NATIONAL Master Levi Mercado, winner of the cash-rich Mayor Jaraula Cup Open, is set to carry the fight for Cagayan de Oro--by his lonesome--in the Kidapawan Open Chess Championships.

To open on February 7 at the Convention Center of Kidapawan City, the three-day chessfest lures in some of the country's top woodpushers, even as homeground bet NM Reggie Olay is installed as the favorite to defend his title.

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Before leaving here Wednesday, the 42-year-old Mercado acknowledged Olay and International Master Oliver Barbosa of Manila among those he considered as potent rivals for the major cash prizes.

"Pero naa tay chance to spring up a surprise. Winning the Jaraula Cup is one thing nga nakadugang sa akong confidence. With my age and experience, I think I'm at par with them when it comes to psychological warfare," Mercado told Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro.

For his part, Olay said topping the Kidapawan tourney this time around won't be that easy.

The 33-year-old Olay surely will have homecourt advantage of sorts as he is orginally from Kidapawan City and is expected to come up with another fine performance.

"It's a tough field. There are a handful of strong opponents and I just have to be prepared," said Olay, who went wire-to-wire in winning last year's edition of the tournament.

Joining Olay and Mercado in the hunt for the P15,000 top purse is the youthful IM Barbosa, one of the country's top-rated and hottest pawnpushers today.

Barbosa, the 1997 Shell Philippines National Youth Grand Finals champion, have confirmed his participation in the event being organized by the Kidapawan Chess Club Inc. and supported by the City Government of Kidapawan and Batch 85-Notre Dame of Kidapawan Boys and Girls HS Alumni Association Inc.

With his credentials, Barbosa is the solid pick to spoil Olay's title-retention bid.

Olay, though, is unfazed.

"I'm doing exercises everyday and studying some openings. I have been examining my opponent's games lately," Olay said in the vernacular.

Also confirming their participation are Elias Banguiran and Ric Portogalera of General Santos City, Alex Lupian of Davao del Norte, Elwin Retanal of Malita, Davao del Sur and Cedric Magno of Panabo City.

Also in the field are candidate masters Jason Salubre of Manila and James Infiesto of Davao City.

To lure more participants, organizers have increased the prizes this year. Olay's victory last year was only worth P10,000.

The runner-up prize also increased from P7,000 last year to P10,000, while the next two placers will get P5,000 and P3,000, respectively. The fifth to 10th placers will receive P1,000 each along with the best kiddie, junior and best female players.

Registration fee is P300. Fee for Kidapawan-based players is P200 while junior and kiddie players can sign up with a minimal fee of P100. (With CRAM/Sunnex reports)