A Chess World Champ in the Making

Filipino Grandmaster Wesley So at the Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis, Missouri (Source: facebook page of Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis/Photo by Austin Fuller)

Filipino Grandmaster Wesley So at the Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis, Missouri (Source: facebook page of Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis/Photo by Austin Fuller)

Since last weekend, much of the attention of chess fans around the world has been focused on Saint Louis, Missouri, the chess capital of the United States. That's because one of the strongest tournaments of all time - the Sinquefield Cup - is being held there, with eight of the world's Top Ten players (plus two other elite contestants) competing for a prize fund of $300,000.

The event is bankrolled by the hedge-fund billionaire Rex Sinquefield, who has made it his mission to make the U.S. the Number One chess-playing nation and Saint Louis the center of the chess universe. Each of the players will play all the others for a total of nine games until Sept. 1, with another day reserved for playoffs if needed.

No matter what happens over the chess board, every player is guaranteed to win at least $15,000 with travel and five-star accommodations paid for by the organizers. The champion will get $75,000 and recognition as one of the greatest players of all time.

Among the participants from eight countries are the reigning world champion from Norway, two former world champions from India and Bulgaria, and the top three American players - one of whom was born and raised in the Philippines.

Wesley So, a newly-minted Filipino-American who officially joined the ranks of the world's Top Ten only last November, is taking part as an invited player in one of the greatest chess events of all time. Last year, he was just a spectator in Saint Louis, where he was a varsity athlete at nearby Webster University. This time around, he is one of the sport's superstars whose every move is followed by millions of fans around the world.

Matches begin at 1 p.m., Saint Louis time. That means 2 a.m. in the Philippines and many of So's loyal followers stay up from the wee hours until the games end about five or six hours later. To follow the the tournament, results are posted at www.chessbase.com, www.chess24.com, www.chess.com, and in the official site, www.grandchesstour.com.

Wesley So is the best Filipino chess player of all time, the only one to have reached the super-grandmaster level of 2,700 statistical points in official rating lists of the World Chess Federation and the only one to have joined the elite ranks of the world’s Top Ten. But he doesn’t play for the Philippines anymore.

Instead, he plays under the American flag after transferring to the United States Chess Federation in the last quarter of 2014. He is a permanent U.S. resident and now lives in the Midwest region with a Filipino-American family that he has adopted as his own.

Only 21 years old, So is ranked number seven among all chess players in the world and number three in the U.S. He is the second youngest among the world’s Top Ten.

He is the only chess grandmaster in Minnesota and he gets front-page coverage from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, one of the leading newspapers in the Midwest with the 17th largest circulation among all daily newspapers in the U.S. Before his arrival, the Star Tribune did not even cover chess.

Wesley So (Source: metrochessla.com)

Wesley So (Source: metrochessla.com)

Right after So’s transfer, the United States moved up from #9 to #4 in the rankings of the world’s chess-playing nations while the Philippines dropped from #32 to #43. Such was the impact of his transfer, which could be traced to his unhappiness with sports politics and the neglect of chess by sports authorities in his homeland.

Before his change of affiliation, he had already served as coach of Team USA at the 2013 World Team Championship in Antalya, Turkey, and at the 2014 World Chess Olympiad in Tromso, Norway. He was younger than all but one of the American players that he coached.

International Master John Donaldson, several times the captain of U.S. national teams, has acknowledged So’s contributions: “He knows an incredible amount about opening theory [and] likes to work on chess all the time.”

Wesley So is an extraordinary talent with a strong work ethic, and many chess experts consider him a future challenger for the world championship.

In Europe, where chess is regarded as an important part of culture and a major sport in some countries, So looms large as a rising star. He is one of the most popular among elite players and his many fans in different time zones follow his games faithfully on Internet chess sites.

