preoccupied with the fight for Philippine independence and thus he no longer had the time to participate in chess tournaments.

However, I really think that Rizal is more of a strategist rather than a tactician. He would create an overall plan to achieve victory rather than rely on a short sequence of moves to win. The “strategist” in Rizal can be seen in the Chapter entitled “La Ultima Razon” of the “Reign of Greed” (English version of the El Filibusterismo).

“Simoun, meanwhile, screwed on a solidly curious and complicated mechanism, put in place a glass chimney, then the bomb, and crowned the whole with an elegant shade. Then he moved away some distance to contemplate the effect, inclining his head now to one side, now to the other, thus better to appreciate its magnificent appearance.

Noticing that Basilio was watching him with questioning and suspicious eyes, he said,

‘Tonight there will be a fiesta and this lamp will be placed in a little dining-kiosk that I’ve had constructed for the purpose. The lamp will give a brilliant light, bright enough to suffice for the illumination of the whole place by itself, but at the end of twenty minutes the light will fade, and then when someone tries to turn up the wick a cap of fulminate of mercury will explode, the pomegranate will blow up and with it the dining room, in the roof and floor of which I have concealed sacks of powder, so that no one shall escape.’

There was a moment’s silence, while Simoun stared at his mechanism and Basilio scarcely breathed.

‘So my assistance is not needed,’ observe the young man.

‘No, you have another mission to fulfill,’ replied Simoun thoughtfully. ‘At nine the mechanism will have exploded and the report will have been heard in the country round, in the mountains, in the caves. The uprising that I had arranged with the artillerymen was a failure from lack of plan and timeliness, but this time it won’t be so. Upon hearing the explosion, the wretched and the oppressed, those who wander about pursued by force, will sally forth armed to join Cabesang Tales in Santa Mesa, whence they will fall upon the city, while the soldiers, whom I have made to believe that the General is shamming an insurrection in order to remain, will issue from their barracks ready to fire upon whomsoever I may designate. Meanwhile, the cowed populace, thinking the hour of massacre has come, will rush out prepared to kill or be killed, and as they have neither arms nor organization, you will have some others will put yourself at their head and direct them to the warehouses of Quiroga, where I keep my rifles. Cabesang Tales and I will join one another in the city and take possession of it, while you in the suburbs will seize the bridges and throw up barricades, and then be ready to come to our aid to butcher not only those opposing the revolution but also everyman who refuses to take up arms and join us.’” (Derbyshire, Charles. The Reign of Greed.  A Complete English Version of El Filibusterismo from the Spanish of JOSE RIZAL . New York: World Book Company, 1912.) [www.gutenberg.org].

The foregoing scene in the Fili gives a glimpse on how Rizal would create a strategy to accomplish a particular goal. Here Simoun concocted a plan of using a bomb to kill all those in attendance in the dinner and thereafter ignite a series of events that would create an uprising among the masses.  This plan of attaining an ultimate goal after a series of events is reminiscent in the game of chess. The main objective of checkmating the king can be attained only after slowly building up the position.  The series of moves have to be inter-twined or interconnected in pursuit of a clear strategical plan.  It is only after the pieces are well coordinated before a successful tactical assault can be launched. The timing of the attack should be correct. Otherwise, failure would be the outcome.

The objective of the bomb is not only to kill all those present during the dinner but to ignite a revolution. In other words, the use of the time bomb is a tactical device to create a much bigger goal that is the revolution. Rizal thinks beyond the immediate effect of the explosion but what it will accomplish in the long term.

In this light, Rizal may be considered more of a long-term “strategist” than a short-term “tactician”.  Thus, if we take this analogy on how Rizal is as a chess player,  it may be inferred that he lays out strategical plans while using tactics as a means of accomplishing the objective. Perhaps, his playing style is comparable to that of Karpov whose games are more solid and positional. I really cannot imagine that Rizal’s playing style is like that of Tal. 

In conclusion, it should always be remembered that Jose P. Rizal is a Chess Player. We may not know his real strength as a player. But, one thing is certain – Rizal appreciated the rudiments of the game.  He knows the principles of tactics and strategy. Perhaps, if he had taken chess seriously as he was with liberating the Philippines from the clutches of Spanish rule, Rizal may have been the country's first chess grandmaster. 

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