From Quiapo sidewalk to China—young Basty treks path to chess greatness
There’s an area in Quiapo where avid chess players gather for pickup games. Seven-year-old Al-Basher “Basty” Buto passed by one afternoon and asked his father Bong if he could join them.
“All the players were veterans. I asked if my son could play, they said no,” Bong said in Filipino. “I kept saying he just wanted to try, until finally, someone agreed. He beat one; they were shocked. They called four other good ones, but he also beat them all.”
Basty, though, had played in stages bigger than the Manila sidewalks. Last year, the Filipino chess prodigy swept his seven matches to dominate the under-7 rapid bracket of the 13th Asian Schools Chess Championship in Panjin, China. He bagged another gold in the blitz category.
“He never had formal training. It was just his uncle who taught him,” said Bong, who traces his roots to Marawi but raised his family in Cainta.
“At five years old, Basty won his first tournament. Then at seven, he was beating college students, varsity players in tournaments and some National Masters. We were surprised. Not all kids have this kind of talent.”
Conferred with the Asean Master title, Basty also captured three individual and two team gold medals to help the Philippines dethrone Vietnam for the overall crown in the 8th Asean Age Group Chess Championship in Pahang, Malaysia, last December.
In one side of the Buto’s home, which has turned into a mini-gallery of medals and trophies, Basty would always point to a big, shiny award as his favorite.
“He likes it just because it’s big,” mother Jamellah said of the trophy Basty won in the 2017 National Age Group Chess Championship in Cebu. “He’s very happy every time he wins. He’s really just a regular kid. He plays, he bikes.”
So even if Bong and Jamellah acknowledge that the youngest of their six children may be gifted, they know that for Basty, chess is just all fun.
“I enjoy it,” said Basty, a Grade 2 student at Faith Christian School in Cainta. “But at first, I didn’t like it. I thought it was hard. Now, I also like solving chess puzzle books.”
“We’re really supporting him as much as we can,” said uncle Abdul Rahman Buto, who introduced Basty to the board game.
A self-confessed frustrated athlete, Abdul said he just wanted to teach different sports to his nephews and nieces. So he certainly didn’t expect to discover a natural chess whiz in the family.
“When I was teaching him, there was this good chess player who saw him play and said the kid has potential. Basty was just five years old then,” shared Abdul. “So we started watching games on YouTube and we started bringing him to tournaments.”
After winning his first competition at five, Basty started making the rounds in community games where he’s usually the youngest player. He also started gaining the attention of National Master Rudy Ibañez—who described the pint-size wonder as a “raw talent” who usually “plays by ear”—who offered to mentor him, along with Fide Master Christopher Castellano, Candidate Master Henry Villanueva, and US Chess Master and National Master Marlon Bernardino.
“They asked who was teaching Basty,” said Abdul. “We told them he had no formal training. So they volunteered to teach him until he reached the national tournament.”
Soon, chess turned into a family affair with Bong and Jamellah also starting to learn the game along with Basty’s siblings Al Yasher (18 years old), Mickayla (16), Rohanisah (14), Abdul Rahman (12) and Alysah (10).
“There are days when we’re just all playing at home,” said Bong.
But it hasn’t been always easy. For instance, Bong and Jamellah can’t always afford to join their son in overseas competitions due to financial constraints, so they leave him under the care of the coach or older teammates.
“There was a time my wife and I had a fight when Basty was about to leave for China. He had a 39-degree fever and I still wanted to bring him to the airport,” shared Bong, noting that Jamellah was worried because both of them wouldn’t be around.
“But I insisted that he continue with the competition. He’s representing the Philippines that’s why I don’t want him to just quit.”
Bong just wanted his son to try, but to the family’s surprise, Basty still dominated the Asian Schools tournament.
“I wasn’t feeling good, but I just tried to concentrate,” said Basty, whose incredible potential makes the Buto family excited for the future.
“We’re hoping he’ll be a Grandmaster when he’s around 14 to 16 years old,” said Bong.
And perhaps by then, no one will be surprised.
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