Sometimes, Filipino fans who live in other countries even show up at tournament venues to give moral support. For instance, in July 2014, six members of the Pinoy Chess Club of Milan took time off from work to meet him and watch him play in Bergamo, Italy. They had breakfast with him and even had a placard on hand to express their support. On the tournament’s rest day, he went sightseeing with them in Milan.

Wesley So (right) vs. GM Ray Robson at last year's Millionaire Chess Open in Las Vegas (Source: Chess Daily News/Photo by Susan Polgar)

Wesley So (right) vs. GM Ray Robson at last year's Millionaire Chess Open in Las Vegas (Source: Chess Daily News/Photo by Susan Polgar)

Tournament organizers have noticed that Internet traffic to live-streaming sites surges whenever he plays. Last January, during the Tata Steel super-tournament at Wijk aan Zee, a seaside town in the Netherlands, two of the most popular chess sites crashed briefly due to heavy traffic when he played Magnus Carlsen, the reigning world champion from Norway. (The game ended in a draw.)

So was on the cover of a recent issue of New In Chess, a respected chess magazine published in the Netherlands, with circulation in 116 countries, and its online edition available on the iPad, Android tablets and Kindle Fire. Previously, he had been on the cover of the magazine’s yearbook.

Born on October 9, 1993, of Filipino and Chinese parents, he learned chess moves from his father when he was seven years old. He began playing in tournaments when he was nine and won his first event in 2003 in the under-10 category of the national age-group championships.

So’s rise from there was meteoric. He became a FIDE Master – an international title – in 2005 after taking first place in the under-12 category of the ASEAN Age-Group Championships in Pattaya, Thailand. He was, up to that time, the youngest Filipino to get an international chess title.

In 2006, So became the youngest ever to play for the Philippines in the World Chess Olympiad, as second reserve in Turin, Italy. Later in the same year, he got his International Master title, again the youngest Filipino to get that distinction.

In 2007, he became the seventh youngest person in the history of chess to be awarded the title of grandmaster, at the age of 14 years, one month, and 28 days. He was also ranked #1 in the world for the under-16 age group.

So usually has three chess programs running simultaneously and he follows the analyses on three separate computer screens.

So joined the world’s Top Ten after he won the inaugural staging of Millionaire Chess Open in Las Vegas in October 2014. This tournament offered the biggest prize money in the history of open chess competitions and he walked away with the champion’s purse of $100,000 after five days of hard work over the chess board.

Shortly thereafter, four important events happened that changed his life.

He got permanent residency in the U.S.

His application to change affiliation from the Philippines to the U.S. was approved by the World Chess Federation.

He quit schooling after two years as a varsity athlete at Webster University in Saint Louis, Missouri, to become a full-time chess professional.

Wesley So was a member of the Webster University chess team (Source; websterchess.blogspot.com)

Wesley So was a member of the Webster University chess team (Source; websterchess.blogspot.com)

And he relocated from Saint Louis to Minnetonka, Minnesota.

His new home is located in a quiet, upscale suburb west of Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Minneapolis/St. Paul, with a lot of park areas, biking trails, beaches and lakes nearby. Lotis Key-Kabigting, a longtime resident and So’s “adopted” mother, describes the place as “beautiful, very safe and expensive.”

“I live in a very disciplined and structured environment,” So disclosed soon after moving to his new home. “A full eight to nine hours of sleep every night, a balanced diet, nutritional supplements, vigorous daily exercises and a minimum of six hours of daily chess study. I also have various recreational activities to balance my work-life, but they are built around my training routine.”

His study sessions are extraordinary. Not only are these sessions part of preparations for specific tournaments with strategies prepared against specific opponents, but these are done with the help of powerful computer hardware, databases that contain millions of previously-played games and multiple, state-of-the-art chess software whose analytical and playing strengths far exceed the mental capacity of any human being.

During these sessions, So usually has three chess programs running simultaneously and he follows the analyses on three separate computer screens. That he can follow many lines of complicated analysis, synthesize and remember them afterwards is truly mind-boggling.

