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Top woodpushers now deal with online chess amidst COVID-19 pandemic

john marvin miciano
IM Marvin Miciano is among a few top local chess players who are succeeding in the online chess game.
By Ivan Saldajeno

MANILA—Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the sports events across the globe have been postponed indefinitely especially in areas heavily hit by the coronavirus like the Philippines.

With that said, many believe that esports will surely thrive in this pandemic since organizers can pit the quintets or the individual gamers online.

But some traditional sports, like chess, have entered the virtual world as well.

Online chess has become very popular recently to the point that last year, the Philippines inserted the sport as a demonstration event for the Southeast Asian Games.

Currently, many of the game's top players are playing online chess more often in a casual manner, but tournament organizers have now put up online chess events as well.

For one, the National Chess Federation of the Philippines held the National Juniors Rapid Online Chess Championship during the midweek.

International Master John Marvin Miciano topped the event pitting 16 of Philippine chess' future stars with 12.5 points after 15 rounds.

So how does this kind of tournaments take place? Johnny Miciano, the woodpusher's father, bared to Dugout Philippines how it goes down.

"Sa chess.com po sila naglalaban-laban. Tapos para makita sila ng arbiter at ng referees, may webcam tapos may application na tinatawag na Zoom. Nakikita sila doon sa camera," the older Miciano shared on Thursday night, just after his son won the nationals.

Despite recently being marred with log-in issues, Zoom has become the top avenue for virtual meetings and even catching up with friends especially in this pandemic.

Staying "offline" even if online

However, despite all the advantages chess players can get in online chess like chatting with their coaches and even researching about the current gameplay, the organizers remain very strict in keeping the "over-the-board", that is, offline, chess atmosphere.

"Nasa isang Zoom [chatroom] lang yung mga players. Mino-monitor ng mga arbiters. Dapat nakatingin ka lang doon sa screen," Miciano added, implying that chatting with the players' coaches and googling for strategies are prohibited.

But according to him as well, the more prevalent form of cheating in online chess tourneys is the use of a "cheat engine".

"Meron silang fair play cheating [policy]. Ine-evaluate nila doon yung mga player kung gumamit sila ng cheat engine, so kung gamitan mo ng cheat engine ang kalaban mo, madi-disqualify ka tapos maba-block ka ng National Chess Federation [of the Philippines]. Maba-ban ka ng National Chess Federation [of the Philippines] at sa chess.com," Miciano further said. "Nage-evaluate sila tapos nire-report sa organizers kung sino ang mga posibleng nag-cheat."

Even before the boom of online chess recently, cheat engines have been an illegal "staple" in esports especially during the advent of online gaming during the 2000's and the early 10's.

To show how strict the organizers are in terms of handing stiff sanctions to cheat engine users, Miciano revealed that three Filipinos were once caught using cheat engines and were eventually disqualified from the tournament they were in.

To add to the strictness of online chess tournaments, he bared that even the simplest of things you can do while playing at home are not allowed while you are in the game.

"Di pwedeng tumayo. Walang ingay," shared Tess Miciano, Johnny's wife.

The Miciano patriarch then bared, "Bawal nga mag-CR during the game. Magsi-CR ka lang after the game," also saying that even bringing in food is not allowed.

In fact, he bared that the Asian Chess Federation, the organizer of the next tournament his son will be in, the Zone 3.3 qualifiers for the Asian Junior Online Rapid Chess Championship, will be stricter in terms of seeing the woodpusher in action.

"May requirement sila ng extra camera. Siguro i-require nila na buong room nakikita," Miciano added, implying that the ACF would want to assure that his son is just alone in the room with no one near him to help him analyze the situation.

In the zonal level, Miciano will take on representatives from Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Mongolia, Thailand, and Myanmar while also getting rematches against fellow IM Daniel Quizon and Eric Labog for one of three spots to the tournament proper of the Asian Junior Online Rapid Chess Championship.

Good thing for Marvin Miciano, his game is a rapid one, so he can quickly take a break after his game is over.

In rapid chess, each player is given 15 minutes to try to checkmate his or her opponent with a three-second increment per move.

An online rapid chess game could go as long as 45 minutes based on Johnny Miciano's calculations.

Of course, the match could end abruptly if a player forces a checkmate, forces his opponent to resign, or if both players agree to a draw.

Struggles competing online

The said increment has been given more focus in anticipation of a delay of the move done due to internet lag.

However, according to Miciano, even a simple lag could lead to a huge loss especially if the internet issue could go full blown.

