The Young Queen

For Janelle Frayna, becoming the Philippines’ first chess woman grandmaster at age 20 was just the start. Her goal: becoming one of the top 10 female players in the world and finding the next female chess prodigy.


MAY 14, 2020



AT JUST 23 YEARS OLD, Janelle Mae Frayna is a force to be reckoned with. Witness: she is the first female chess grandmaster of the Philippines, earning the coveted title when she was just 20.

Of course, there is the trail of other incredible feats getting there, like becoming the ASEAN age group gold medalist, earning a Women’s FIDE Master title, becoming a five-time member of the Philippine Olympiad Chess Team, a two-time National Women’s Chess Champion, as well as earning the Women’s International Master title.

Her achievements come with the side task of being able to inspire and help a growing number of young female woodpushers to do the same as she did. It is a task she doesn’t shy away from.

With herself as the example, she shows them there is a place for women in chess — fitting for a game where the most powerful piece is the queen.


At the Philippine Academy for Chess Excellence (PACE) in Quezon City one February afternoon, Janelle intently watches a game unfold between female chess players, stepping in to rearrange the pieces when the girls haven’t found the best move.

It is a far cry from her experience. Janelle first discovered chess when she was 11 years old at her hometown Legazpi City. “My older brother taught me about this game and doon nagsimula lahat,” Janelle tells GMA News Online.

Even at that age, Janelle knew she wanted to become a grandmaster, something that no Filipino woman has achieved. Her next move: convincing her parents she had a viable future in chess.

They were afraid the game will distract from her studies. With her hard work, she was able to put up a stellar performance in school while juggling chess. They gladly supported Janelle in her passion, allowing her to join a local chess club where she found herself competing against stronger players — most of them older, and most of them male.

“Hindi ko siya nakitang hindrance na puro lalaki sila at ako ‘yung babae lang na naglalaro. I saw it as a challenge. ‘Oh, kaya nilang maglaro ng chess,’ so for me, kaya ko rin ‘yung ginagawa nila,” she says.


For three years, Janelle trained on her own. Then after training under her first coach, a national master, Janelle soon realized she had to move to Manila to get the training she needed.

She attended an event at the Philippine Academy for Chess Excellence (PACE) in 2010, where she met Jayson Gonzales, the head coach of the Far Eastern University chess varsity team, which had won four straight UAAP championships at the time.

But he told her he had no spot for her in the FEU Diliman juniors chess team, then composed of all-male players. Wait a few more years then try out for the FEU chess varsity team, he advised her. They had a female roster.

Unfazed, Janelle kept competing in tournaments and reading chess books. She returned to PACE to meet up with someone who old chess books, where Janelle ran into Gonzales again.

He took one look at her books and had an epiphany.

“Nagulat ako,” he tells GMA News Online. “[She had three books with her,] and ‘yung tatlong librong iyon, they’re very, very good. ‘Yung mga lalaki ng ganung edad lang ‘yung nagbabasa nun.”

Weeks later, he asked the FEU juniors chess team to accept her as a scholar.

He was convinced he had discovered a young prodigy who would become something special.

He was right.


IT DID NOT TAKE LONG after moving to Manila before Janelle started playing for the National Chess Team and bagged her first title: Women’s National Master (WNM).

During her ascent to the top, she made history as the first female player to qualify for the grand finals in the 2014 Battle of the Grandmasters.

She stunned veteran players such as GM Richard Bitoon and GM Rogelio Antonio, Jr., drew GM Rogelio Barcenilla, and defeated three other International Masters (IM) to finish fourth out of twelve participants.

“Hindi ako exclusively lang naglalaro sa mga pang babae kasi nakikita ko na I could learn a lot sa paglalaro sa mga male players,” said Janelle.

She added, “Tricky silang maglaro. Ayaw nila basta basta lang matatalo without a fight.”

As the rare female competing against male opponents in the top tournaments, the crowd would often get behind her, seeing her as the underdog. All she needed to do was to “play her game” and “enjoy.”

Janelle brings up an interesting observation: male players are actually intimidated when playing against female opponents. “The truth is, ang male players ang nai-intimidate sa ating mga babae. Because kapag natatalo sila or siguro maka-draw lang 'yung babae, parang it hurts their ego,” she says with a laugh.

Pinoy male chess players, she says, would rather lose to small boys than to a female player.


WITH HER SUCCESS, she soon realized that critics were part of the game.  “Actually, andaming nagsabi ng ganun na maybe I need to stop pursuing this title kasi it's just a waste of time and after getting it, what's next?” she says.

Sometimes, she would get so frustrated after losing a game that she would think of throwing her chess board away. She would ask herself if her dream was worth all the sacrifices.

But she kept pushing forward. “Every time na parang I was about to give up, inaalala ko 'yung time na in-invest ko na parang ngayon pa ba, ngayon ba magii-stop? Hindi siya fair din sa mga tumulong sa akin and even to myself.”

Janelle, who graduated cum laude in the course BS Psychology, even stopped going to school for one semester to focus on getting better at chess.

“You know what, after ko mag-stop ng pagpasok sa school, wala nangyari,” she says with a laugh. “Lalong sumama 'yung mga performances ko and I think isang factor ba't naging ganun is because I was too pressured to perform.”

Still, all the hard work and agony was not for nought. Three years after she got her NM title, she worked her way up to the Women’s FIDE Master (WFM) title. A year later, she became a Women’s International Master (WIM).


In 2016, Janelle competed at the 42nd World Chess Olympiad in Azerbaijan.

In the ninth round, she drew IM Davaademberel Nomin-Erdene of Mongolia to reach enough points to become the first female grandmaster in Philippine history. She was 20 years old.

“To be honest, I really cried. Kasama ko [si Coach Gonzales]… We both cried actually kasi antagal namin pinangarap 'to. And now na andito na, iba 'yung feeling na pinapangarap mo pa lang siya sa nakuha mo na,” she says.

She has been at it for more than a decade, but she still struggles to find the words to express the joy that chess brings her.

“I think I could play even twelve hours straight na may kasama mga trash talks,” she says. “You can learn the moves of chess in just a day, but it takes a lifetime to master it.”

The sport just never gets old for her. There are so many ideas that could be gleaned from even just a single chess game.  “It's really enjoyable sa totoo lang. Hindi naman 'yung napapahirapan mo 'yung kalaban mo sa pag-iisip, but 'yung fact na marami siyang complexities sa totoo lang na hindi mo maso-solve in just one day.”


FOUR YEARS AFTER becoming a grandmaster, Janelle still competes in local and international tournaments. Her standard chess rating may have dipped to 2179 from a peak rating of 2325, but she remains undeterred.

“I don't believe na humina ako siguro,” she says. “Normally, hindi naman basta-basta nawawala 'yung galing ng player eh. Usually, the more na tumatanda ka, dapat nag-aadd 'yung knowledge mo, 'di ba?”

She believes she could clinch become one of the top ten women players in the world.

She is interested in educating the next generation of chess masters. On her YouTube channel, she explains the principles behind complex chess games.

As we end our interview, several chess players begin to stream into a room on the third floor of PACE to compete in a grueling championship.

These tournaments pitting the best of the best against each other where Janelle hopes to find a successor. For now,

“Although maraming moments na rin na gusto ko sana mag-pursue ng law…I couldn't because andami naitulong sa akin ng chess,” she says  “Para wala pa akong nakitang papalit talaga and I don't find it fair to the chess community na basta na lang ako aalis without finding the next person na talagang siya na 'yung magdadala ng women's chess.”