Restless Ramadan nights for Filipino chess wizards in UAE

Dubai: Like most other people, this band of Filipino mind sport athletes eagerly look forward to Ramadan, but perhaps for very different reasons.

With shorter work hours and a quieter nightlife scene, the holy month provides a much-needed respite to Dubai residents who often lead hectic and busy lifestyles. But for many of the emirate’s most devoted chess players, Ramadan is the time of the year when they willingly spend sleepless and restless nights to enjoy the sport they are most passionate about.

In the search for the not-so-typical activities of Filipinos during this season, Gulf News’ #Pinoy found the company of some of the UAE’s elite chess players congregating for a tournament at the Dubai Chess and Culture Club.

Among the many participants here are members of the Filipino Chess Players League (FCPL), a group consisting of Filipino chess enthusiasts from all over the UAE.

The group organises its own tournaments and activities throughout the year, but during Ramadan most of its events are suspended to allow members to join Ramadan-themed chess competitions organised in the different emirates.

Playing in these nightly Ramadan tournaments has become a tradition for the most passionate of Filipino chess players in this part of the world, and even a right of passage into the UAE chess culture.

Players compete in the Allegiance to Zayed Chess Tournament

“I’ve been here in the UAE for 19 years and I have been playing in Ramadan chess tournaments since I arrived,” says Antonio Molina Sr., an accountant. “Here in the UAE, Ramadan is also the chess tournament season.”

Each player may have different motivations playing in these tournaments, but most Filipinos enjoy the opportunity of playing against some of the famed players in the chess world. 

“I’ve been playing in Ramadan chess tournaments since 2009,” says Rocky Pabalan, a baggage service agent at Emirates Airlines who also coaches youth players in Dubai. “There’s a lot of strong players who join this tournament and it’s very competitive.”

For Dennis San Juan, a full-time chess teacher in Dubai, the opportunity to play against several grandmasters from different countries is what brings him back to these events each year.  “I want to improve my chess strength because I’m given a chance to play with grandmasters from other countries,” he says. “That’s why I love playing here in the UAE.”

There is nothing extraordinary in these series of Ramadan competitions across the country, except that they start very late at around 10:30pm and matches often end way past midnight. This causes problems to many players, who arrive home from the tournaments at such ungodly hours and then have to rise up early for work. But they don’t seem to mind.

Players compete in the Allegiance to Zayed Chess Tournament

For Ryan Carandang, a PE teacher in Sharjah, spending sleepless nights playing chess is much better than wallet-draining trips to Dubai’s celebrated leisure spots. 

“For me playing chess is better compared to going to malls,” says Carandang. “It’s more relaxing. Going to the mall, you will just spend more money.”

Although playing in the Ramadan chess events can be quite taxing to some, chess players believe playing the sport is good for their body, mind and soul.

“I’ve been playing chess for 46 years and I started playing at the age of 17, so you can compute my age,” Molina says with a hearty laugh. “Actually, at my age, I play for fun. It keeps my mind alert, so it prevents Alzheimer’s and dementia. And also you can meet friends and have a chance to win prizes, win money.”

Carandang, who is also a licensed chess trainer, adds: “Playing chess has benefited me not only in terms of (a sound) mind, but also being physically fit. One should be physically fit to play chess. So it helps me become active in mind and in body.”

Read more #Pinoy stories in UAE

The players also appreciate the competitions’ healthy mix of chess professionals, amateurs, as well as young and old players alike. 

Players compete in the Allegiance to Zayed Chess Tournament

“I love chess because even if you are old, you still can play,” says Molina, who has earned the Fide Master (FM) title and is one of a few overseas Filipino workers in the UAE to break into the ranks of international titled players. “Chess is a game that you can play for a lifetime.”

San Juan adds: “That is one advantage of chess. There is no age barrier.”

The Allegiance to Zayed Chess Tournament organised by the Dubai Chess Club marks the start of the Ramadan chess season in the UAE. It usually commences on the second day of Ramadan, with the rest of the emirates organising their own events thereafter.

“Dubai Chess and Culture Club has been organising the Allegiance to Zayed Rapid Chess Tournament every Ramadan for 14 years now,” explains Saeed Yousuf Shakari, an International Arbiter and the player development officer of Dubai Chess Club. “It has become a tradition in Ramadan,” he said.

“In this tournament we have more than 20 nationalities. Most of the players are from the UAE, India and the Philippines. The participation of Filipino chess players is remarkable. They show good level of chess and they compete for the first places every time in all our tournaments, especially the rapid and blitz. We are always glad to have them in all our tournaments because they are our partners in the success of these events,” he said.

After the Dubai tournament, the next stop for these Pinoy chess wizards will be a six-day tournament at the Sharjah Chess and Culture Club. There are also events in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and possibly in Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah.

Despite the ungodly hours and having to play non-stop from one tournament to another for almost the entire month, these Filipino chess wizards wouldn’t want to spend their Ramadan nights any other way.

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