Wesley So’s Rocky Road to the World Chess Championship

Wesley So (right) and Sergey Karjakin at the 2017 Sinquefield tournament (Source: chess.com)

Wesley So (right) and Sergey Karjakin at the 2017 Sinquefield tournament (Source: chess.com)

"One thing you notice about the Bible is that God’s people usually don’t have an easy life,” Wesley So said during an interview on the sidelines of a major chess tournament in Shamkir, Azerbaijan, back in April 2015.

“God has big plans for them, but the road is very long and hard. Kind of the same as the way I am taking right now. In my career at least the road to the top is very hard and you have to suffer painful losses. It sometimes does not go as you had hoped it would go,” he told Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam, the editor-in-chief of New In Chess, a leading chess magazine published in the Netherlands and read by players of all levels in 116 countries.

The 23-year-old Filipino-American grandmaster who lives in Minnetonka, Minnesota, in the Midwest region of the United States, is an ardent follower of the Christian faith who often finds comfort in the stories that he reads in the Bible, especially when he is going through setbacks on the chessboard or dealing with personal crises away from it. In that interview more than two years ago, he was referring to a series of unexpected events that transpired during the US Championship in Saint Louis, Missouri, where his biological mother, long absent from his life, suddenly showed up from Canada accompanied by his father’s sister, who lived in Boston, Massachusetts, and disrupted his first attempt at winning the national chess championship of the United States.

Last April, he finally won the national championship of his adopted country on his third attempt. It meant a lot to him, because although he was already the #1 American player by rating, he did not consider himself to be the best in America unless he actually won the US Championship – because, as he explained, “all the great local players starting in the early 1920s have won this tournament, and I’d never won it yet.”

Wesley So winning the 2017 U.S. Chess Championship (Source: chesshive.com)

Wesley So winning the 2017 U.S. Chess Championship (Source: chesshive.com)

Victory in April was also notable for another accomplishment – So went undefeated and extended his no-loss streak to 67 games. The last time he lost a rated game under classical time controls was in July 2016, in the fourth round of the Gashimov Memorial Tournament in Shamkir, Azerbaijan – to Magnus Carlsen, the reigning world champion from Norway.

And in that span of time, he won the three strongest tournaments in the world – the Sinquefield Cup in August (2016), the London Chess Classic in December (2016), and the Tata Steel Masters super-tournament in Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands, in January (2017).

In addition, he also played in the World Chess Olympiad in September under the flag of the United States – his first time to play for USA in the world’s biggest team competition. Although he is still a Filipino citizen and travels with a Philippine passport, he is a US legal resident and plays under the U.S. Chess Federation, as allowed by the rules of the World Chess Federation (known by its French acronym, FIDE). When America’s national anthem was played at the Olympiad awarding ceremonies, So had tears in his eyes – because he was so happy that he played well and played a big part in giving Team USA its first Olympiad gold medal in 40 years.

Rating 2808

The Sinquefield Cup and the London Classic were part of the four-event Grand Chess Tour. Winning these events also allowed So to win the tour’s overall championship and the bonus of $100,000. He also began 2017 with a rating of 2808 – the first time he had gone above 2800.

Wesley So winning 2016 London Chess Classic and Grand Chess Tour (Source: chesshive.com)

Wesley So winning 2016 London Chess Classic and Grand Chess Tour (Source: chesshive.com)

Ratings are statistical points derived from tournament results based on a mathematical formula devised by Dr. Arpad Elo, a Hungarian-American professor of physics at Marquette University in Milwaukee who was also state chess champion of Wisconsin eight times.

A player gains points when he wins against a rated player and loses points when he loses a game. The number of points won or lost depends on the ratings of the player and his opponent. In case of a draw, the higher-rated player loses points and the lower-rated player earns points or fractions of a point when the rating difference between them is not too big.

Only thirteen men have reached 2800 since FIDE adopted the Elo rating system in 1970. Every player who competes actively, from the world champion to aspiring amateurs, goes through ratings ups and downs.

When he launched his career as a full-time chess professional in January 2015 at the Tata Steel Masters super-tournament in Wijk aan Zee, So was ranked #10 in the world and was officially 100 rating points behind Carlsen. This year, he has been ranked #2 five times in the first eight months and officially just 12 rating points behind Carlsen.

Wesley So winning the 2017 Tata Steel Chess Tournament (Photo by Tata Steel 2017)

Wesley So winning the 2017 Tata Steel Chess Tournament (Photo by Tata Steel 2017)

However, because of a disastrous showing in the first two weeks of August when he returned to Saint Louis to defend his title at the Sinquefield Cup, the strongest tournament on American soil and one of the strongest in the world, he will drop to #8 when the official ratings come out next month.

He lost in the very first round to the Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, bounced back with a win in the next round against Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi, then lost three more and drew the other four games – his worst tournament since the 2015 edition of the Sinquefield Cup when he played as a wildcard and finished at the bottom of the standings. This time around, he tied for last place with Nepomniachtchi -- the latest episode in a young chess career with many ups and downs and unexpected twists and turns.

