After a spurt of popularity following the Fischer-Spassky match in 1972 and Eugene Torre’s exploits as Asia’s first grandmaster, chess had waned somewhat in the country. Lately, Grandmaster sensation Wesley So had revived interest in the game, though he now makes United States his home. The genie is out of the bottle once again as chess surges anew in popularity in the shape of online game, thanks to the lockdown amidst the onset of the coronavirus.
A product of this milieu is the 10-year old Filipino chess sensation Al-Basher Buto. In 2017, at seven years old, Buto was already a gold medallist at the Asean Youth Chess Championships. The young prodigy’s whirlwind schedule of chess competitions here and abroad had been well-publicized. Last month, he qualified for the FIDE Online World Cadets and Youth Rapid Championships.
Unknown to many though, Buto came from a long line of chess prodigies in the town of Ditsaan-Ramain, Lanao del Sur, where the game dates back to a tradition known as Caturan. Buto’s father, Solaiman Buto is a second-cousin of the late Yusoph K. Pangadapun Sr., who won the 1957 National Junior Championship held in Manila. As reported by I. A. Horowitz in the October 1957 issue of the United States-based Chess Review, he won over tough adversaries including, J. Kaimo. With it, Pangadapun became a national master. But Pangadapun was preceded by at least two more Maranao champions. In 1934, Datu Sandangan, also from Ditsaan-Ramain became the Philippine Chess Champion. Before Datu Sandangan, another chess player from Ditsaan Ramain, Datu Ālip won the National Chess Championship in 1925 during the Commonwealth.
Buto is now being promoted in the BARMM as an ambassador for the Muslim youth in the country. In a resolution filed with the Bangsamoro Transition Authority on December 3, Buto was given a citation for “his extraordinary skills and competence in chess” at a tender age. His hometown of Ditsaan-Ramain is part of the “Basak” area of Lake Lanao which has the reputation as a hub for recruiting child soldiers for the rebel movement in Mindanao. It is hoped that he will become a model for aspiring Moro youth.
Chess has its deep root in Mindanao. Manuel F. Lara in his article A Short History of Chess in the Philippines placed the introduction of the game to coincide with the coming of the Sharīfs and Sayyīds around 1400. But a cursory glance into the naming of the chess pieces among the Iranūn-Maranaū reveals their Caturan (Śaturan) to have a more ancient provenance in Sanskrit. In the Caturan, the only concession to Arabic naming convention is the baidaq (pawn) which in Iranūn-Maranaū is bīdak. The Arabic fil for Bishop, which had been taken up by the Spanish as alfil had never quite caught up with the locals. But the Spanish term for castling (short or long) enroque had been adopted locally in the Philippines when modern chess had been introduced by the friars and the elite.
In Magindanao and Sulu, the game goes back a ways since the heyday of the early rajas, datus, panglimas and sultans. It was part of the acculturation of young princes and princesses to cultivate the necessary flair for playing the game. Many British and Dutch envoys and Chinese country traders had to wait for long hours at the court’s lounge while the sultan was absorbed at a game of chess. In wakes, feasts and merry-making (kakáriyala), chess was ubiquitous. Even when the Moro were on raiding expeditions, the nakhodas of the fleet of padaus (prahus) played chess on the upper decks to pass the time on long voyages in the high seas.
The Caturan of the Moro was cut off the main body of chess, until the poet and fictionist Salvador Rico Barros (1910 to 1940) discovered native chess with the Maranao highlanders during a visit to his brother, Vicente Barros (1887 to 1966) who had been stationed as a US Army major in the Moro Province. Barros was surprised to learn that highly skilled chessplayers abound around the lake despite their lack of knowledge of chess theory and training. He had singled out one promising player by the name of Datu Ālip of Ramaīn. But there was one problem: their brand of chess followed the archaic rules of the Caturan.
Barros who envisioned a great potential for Datu Ālip, helped him transition from the traditional Maranao way of playing chess to the modern version of the game. In no time, Alip got a wind of mastering the international standard, including the use of chess clock. Barros then had arranged the travel of Alip to Manila with help of the Sultan of Ramaīn Alauya Alonto, who at the time was Municipal Manager (Philippine Independence Commission) in 1924 under then Governor-General Frank Murray. Datu Ālip happened also to be a close kin of Sultan Alonto.
It was in the Club de Ajedrez, that a match was arranged between Adolfo Gutierrez, then national champion and Datu Ālip of Ramaīn. Ālip then went on to become the national Commonwealth champion in 1925. According to Napoleon Macapundag, a son of Macapundag (Sultan sa Ramain), Datu Ālip had the distinction of playing in a simultaneous exhibition against the then world champion Alexander Alekhine in 1932 at YMCA Manila. Since then more Maranao chess aficionados switched to modern chess, although as late the 1970s, the old Caturan continued to be played in isolated pockets of the countryside.
Another Maranao player who made his mark in national competitions was Datu Sandangan, who was related to Datu Ālip by kinship. In 1934, Sandangan became the Philippine Chess Champion. The success of the Maranao players was a bit of an enigma to the seasoned players in the capital because unlike them, the former never had any formal training or exposure to chess manuals to hone their technique or learn strategies. Datu Ālip and Datu Sandangan had to be tutored how to make chess notations to record their games.
Since then, in the hinterlands of Lanao, life is slow, and Caturan remained a pure pastime with the betel-nut chewing folks of the countryside. The craftsmen who carve intricate chess pieces dwindled. Heirlooms, which used to be the pride of every clan were lost to war and natural calamities. Worse, what had been salvaged became the prey of unscrupulous collectors, or sold to museums, here and abroad. The author had seen a few of the old Caturan on display in New York and Chicago in 1995, which had been part of the loot of the American scouts. Arrayed along with other artifacts like the gador, kutyapi, and other ensembles, the chess pieces, seen from their glass encasements, looked like mounted ghost warriors from a dimming past. The sad state of Iranūn culture was lamented by the Maranao semanticist, Dr. Guimba Poingan. He said that when we forget an avocation, a craft, or a tradition, everything associated with it — even the language — go away hook, line and sinker.
Nasser S. Sharief is a palaeographer on kirim and jawi scripts, Iranun genealogist, and a resident historian on Southeast Asia with the PMTC Institute of Iranun Studies. Incidentally, in relation to this article, he had placed first runner up (unrated category) in the World Open Chess Tournament in Philadelphia 1993 and had been a US Candidate Master before he retired in the game.