Ghost of the tura: Of lost skills, tradition and language The Manila Times – The Manila Times

Chess Training

After a momentary spurt of popularity following the Fischer-Spassky match in 1972, chess had been in the doldrums for decades. Lately, the genie is out of the bottle once again as the game gains a sudden surge in popularity, thanks to the lockdown amidst the onset of Covid-19.


While many events like had either been cancelled or put on hold indefinitely, online chess had chalked up an unprecedented spike on the chart as a game of choice the world over.

Chess in the Philippines had surged online as 4G continues to stabilize at 12mbps in Metro Manila. With fast connectivity, speed chess (5-minute games) and even bullet chess (1-minute games) had become possible with barely perceptible time lags, and this adds excitement to the game. With millions of registered players worldwide in any one chess site (i.e. lichess and, more and more newbies are lured into the game.

But when did chess came to the country? Manuel 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 Sharfs and Sayyds, namely Sharf Kabungsuwan and Sharf Alaw around 1400. But a cursory glance into the naming of the chess pieces among the Irann-Marana reveals their atura (atura) to have an ancient provenance in Sanskrit: Datu = Rju or Ratu (king); Mantri =Mantri (queen); Gadia = Gaja (Bishop); Tr = Ratha( rook); Bidak = Bhata or Pidati (infantry or pawn).

Perhaps, one incontrovertible evidence that chaturaga have been with us since around the 10th to 12th century at the height of the Sri Vijayan empire is best offered by a few passages citing the game in the 17-cycle Darangn epic of Mindanao.

In the atura, the only concession to Arabic naming convention is the baidaq (pawn) which in Irann-Marana is bdak. 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.

Chaturaga (Sanskrit: ; caturaga), or catur for short was widespread among the nobles of Southeast Asias entrepts. In Tuhfat al Nafis, it is related that in Johore, when Tuan Si Bujang (Raja Kechil Abdullah) planned to kill Indra Bongsu, the Yam Tuan Muda of Johore, he had bribed the rayai (sea gypsies) not to announce the approach of his fleet. There sneaking into the Pengkalan Rama, he found the Yam Tuan Muda absorbed in a game of chess, and slewed him.

In Maguindanao and Sulu, the game goes back a ways since the heyday of the early rajs and had always been a big part of the cultural tradition of the 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 courts lounge while the sultan was absorbed at a game of chess. In wakes (tibau), feasts and merry-making (kakriyala), chess was ubiquitously present. 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.

Contrary to popular belief, the atura predated the Spanish Ajedrez in the country. The way the datus in the courts had played the turan had not changed much then, oblivious of the development and reform in the game in the centuries leading up to the coming of the Americans. What the Spaniards had brought into the ajedrez in the Philippines is the type that incorporated the great reform of 1485, which created modern European chess, ushering in a period of rich development in chess technique.

Among the Irann-Marana, the battle array (tabbiyya) in the initial positioning of the pieces situates the opposing kings on adjacent files instead of on the same file. What this translates to was that the game become highly volatile as tactically each side tries to castle-short and pawn-storm the opposing king on the other wing. This greatly reduced the opportunity for subtle positional manoeuvring to flourish.

In Lanao, the carving of ornate chess sets became a specialty of the town of Tugaya. Their craftsmen fashion ivory and buffalo horns into intricately carved chess pieces. This tradition had been with them since time immemorial. However, the proliferation of cheap chess sets that follow international design prescription of FIDE (Fdration Internationale des checs) had denigrated the skills of traditional makers of chess sets.

In terms of prowess in playing the game, in Lanao, the ancient chess tradition reached its apogee in Raman, where many prodigies over the generations were encouraged by the elite as their representative whenever a match with a visitor is called upon.

The poet and fictionist Salvador Rico Barros (1910-1940) had discovered the native chess talents of Maranao highlanders during a visit to his elder brother, Vicente Barros (1887-1966) who had been stationed as US Army Major in the Moro Province. Barros was surprised to learn that highly skilled chess players 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 lip of Raman. But there was one problem: their brand of chess followed the archaic rules of the atura.

Barros who envisioned a great potential for Datu lip, 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 Raman Alauya Alonto, who at the time was Municipal Manager (Philippine Independence Commission) in 1924 under then Governor-General Frank Murray. Datu lip happened also to be a close kin of Sultan Alonto.

In Manila, the Club de Ajedrez was perhaps the only organization which set up individual matches and tournaments in the capital, a forerunner of the Philippine Chess Association. It was located at the Cosmopolitan Club Building at the foot of Sta. Cruz Bridge. Among its original organizers was Dr. Fernando Canon Faustino y Alumno (1860-1938).

In Ramon Lontocs book Fifty Golden Years of Philippine Chess History, he had listed Canon as the first Filipino chess champion in 1908. Canon is better known as a childhood friend of Jos Rizal. Like Rizal, he was a polyglot who spoke six languages. He has pursued his medical studies at the Universidad Central De Madrid. He and his wife brought the first copies of the Noli Me Tangere into the Philippines. Perhaps, it was his closeness with the national hero that influenced Rizal to include in his novel an episode of a chess game between Crisostomo Ibarra and Kapitan Basilio.

It was in the Club de Ajedrez, that a match was arranged between Adolfo Gutierrez, then national champion, and Datu Datu lip of Raman. lip then went on to become the national Commonwealth champion in 1925. According to Napoleon Macapundag, a son of Macapundag (Sultan sa Ramain), Datu lip had the distinction of playing in a simultaneous exhibition against the then world champion Alexander Alekhine in 1932 at YMCA Manila. The Russian had been in Manila at the invitation of Ismael Amado, who he had met in New York.

Since then, more Maranau chess aficionados switched to modern chess, although as late the 1970s, the old atura continued to be played in isolated pockets of the countryside.

Today, in the hinterlands of Lanao, life is slow, and atura remained a pure pastime with the betel-nut chewing folks of the countryside.

The tradition of carving intricate chess pieces by craftsmen weakened as their ranks 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 Maranau atura 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. This state of affair 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.

The full version of this story, with anecdotes on three more great players: Datu Sandangan, Mir Sultan Khan and Yusoph Pangadapun, are available at

About the author: 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. He had placed 1st 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.

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Ghost of the tura: Of lost skills, tradition and language The Manila Times - The Manila Times

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