"Kailangan mabilis ang internet connection mo. Pag na-disconnect ka, talo ka," he further said.

This is unlike what esports organizers do in terms of lags, in which they can give timeouts so that teams and players can fix internet or computer issues, although the organizers would also prefer a very fast internet connection as well.

Because a chess game, whether online or offline, is being played non-stop especially with a countdown clock running, the strict disconnection rule is set, but Miciano assured that his son will not get into disconnection issues.

"Nandito po kami sa Sampaloc. OK naman po ang linya namin dito," the native of Pinamalayan, Oriental Mindoro further said.

Marvin Miciano, however, is calling Davao City, the hometown of his mother, his home.

But according to his parents, missing offline chess events still lingers for the 20-year-old especially that he is now chasing the grandmaster status.

"Dapat nga po pupunta siya noong March sa Vietnam tapos nitong April sa United Arab Emirates—sa Dubai tapos sa Sharjah—tapos sa May, dapat pupunta siya sa Hungary," they revealed their son's supposed travel plans. "Actually, the whole year, may schedule na siya."

For now, an IM looking to amass enough norms for him to be upgraded to GM status must participate in offline standard chess events.

In standard chess, both players are given an hour and a half each to try to outplay each other.

However, with such events already called off due to the pandemic, Marvin Miciano, who had to leave school for a while after enrolling for a semester at perennial college chess powerhouse FEU last year due to travel demands, has to wait for probably the latter part of the year before continuing his GM quest.

Still, it did not stop him from playing the game that he loves.

"Tuloy lang po ang training niya. Nagspa-sparring siya online ng mga masters at saka yung coach niya," his dad further said.

He also said that his son remains physically fit for the game.

"Regular din yung physical conditioning niya," Johnny Miciano added.

Timezone problems

The said conditioning, according to him, is very needed for his son since a standard chess game could go as long as five hours especially if the match becomes very tight.

"Kailangan, physically at mentally fit ka rin," Miciano added.

But according to him, his son still prefers the offline game. One reason is that playing standard chess online is actually more tedious especially that you have to honor someone else's timezone despite being at home.

"Nag-experiment noong isang beses. Nagkaroon ng standard chess online sa Spain. Sumali siya. Pero grabe ang challenge kasi [Central] Europe Time tapos ang laro aabutin ng apat hanggang limang oras," Johnny Miciano added.

In offline chess events overseas, Marvin Miciano, since he gets there a day before the start, gets enough time to adjust to the timezone.

But with events now relegated to online, he now has to adjust his body clock to the point that even his parents literally adjusted their clock to CET which is, as of the moment due to a Daylight Saving Time rule imposed in many countries including Spain, six hours behind Philippine Time.

"Pati yung tulog saka yung gising pati kain," Johnny Miciano bared the things they adjusted, adding that it had been their case for the entire 10 days of the test event.

Tess Miciano added that they too had to adjust their body clocks as well, like literally eating their breakfast during lunchtime due to their son just sleeping by 5 a.m.

"Sarado po lahat ng bintana. Dapat "gabi" para yung body clock mo, maga-adapt," she shared one quirky thing they did just to be acclimatized to the CET.

But good thing for her son, he did not need a nutritionist and a psychologist just for him to help cope with timezone matters.

"Sanay na po si Marvin pati po ako. Ako kasi yung kasama niya parati sa labas," the matriarch further said, although she bared that they had to prepare their body clocks two days before the start of the online event.

Miciano also said that the adjustment took a toll on her and her husband, saying, "Fifty plus na kami. Medyo sumasakit ulo namin."

In the said experimental tourney, Marvin Miciano fared well in field consisting of 21 GM's and about 30 more IM's.

He placed inside the Top 50 after tallying 5.5 points after nine rounds, overachieving from his initial seed of 60th overall.

"Human factor"

The other reason why he still prefers over-the-board chess than online chess, according to his mom, is a so-called "human factor" to the offline game which matters a lot especially in games pitting a GM.

"Pag nakikita mo psychological ganun—yung galaw-galaw, tapang-tapang, at likot-likot ng kalaban mo; yung tayu-tayuan niya—kasali yun sa laro," she said, adding that chess in general is also a "battle [of the] nerves."

Tess Miciano continued, "Pag nasa online ka, parang maraming factor ang nawawala," adding that even in training, things have changed dramatically.

Despite the shifting of gears, Marvin Miciano is still focused on training while also joining bullet chess events, where each player is only given three minutes to get the win, as he awaits for a rapid event to take place.

Follow him on Twitter: @IvanSaldajeno

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