MANILA, DECEMBER 2, 2003  (STAR) By Dante Navarro - It may not be the best but it sure is the strongest chess team ever assembled in recent years.

Stronger than the 1992 Olympiad teams, tougher than the winning 1995 Asian Team Championships squad, and definitely a lot better than the crew which lost to Kazakhstan in their duel for the World Team Championship berth in 1997.

With three battle-scarred grandmasters, a GM-candidate with so much talent and promise, an international master raring to prove his worth and an unfancied but brilliant Asian Zonal king, the Philippines is indeed looking good and should be the marked team when chess competitions fire off Dec. 4 in the Southeast Asian Games in Vietnam.

Never mind if the hosts are said to have prepared well in their bid to defend their turf in this first-ever staging of the event in the biennial regional games. Or if the Indonesians have geared up to spring a surprise or two.

For as long as GMs Eugene Torre, Joey Antonio and Bong Villamayor, GM-candidate Mark Paragua, and IMs Jayson Gonzales and Ronald Dableo play to their full potential, thereís no way for the Philippines not to figure prominently in the hunt for the four gold medals staked in the menís side of the sport so dear for the Filipinos.

"I think we have the edge in the lower boards," said Antonio, a member of those past RP squads and a veteran of many international competitions, including the Bangkok Open last month which he won in grand fashion.

The boyish-looking Antonio said with him and Torre on the top two boards, the Philippines can expect to hold against the top GMs of the other teams, particularly Vietnam and Indonesia, and is counting on Villamayor and company to deliver the crucial points.

"Although the hosts have prepared so hard for this event, I think Bong (Villamayor) and Mark (Paragua) will be tough to beat in the lower boards, particularly in the team rapid event. Plus we have two talented alternates," added Antonio, referring to Gonzales and Dableo, the reigning Asian Zonals champ.

Antonio, playing out of the Philippine Army Special Services under AFP chief Gen. Narciso Abaya and CG-PA Lt. Gen. Gregorio Camiling, agreed with Torre in the latterís prediction of a two-gold harvest by the Filipinos. Should they all play true to form, Antonio added, they could snatch one more.

Torre, who led a stirring 1-2-3 finish by the Filipinos in the recent Belgium Open, will lead the RP team in the team rapid event along with Antonio, Villamayor and Paragua and Gonzales as alternate. Antonio and Paragua are also competing in the individual event of rapid chess.

Dableo takes Gonzalesí place in the standard chess and will join Torre, Antonio, Villamayor and Paragua in the individual competitions of the event.

"I think we are the team to beat in both the rapid and standard events and a realistic two-gold medal harvest is doable," said Torre.

But while the menís team are oozing with confidence, not to mention talent, experience and skills, the same could not be said of the womenís squad, which will be up against a tough Vietnam team in both the rapid and standard competitions.

"Vietnam looks unbeatable in the womenís side. In fact, pinisak nila ang Georgia nung last Olympiad," said Antonio.

However, he added that Arianne Caoili is a force to reckon with in rapid chess. The other members of the ladies team are Sheerie Joy Lomibao, Cristine Rose Mariano, Beverly Mendoza and Kathryn Cruz.

But one thing going against the womenís squad is that Caoili is still in Australia, where she is based, and might not be able to join the team when it leaves for Vietnam today.

"Nilalakad kay First Gentleman (Mike Arroyo). Pero mukhang hirap ang sitwasyon," said Torre. "Malaking kawalan si Arianne kung di makakalaro."

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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