The Guam Chess Federation, Guam Echecs, kicked off the 2019 Guam Oceania Zonal Chess Championships, welcoming dignitaries and players during a press conference at the Pacific Star Resort & Spa on Sunday afternoon. The tournament will be held at the Pacific Star Ballroom from Feb. 17 to 23.

This is Guam’s first chance to host the biggest and most prestigious chess tournament in the region, which crowns an Oceania champion every two years. There are 39 participants for the Open Division and 11 participants for the Women’s Division, including players from Australia, Fiji, Guam, Nauru, New Zealand, Palau, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

The tournament format consists of nine rounds, finishing on Saturday. More than $5,000 in prizes are up for grabs for the top winners in the different divisions. The title of International Master also will be conferred upon those who place first in the women’s and open divisions. The title of FIDE Master will be conferred to the runners-up.

“It’s a great honor to host the zonal tournament. Very big deal for Guam community to support this,” said Roger Orio, president of the Guam Chess Federation.

The Oceania Zonal Chess Championships have attracted a field of amateur as well as professional chess players, eager for a shot at qualifying to advance to the World Cup and the World Chess Championships.

The top-ranked player in the tournament is Max Illingworth, 26, from Australia. Illingworth is a Grand Master of Chess, a title bestowed to less than 2,000 players worldwide. The Aussie won the 2015 Oceania Zonal Regional and had the chance to play one of the world’s best chess players, Pentala Harikrishna from India, at the 2015 World Cup.

That experience, Illingworth said, can be invaluable for a young chess player and building confidence.

“In chess, it doesn’t matter so much how far you see ahead, but how you see what’s right in front of you,” he said.

Newly elected Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE) President Arkady Dvorkovich and Lt. Gov. Joshua Tenorio will make the ceremonial first moves on Monday to open the tournament. International Arbiter Robert Gibbons from New Zealand will serve as the chief arbiter.

“Technically, this is a Category Two tournament; it’s a pretty high level event, so this is big event to host for Guam,” Gibbons told The Guam Daily Post.

Other notable dignitaries included Zhu Chen, former Women's World Chess Champion from China, now serving as FIDE Executive Board treasurer, and New Zealand’s Paul Spiller, President of Oceania Chess Federation.

Spiller stressed the need to grow chess throughout the region, adding, “It’s very important we hold events in different Oceania countries … we hope in the future more events will be held around Oceania.”

Guam will have a contingent of 18 players participating including the youngest player in the six-day tournament – 13-year-old Cyle Sarmiento, a seventh-grader at F.B. Leon Guerrero Middle School.

Sarmiento is competing in his first sanctioned tournament, adding that it was during Typhoon Dolphin in May 2015 when he first got hooked on chess.

“It makes you think in ways you don’t usually at school,” Sarmiento said, adding chess has also helped him as a basketball player for the FBLG Hawks. “(It offers) a good test to play very good players and see how I can play them.”