Eugene Torre, Asia’s first grandmaster, nearly forgets milestone

MANILA, Philippines – If someone had not reminded him, Friday, June 27, would have passed as just another ordinary day in the life of Eugene Torre. 

“I knew it was in June but is it really today?” asked Torre, who, 40 years ago to the day, put the Philippines on the world sports map by becoming the first chess grandmaster from Asia during the 1974 World Chess Olympiad in Nice, France. 

Informed that, indeed, this was the day he achieved the milestone, Torre, still holding his own against the country’s young Turks at 62, smiled wistfully as the memories of that unforgettable event came rushing back to him. (RELATED: Chess legend Eugene Torre rallies support for Wesley So’s US ambition)

As a mop-haired 22-year-old, he became the toast of Asian sports by racking up a sterling record in playing board 1 for the country in the 21st edition of the chessfest held in the cool and picturesque French city overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

“It was cold in Nice so the hairstyle was just fine for me,” quipped the doyen of Philippine chess, who, despite some slight flecks of gray, still dons the Beatles haircut until now.   

A protégé of the late Filipino World Chess Federation president Florencio Campomanes, Torre emerged undefeated after racking up nine wins and 11 draws in anchoring the Philippines to an 11th overall finish in the Nice Olympiad.

Among the other members of the team were Ramon Lontoc, Rodolfo Tan Cardoso, Renato Naranja and Rosendo Balinas Jr., recalled Torre, who got his first GM norm by ruling the highly-rated Torre de Molino tournament in Malaga, Spain a few months before the world team event. 

“Campo (Campomanes’ nickname) told me that there was jubilation back in the Philippines when they learned of my accomplishment,” he said, adding that he received a congratulatory message by telegraph from no less than the late President Ferdinand Marcos. 

Although he still had a tournament to take part in after the Olympiad, Torre was ordered to return home at once so he could be part of the “Kasaysayan ng Lahi,” an extravagant parade organized by then First Lady Imelda Marcos, about the history of the country. 

Torre also paid a courtesy call on President Marcos at 'Malacañang Palace. 

In a day when the magic of Photoshop retouching was still unheard of, newspapers that published the occasion the next day showed the chess player surprisingly sporting a short haircut while talking to the President.

“You know, it was martial law at that time and long hair was banned by Marcos. I still wonder how they retouched that picture,” he said with an amused smile.  

Torre was also cited by the Jaycees as a recipient of the prestigious Ten Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) award and named by the Philippine Sportswriters Association as its Athlete of the Year that same year.

For someone who cut a dashing figure in his youth, perhaps the ultimate reward and recognition that he received was when he was asked to do a movie with popular teen idol Vilma Santos and aspiring actress Coney Reyes. 

Entitled “Basta’t Isipin Mong Mahal Kita” (Just Think That I Love You), from the title of a popular Filipino love song, the romantic comedy had Torre playing twin siblings and boyfriends of both actresses. 

“Medyo mahirap kasi (It was quite difficult because) I played a poor man and a rich man at the same time,” Torre said. “I had to wear a tuxedo in some scenes then plain clothes the next. It was hard to make the switch.”  

This was to be Torre’s first and last fling at the movies, unlike his love affair with chess – 40 years since he became Asia’s first grandmaster -  that just keeps on going stronger as the days go by. - Rappler.com