Mini-grandmaster? Meet this 3-year-old Pinoy chess prodigy

Raisa Serafica
Mini-grandmaster? Meet this 3-year-old Pinoy chess prodigy
Alvin Roma and Jollibee Sedaya dream an endgame where their son, Magnus, becomes a grandmaster at a very young age.

MANILA, Philippines – At a time when other boys his age busy themselves with toys, Magnus Roma has been beating players 4 times his age at the game of chess.

At 3 years old, Magnus started joining and winning at some chess competitions for his age group. This comes as no surprise for his parents who taught him how to position pieces on the board when he was just one year old.

Magnus started playing chess before he started to learn how to read and write. He would often make his move on the board with distinct confidence, as if he is sure it would eventually dismantle his opponent on the other side of the board. 

The young chess prodigy is named after Magnus Carlsen, a Norwegian chess grandmaster who currently holds the title of World Chess Champion.

Runs in the blood

His story starts way back, when his parents Jollibee Sedaya and Alvin Roma met in college. Jollibee was the chess team leader at National University when Alvin just joined the team as a newbie.

Alvin admired Jollibee as a leader. She was aggressive, determined, and most importantly, great at playing chess. Jollibee, on the other hand, liked how Alvin worked hard to learn tactics that could help him win at competitions.

Eventually, the two did more than join chess tournaments. Their love story blossomed until, years later, Alvin and Jollibee became parents to Magnus. The two decided to pass on their shared love for chess to their eldest.

“Parehas kami ni misis [na naglalaro ng chess] kaya naisip namin na mamamana ng mga anak namin yung talento namin,” Alvin said. (Both I and my wife play chess so we thought that our children would inherit our talent) 

“Naisip po namin na turuan siya ng isang bagay na kapakipakinabang na magagamit niya hanggang sa paglaki niya, Jollibee added, echoing her husband.

(We thought of teaching him something he can use when he grows up.)

They were right. Magnus, according to his parents, showed interest in playing chess even before he turned 2 years old.

Chess prodigy?

Alvin trains young chess players for a living while Jollibee works as a full-time housewife and mother to Magnus and their one-year-old daughter. According to him, unlike his students, Magnus learns fast and efficiently.

This is also the reason why Alvin decided to teach Magnus a variety of basic and advanced lessons when Magnus was still a toddler.

YOUNG PRODIGY. The small house where Magnus Roma and his family live is decorated by medals and trophies the family won from various chess tournaments. Photo by Vee Salazar/Rappler

“Lahat kasi ng tinuturo ko sa kanya, isang take lang po. Kumbaga hindi na siya magkakamali,” the father said. (It would only take me one round to teach him lessons. It would not take long before he understands the lesson)

According to Alvin and Jollibee, they would spend at a total of 20 minutes daily to train Magnus. For the rest of the day, they would let him play outside with other kids his age. They said they still want their son to enjoy his childhood.

The regular training paid off.

Before he turned 4, Magnus won the Chessmates Kiddies Championship, in the 14 and below category, in Makati early in September. 

He has also bagged the youngest chess player awards at two different tournaments held in Quezon City and Malolos, Bulacan. 

These victories are enough for Magnus to keep on training. “Gusto ko sinasabihan ako ng good,” Magnus said. (I like it when they say that I am good.) 

Not easy

But while playing chess comes easy for the family, joining tournaments for them proved to be tricky. The family does not just have enough money to constantly support Magnus’ participation in chess competitions. After all, Alvin does not receive a steady income from his chess training gigs.

“Problema ‘yung budget. Yung ibang competitions kasi, malalayong lugar. Minsan talagang wala kaming budget kasi hindi naman palagian yung turo ko po. Pinapang-utang po namin sa mga kakilala namin. kapag nakapagturo na po ako, binabayaran na lang po sila,” Alvin said.

Entry fees to local chess competitions usually range from P250 to P500. If the competitions are located in another town, they would have to spend on transportation.

“Hindi naman ganun kataas ang estado ng buhay namin. Kapag may tournament siya, may entry fee, pamasahe, pagkain,” Jollibee explained. (We are not well-off. Whenever he has a tournament, we need to find ways to pay for his entry free, fare, and food) 

ROMA FAMILY. Magnus Roma belongs to a family of chess players. Photo by Vee Salazar/Rappler

The family shares a small house in Montalban with Jollibee’s parents. Their house, despite being small and cramped, is decorated with medals and trophies won by Jollibee, Alvin, and Magnus.

“Siyempre bilang magulang, andoon na yung magsasakrapisyo ka para sa pangarap mo sa kanya para balang araw maging successful siya. Kahit mahirap, masaya pa rin, kasi nakikita mo paghihirap mo sa kanya,” Jollibee said.

(As a mother, we are willing to sacrifice for him to to reach his goals so that, eventually, he would become successful. Even though it is difficult, we enjoy seeing him succeed.) 

Being a chess player is not easy within the landscape of Philippine sports due to different factors like lack of budget and complicated politics and power play, as in the experiences of Grandmaster-elect Haridas Pascua and Super Grandmaster Wesley So.

In fact, Wesley So, who is now the second-ranked chess player in the world, has decided to represent the United States, and not the Philippines, in tournaments. (READ: The problem with Philippine sports

FUTURE GRANDMASTER? The endgame that Magnus' parents dream for the young chess prodigy is for him to become a Filipino chess grandmaster. Photo by Vee Salazar/Rappler

Become a grandmaster

Despite these problems, Jollibee and Alvin are still optimistic that their son, with his unique talent in playing chess, would reach far. The couple dreams of their son eventually becoming a grandmaster at a very young age.

“Pangarap ko sa kanya ‘yung, kung pagpapalain, nawa’y maging world champion din siya kasi andoon na rin naman siya eh. So pagbutihin na,” Jollibee said. (My dream for Magnus is for him to become a world champion since he has been playing chess already. I wish he’ll train well) 

As far as the young chess prodigy is concerned, he shares the same dream as his parents. He also promised that he will do everything to make his parents proud. 

“Thank you, Papa. Thank you, Mama kasi tine-train ninyo ako tapos tinuturuan mo pa ako ng chess nung baby pa ako. Promise ko na magtrain ako,” Magnus said. (Thank you, Papa. Thank you, Mama. Thank you for training me, for teaching me since I was still a baby. I promise to train harder) – Rappler.com 

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Raisa Serafica

Raisa Serafica is the Unit Head of Civic Engagement of Rappler. As the head of MovePH, Raisa leads the on ground engagements of Rappler aimed at building a strong community of action in the Philippines. Through her current and previous roles at Rappler, she has worked with different government agencies, collaborated with non-governmental organizations, and trained individuals mostly on using digital technologies for social good.