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The women who played Bobby Fischer

MANILA, Philippines – What does one feel playing face-to-face against a chess legend? 

A few weeks before the 1976 Haifa Chess Olympiad, former national women's champion Lita Alvarez received a call from then World Chess Federation vice president Florencio Campomanes. Did she want to play Bobby Fischer, and if yes, he would fetch her at noon at Solidbank and go to Manila Hotel.

"Campo fetched me by car and we drove to the Manila Hotel where I met Fischer. We played near the swimming pool. He was business-like. He took a white pawn in one hand and a black pawn in the other and then crossed his wrist. He said, 'Choose.' I picked the right hand and it was a black pawn," recounted Alvarez in an interview Sunday, March 31.

"He beat me easily," added Alvarez, now 78.

Fischer, the American who lost his world title by forfeit in 1975 to Anatoly Karpov of the then Soviet Union, was visiting the Philippines to discuss with Campomanes holding a big match. Campomanes asked him if he would agree to play the men's and women's team before they head for Haifa, Israel. Fischer agreed.

Fischer met the women's team, led by then national champion Hermie Cartel, physics and chemistry teacher Mila Emperado, student Andrea Lizares, and Alvarez, who won the 1956 national women's championship at the age of 16. The games were held at the house of Lizares' aunt in Urdaneta Village.

An honor to play

"It was a honor to play him," recalled Emperado. Lizares remembered some table tennis sessions with Fischer. It was indeed a rare sight to see Fischer, who seldom appeared in public, to be seen here.

A photo by Alvarez preserves part of the mystique and also shows how far Philippine women's chess advanced since she won the first of her 3 titles at the age of 16 in 1956.

"The (now defunct) Evening News sponsored the tournament and we got daily coverage," said Alvarez, her eyes glinting with the memory. "I was the muse of the Pasig Chess Club and my father taught me a few months before."

Many strong players, led by the country's first International Master Rudy Tan Cardoso and aspiring masters like Precioso Saguisag and his brother, future senator Rene Saguisag, would play at Lita's house in Caniogan, Pasig.

"They would arrive Saturdays or Sundays. We had no chess clock. We just played," she said. These sessions boosted her, and sharpened the tactical ability which even men dreaded.

The 1957 championship was also won by Alvarez after her foe Lily Macanas did not show up for the tiebreak. After that, the women's championships were not held until 1976, when the Philippine Chess Federation decided to send women for the first time to the Olympiad.

But Alvarez, despite finishing law and passing the bar, found the time to play. In the 1960 intercollegiate she ended up tied for third after sensationally beating Juan Reyes. 

"I was in form. I saw many things over-the-board," she recalled. After nearly 20 years, they met in an executives tournament and Reyes won. "He told me he was affected by his loss to me and when he beat me, a burden was lifted," said Alvarez.

When the nationals returned in 1976, Cartel won. But in the Haifa Olympiad, carrying the team was left to Alvarez, who scored 5.5 out of 9 rounds and the teener Lizares, who scored 5.5 out of 10. "I put everything into every game. Sometimes I rarely got up from my chair." she said.

The Filipinas finished 16th overall as they landed in Group B. But only after 1994 did chess officials send teams to every Olympiad.

Despite the big demands of chess on women, Alvarez and other veterans persevered. "Women chess players come go. Family and work are priorities," she said.

Cristine Rose Mariano, who won the 1987 national championship at the age of 14, said:  "This is why she (Alvarez) remains an idol. She achieved so much and not only in chess."

Alvarez continued to play but failed to make the Olympiad team. But at the age 55, she won the national championship and qualified for the Asian Zonal. 

Now, years away from the game, she is content spending time with her son and daughter, who has a high post at a foreign bank and her grandchildren. These occupy her at weekends. More than 60 years ago, all her weekends were spent playing chess at her home. – Rappler.com