Wednesday, 5 May 2010

My tribute to Florencio Campomanes

Florencio Campomanes touched different people in different ways.

The Western nations despised him, calling him a chess dictator who overstayed his tenure as the president of the World Chess Federation (Fide) and who played a very instrumental role in dividing the chess world. The Third World countries, however, saw him mostly as a champion who succeeded to the world body’s highest position and who opened up chess to the world and brought the game to its greatest prominence.

Who was right and who was wrong? Without a doubt, both sides would have their grounds and justifications to cast Campomanes as their hero or villain. Personally, I don’t believe that he cared very much for the labels. Ultimately, he wanted only results, not how the job got done. But all that is now behind him.

Last Monday, Florencio Campomanes, more popularly known as Campo to his friends and enemies, died in his native Philippines. He was 83 years old.

I first got to know of Campo way back in 1974 when he was already a Fide deputy president. Asia was his main playground then, and chess was just taking off in the continent.

At that time, the Malaysian Chess Federation was playing host to Fide which was celebrating its 50th anniversary and holding its Bureau Meeting at the Hotel Merlin in Penang. Campo came to Penang for the Bureau Meeting and the inaugural Asian team championship. At the conclusion of the championship, he received the challenge trophy from our second Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak. Campo was truly the public face of the Philippines’ chess team.

In 1978, he organized the acrimonious world chess championship match between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi in Baguio City and in 1982, achieved his ambition to become the Fide president. His election to the world body’s top position, on the promise of elevating chess to greater heights, created a buzz everywhere. I was there in Luzerne when it happened and the euphoria was simply incredible.

He knew Juan Antonio Samaranch. As the Fide president, Campo sowed the seeds that would eventually see Fide being accepted into the international Olympic community. This wasn’t a short-term process; it actually took years before the walls could be broken down. But the process started with him. Story has it that when Campo and Samaranch met, the IOC president tried speaking to him in various languages but Campo was himself up to the task.

But his Fide presidency was also marred with controversy. By 1984, Garry Kasparov’s star was already in its ascendancy and he was knocking on Karpov’s door. But the 1984/85 world championship match was organized with rules different from today’s. It was a match where a player needed to score six decisive victories, draws not counting.

Karpov was unable to deliver the final blow and he enabled Kasparov to extend the match to 48 games. After five long months of play, Campo decided to abandon the match, citing players’ fatigue as the decision. There would be a rematch later in the year, limited to 24 games.

While this might have been seen as a logical decision – a tough decision actually – that any Fide president would have to make, it did not go down well at all with many chess federations in the West. They claimed that Campo’s decision was scandalous and unilaterally made to favour the tiring Karpov at a time when an invigorated Kasparov was starting to get stronger at the chessboard. They said there was no precedent to stop the match but precisely, it was Campo’s job to set a precedent if one was really required.

Anyhow, Campomanes weathered all the criticisms and went on to achieve his second high point as the Fide president by bringing the biennial Chess Olympiad to Manila in 1992. It was again a first for Asian chess as never before had any Third World country organized such a large-scale team chess event in this part of the world.

But chess was never the same after that. During Campo’s tenure as Fide president, Kasparov declared that his world championship title never belonged to the World Chess Federation and he could choose to defend his title any time he liked or wanted. Not surprisingly, Kasparov had the support of the western chess federations and most of the top western chess grandmasters.

So chess went in two separate directions. Kasparov had his own version of a world chess championship running for several years while Fide continued with its own regular world chess title series. It was not until 2006 that there was unification again.

The pressure on Campo began to tell and in 1995, he stepped down as the Fide president and Kirsan Ilyumzhinov took over. Nevertheless, Campo remained active in the chess world and he was made the Fide honorary president which allowed him to roam the globe as the ultimate chess ambassador.

He never slowed down, not even a horrendous car crash in Turkey in 2007 was able to stop him. Though seriously warded in a hospital with his neck in braces, he received all guests and insisted on playing chess with them on his hospital bed. That was his dedication to the game.

Campo turned up often in Malaysia because he was a fast friend of Datuk Tan Chin Nam whom he first met in 1974. It was mainly Campomanes that persuaded Tan to stand for Fide election in 1982. Every time that Campo came into town, he would come as a guest of Tan.

I can’t remember the last time I met him in Kuala Lumpur. It must have been at the early part of this decade. He was already frail of body but still sharp in mind. Impressively, he still carried with him a very distinguished and statesman-like air. Without any prompting, he could always remember my name but never once could he say it properly. But like him, I did not care. I did not care very much for the mispronunciations because I knew that he only wanted to be polite and address me, not how to call my name.

(This is a slightly different version of my story which will appear in The Star on Friday.)

No comments: