A queen in the game of kings
Still in pajamas, her hair uncombed, her eyes droopy, the teenager has yet to eat breakfast. Instead of fruits, bread, cereals and fresh milk, however, a chessboard, a laptop, and a time clock are arrayed in front of her.
The food can wait; her chess training must go on.
Janelle Mae Frayna relishes the training sessions with Grandmaster Jayson Gonzales, her personal trainer, national women’s team mentor, and part-time spiritual adviser.
That peculiar scene, with Janelle and Gonzales hunched over a chess board on the sofa of a hotel room as they strategized against her opponent, lingers in the memory of an associate—though it occurred over two years ago in Istanbul, Turkey, during the 41st Chess Olympiad.
It’s a beautiful testament to Janelle’s passion and dedication to the game she first played at the late age of 11 in her hometown in Legazpi City.
The curious youngster learned chess at the knee of an older brother who neither had the chess masters’ books nor formal instruction to impart wisdom on the game of kings.
Soon Janelle was beating young players of both sexes, prompting her mother, Corazon Sonia, to bring her to the Philippine Academy of Chess Excellence (Pace), the school co-founded by Gonzales and Eugene Torre, Asia’s first GM, in 2010 in Quezon City.
Initially, Gonzales turned down the 14-year-old Janelle as the school already had ample talent in Frayna’s age class.
The next morning, however, Gonzales again saw mother and daughter waiting for National Master Efren Bagamasbad from whom they intended to buy three chess books. Gonzales looked at the titles and was so impressed with her choices he decided to take her in.
Realizing that Janelle was an unpolished gem, Gonzales helped her transfer to Far Eastern University, where he coached the school’s team, and gave her special attention. They trained daily, the lessons lasting up to eight hours.
By 2011, Janelle was ready to compete against the big names. Taking part in the local Battle of Grandmasters as the youngest entry in the women’s division, she scored one positive result after another and wound up second behind the seasoned Ralf Ylem Jose by half a point.
The next year, Janelle finished second anew, further enhancing her reputation on the national chess scene.
In 2013, she exceeded expectations by snaring the women’s crown and emerging as the highest-placed Filipino woman in the Asian Continental Open and Women Championships.
Janelle would blossom into a feared giant-killer the following year. Now competing against the men in the Battle of Grandmasters, she bested highly regarded GMs Richard Bitoon and Rogelio Antonio Jr.
In 2015, she finally took the scalp of the venerable Torre.
But the stars aligned at last for Janelle this year.
A strong fifth-place finish in the World Junior Chess Championships held in Odisha, India, convinced her that the WGM title was within reach. Janelle paced the strong field up to the 10th of the 12-round Swiss system tournament only to be derailed by back-to-back losses.
But the defeats did not make her lose focus. With the 42nd Chess Olympiad set to fire off nine days later in Baku, Azerbaijan, Janelle looked forward to shining on the world stage.
She wouldn’t be denied. By the ninth round of the 11-round Olympiad, all Janelle needed was to score a draw against Mongolian International Master Davaademberel Nomin-Erdene on board one to clinch her third and final WGM norm.
For the first time in her chess career, Janelle offered truce to a higher-rated rival. To her surprise, the Mongolian accepted after 31 moves.
Though the Philippines lost the battle, 1.5-2.5, the country celebrated Janelle’s ascencion as its first Woman Grandmaster. She had been a Woman National Master at 11, a Woman Fide Master at 17, and a WIM at 18.
The celebration did not end there. The next day, in the 10th round, Janelle also fulfilled the requirements for a men’s International Master title after she bested IM Olga Zimina and led the Filipino women to a stunning 2.5-1.5 upset of the Italians.
All that is required of her now is raise her Elo rating of 2281 to 2400 to officially become an IM, a title higher than the WGM in the hierarchy of World Chess Federation titles.
Ranked 46th among 140 teams, the Filipinos landed 34th in the women’s division.
The 20-year-old Janelle, who is expected to graduate cum laude in BS Psychology at FEU next semester, was clearly the star of the team.
As all this was happening, Janelle was kept out of the fangs of the family’s grief. When she finally got together with her mom, her father George Guillermo, and her two brothers, police officers Jan Mari Felix, 25, and Don Mari Phil, 22, the family broke the devastating news: Her mother has stage 2 breast cancer and, in fact, had undergone partial mastectomy last month.
Corazon, a civil engineer who heads the housing division of the Legazpi City Planning and Development Office, and the rest of the family decided not to tell Janelle about it for fear that she might not do well in the World Juniors and pull out of the Chess Olympiad altogether.
Being the youngest and lone daughter she says she cried for a long time. But Janelle has since embraced the truth that life, as in chess, is not all about joys.
With her mother as her inspiration, she says she will be aiming for the GM title next year and the World Championship cycle in 2018.
“I feel I can do it,” says Janelle, who idolizes Hungarian GM Judith Polgar, the greatest woman player of all time.
She notes that she’d beaten and drawn with GMs before.
The dividing line, she says, is the “level of consistency” in games. Janelle, who’s actually contemplating on taking up law, feel’s she’s getting there.
“I dream about it (world championship),” she says. “That’s my ultimate goal.”