Unlike most elite grandmasters who employ coaches and seconds to help them during tournament preparation and in-between tournament games, So prepares by himself. Occasionally, he trains with grandmaster friends who live in other places and with an international master who lives in the Minneapolis area; but by and large he prepares alone and trains with a computer as sparring partner.

Eugene Torre, the living legend of Philippine chess and the first grandmaster from Asia, noted many years ago that So, even when he was just a kid, had a special talent in preparing for tournaments by himself.

Renato “Bambi” Kabigting, a former basketball star in the Philippines, an amateur chess player and Lotis Key’s husband, still marvels at how So can finish reading a chess book in two or three days and how he can follow the moves of games under discussion in his head, without moving the pieces on an actual chess board. Normally, amateurs would need one to three months to finish studying such books, and with the aid of chess boards. Such is the stuff of legend that surrounds Wesley So.

After graduating from high school in 2011, So decided not to go to college immediately. Instead, he spent one year trying to work on his chess. Meanwhile, his biological family immigrated to Canada in 2010, but he decided to stay in the Philippines, and he has not spent a Christmas with them during the past five years.

In the summer of 2012, So moved to Saint Louis after getting a scholarship at Webster University. He played top board for the university and helped Webster in winning four national championships in two years. He was the highest-rated player ever to play varsity chess in the U.S.

Meanwhile, his individual standing improved rapidly – from #99 to #10 in the world – and winning $100,000 at the Millionaire Chess Open emboldened him to become a chess professional.

“It’s nice having some financial security as I step out to begin my professional career,” he said. “It’s very motivating in that direction. I don’t have any financial backers or sponsors, so I am taking an enormous risk on my own.”

While he was still a full-time student, he began playing as a semi-professional in the United States Chess League, a team competition played on the Internet. He was the top player of the Saint Louis Arch Bishops and the team won its first national championship in his first season. He was undefeated, with nine wins and two draws, and he ended his rookie year in December 2014 as the league’s Most Valuable Player.

Between Christmas 2014 and New Year, he went back to Las Vegas and won the North American Open championship. He was undefeated, with seven wins and two draws, a nice ending to a very successful year.

Earlier in May, he took first place at the Capablanca Memorial tournament in Havana, Cuba – one of the most prestigious events in the Western Hemisphere. In July, he emerged as champion at the ACP Golden Classic in Bergamo, Italy. In between these two events, he finished second – just half a point behind the winner – at the Edmonton International Chess Festival in Alberta, Canada. He did not lose a single game in these tournaments.

In fact, he achieved a remarkable run of 54 consecutive tournament games without losing a single one, starting from April 2014 up to January 2015. Most players are lucky to lose only one or two games in every tournament they join.

He relishes every opportunity to play with the best, and his playing schedule from now until January 2016 is already full of very strong, high-profile events. He has set his sights on becoming even better and moving up to the Top Five, and he wants to get it done as soon as possible, before the end of this year if the pieces fall in the right places.

Eliseo Tumbaga

Eliseo Tumbaga

Eliseo Tumbaga is a licensed trainer of the World Chess Federation with rank of National Instructor and the secretary of the Professional Chess Trainers Association of the Philippines. He is the founder and admin of the Facebook group Chess News & Views. He was a sportswriter and columnist at The Times Journal, People’s Journal, Sports Journal, and other publications of Philippine Journalists, Inc. He worked as news-desk editor at The Manila Times, columnist at Sports Weekly Magazine, and contributor to the Philippine News Agency. He was also assistant editor at Credit & Financial Management (a monthly business magazine published in New York City) and senior writer at Manila Times East (a weekly newspaper published in Jersey City, New Jersey, for the Filipino community on the East Coast of the United States). In addition to his journalism work of more than 15 years, he has been an entrepreneur, corporate executive, and business consultant with specialized practice in strategic planning, business development, business reengineering and marketing strategy.