The 2011 North Carolina Chess Championship belongs to both Chris Mabe and Oliver Fernando who tied for 1st place at the N.C. Invitational this past April. Almost all of us know Chris Mabe from his frequent appearances at every major (and most minor) tournaments around the state. His incredible victory in the U2200 section of the 2007 World Open gained him fame statewide and he is a contender for the state championship each year. Oliver Fernando, on the other hand, is a name known to almost none of the regular North Carolina chess players. Who is this new talent in our state, where did he come from, and how did he get so good? I sat down with Oliver recently to chat and discover a few of the answers.
Oliver L. Fernando was born in 1974 and grew up in Cabanatuan which is located on Luzon Island, the largest and economically most important of the many thousands of islands that constitute the Philippine Islands. Cabanatuan is roughly 100 miles north of Manila and is an urban setting of approximately one-quarter of a million people. Oliver is the third of six children (4 sisters!) and was close to his older brother, Ronald. His first recollection about the game of chess is of him and his brother chasing around the house and knocking over a game in progress that his uncle, Ronnie, was playing. That fortuitous accident led to subsequent instruction in chess from said uncle for Oliver, Ronald, and one of his sisters.
While chess instruction at age 7 from his Uncle Ronnie got Oliver started, it was his own hard work and support from his family that elevated him to later achievements. Both Oliver and brother Ronald showed promise as players and their father was very supportive of their efforts. There were few tournaments where they lived, so their father would find local players who were considered better than his two sons. The Fernandos would travel to the other player’s house on weekends, and in return for a snack or a meal, the better players would play the Fernando brothers! Once the brothers could consistently beat the opponent, their father would then search for a stronger player to engage. Oliver remembers another player several years younger who was also learning chess at the same time. That player, who has now made his mark on the chess world, is GM Mark Paragua. It was not until age 12 that Oliver first played in tournaments.
Studying chess was difficult for the Fernandos because there was very little written material where they lived. The brothers would visit the public library and borrow the few chess books available, then either photocopy or hand copy the text. Photocopying was expensive, so the laborious task of hand copying often took its place. The only ECO volume Oliver remembers seeing was Volume C, so those were the lines he knew best! The two brothers also excelled in math competitions, which often goes hand-in-hand with chess.
Chess was an avenue for advancement for the Fernandos. They both became good enough that they were sponsored through school to play in tournaments. Oliver had offers of chess scholarships in Manila but eventually accepted one from Wesleyan University–Philippines in Cabanatuan. In 1993 while in college, Oliver narrowly missed making the Philippines national chess team when he lost the last round of the qualifying tournament. But Oliver did win a gold medal on board #1 in the 1995 National Games (for college students) with two International Masters in the field! He later received his B.S. degree in Electronics and Communications Engineering from Wesleyan University, graduating cum laude, and decided against pursuing a professional chess career. He remembers really good chess players he knew who were sleeping in the streets.
Oliver’s professional career in telecommunications has taken him around the world. He worked for a year in Sweden and then for a year in Saudi Arabia. In Arabia his job was actually handling the telecommunications network at the Royal Palace. He came to the United States in 2004 as a telecommunications engineer and landed in Mississippi. There he played chess briefly for the first time in years and received his initial USCF rating of 1868 after losing a game to a 2100 level player. Winning the next two tournaments against inferior competition, he jumped to 1926 after 13 rated games. Two years later he arrived in North Carolina as a telecommunications engineer for AT&T Wireless. He was transferred to Seattle for one year, then came back to North Carolina in 2008.
Oliver and his wife, Maricar, have two children: daughter Caissa Nicole, age 8, and son Marc Oliver, age 4. With a name like Caissa, his daughter showed an interest in chess and Oliver decided to start playing again in 2010 because of her interest. He entered a Master Trek, a TACO, an Asheboro Open, and a number of RTCC tournaments. We started noticing him when he won the U2200 section of the LPO last October and his rating soared over 2100. Oliver says he has not studied chess at all since 1996 and owns no chess books. He has forgotten all the lines he once knew, so he just plays the position as it presents. His brother, who lives and works in Dubai as a telecom engineer also, still plays occasionally and Oliver estimates the two of them to be of relatively equal strength.
Oliver is a very soft-spoken and quiet individual. He is a devout member of the Church of God International (Philippines) which can sometimes interfere with his chess playing. He attends conference calls/sermons which run from approximately 6 p.m. on Fridays to 6 a.m. on Saturdays, keeping him up all night. That makes Saturday morning games difficult to manage! He has enjoyed his tournaments here in North Carolina, though, and is very appreciative that he was asked to participate in the North Carolina Invitational. He was honored to be crowned co-champion this year and plans on playing in more tournaments. It seems clear that with even minimal effort, he has a good shot at making the Master level. We can use another strong player in North Carolina, so we hope Oliver Fernando will stay with us and participate in our local tournaments.
— by Walter M. High