He doesn’t want to offer any excuses, but he was probably too tired to be competitive in the strongest tournament on American soil. He had been traveling in Europe for six weeks starting in the first week of June and played in four tournaments with very little rest in-between – a total of 81 games against the strongest opponents, played under different time controls and varying tournament locales and conditions, which required all kinds of adjustments every time – and had to travel again to Saint Louis after just two weeks of recuperation at home.

It cannot be denied also that the Sinquefield Cup is one of the toughest events to win. In its first four years, four different men have won the title – Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana of the United States, Levon Aronian of Armenia, and So. Carlsen did not play last year because he was busy preparing for the defense of his world title against Russia’s Sergey Karjakin. This year Carlsen and the other previous winners were back -- the four highest-rated players in the tournament – but it was Vachier-Lagrave who snatched the title. And the Frenchman also moved up to #2 in the world rankings.

World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway (Photo by Albert Silver)

World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway (Photo by Albert Silver)

If it’s any consolation, Carlsen himself has not won any classical event for 13 months now – an unusually long period without a tournament victory for a reigning world champion and the highest-rated player of all time, and an indication of how competitive professional chess can be at the highest level. At this level, a player who is just slightly off-form can be punished severely round after round – like a boxer who is pummeled by a different heavyweight opponent in every round – and survival rather than winning becomes the goal.

Carlsen’s strength cannot be underestimated. He has been ranked #1 since July 2011 and the highest-rated of all players since FIDE’s adoption of the Elo rating system. In the first three weeks of June, however, he was battered badly right in his own backyard – at the Altibox Norway Chess super-tournament, the strongest chess event this year, where he lost two games, won only once, and drew the other six games. Statistically, his performance rating in this event was his lowest in the last ten years.

There are two ways a chess player can be considered as the best in his field: be at the top of the rating list issued every month by FIDE, or win the world title in a one-on-one contest with the reigning world champion.

Among the Top Ten, So is the youngest and least experienced. He has been locked since the beginning of the year in a riveting contest with Caruana and Kramnik for qualification to the next Candidates Tournament, to be held in March 2018, based on average rating from January to December. Only two players will qualify based on rating.

The Candidates Tournament is a very elite tournament among eight qualifiers from different paths in the world championship cycle; the winner will go on to be the next challenger for the world championship.

Garry Kasparov, the 13th world champion and one of the greatest players of all time, considers So as the player most likely to challenge Carlsen.

Former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov (Photo by Benjamin Chasteen)

Former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov (Photo by Benjamin Chasteen)

“The reason I put Wesley ahead of two others,” Kasparov said in an interview last May, “is that he has phenomenal concentration, absolutely phenomenal, and that’s very important.” (He mentioned Caruana and Vachier-Lagrave as potential challengers, too.) After So’s victory at the London Chess Classic in December, Kasparov tweeted: “He showed great consistency and, bad news for opponents, he’s still improving.”

“I never thought I would be number two,” So told Chuck Culpepper of the Washington Post in the first week of June. “But … I want to try to be number one.” In another interview at the end of the London Classic, So told Geuzendam: “At the end of the day, I want to be world champion. I don’t know if I’ll achieve it, but I will try my best.”

Getting to #1

So knew early on that he needed a lot of help in order to be the best. Thus, in July 2016, he began a coaching relationship with Grandmaster Vladimir Tukmakov, a veteran trainer from Ukraine. And in December, So made an important decision: he employed Tukmakov to help him get to the top of the world rankings and, eventually, challenge for the world championship.

Hiring topnotch coaches can be expensive and, without sponsors or funding in place, a big risk for young chess professionals who have to go through the uncertainties of competing in tournaments around the world. Part of the problem was solved when So was selected as the 2016 awardee of the Frank P. Samford Chess Fellowship, which granted him a stipend of $42,000 for a one-year period beginning on July 1.

Winning the London Classic enabled So to win the overall championship of the Grand Chess Tour, with his earnings from the tour’s four legs and the bonus amounting to $295,000. He is investing a big part of that on the prospect of challenging for the world championship someday.

“I assess Wesley’s chess potential as very high,” Tukmakov said in December. “But to reach the very peak in chess, you need to have special abilities also. Good health, strong character, skill to survive in the conditions of constant stress – just to name some of them.”

As hard as it is to become #1 by rating, becoming world champion is even harder. Only sixteen men in the entire history of the sport have been officially recognized as undisputed champions. To get the opportunity to challenge the current champion, a contender has to qualify first to the Candidates Tournament.

So has two paths to qualification in the current world championship cycle – by average rating from January to December this year and by getting to the two-man finals of the World Cup, a knockout event among 128 of the world’s best players to be held in September in Tbilisi, Georgia. Only two players will qualify by average rating and his closest rivals in this race are Caruana, formerly world #2, and Vladimir Kramnik, the 14th world champion and currently Russia’s top-ranked player.

The three players may be rivals but they can also help one another in getting to the Candidates Tournament. If any one of them gets to the final of the World Cup, the two others will advance to the Candidates by rating.

To continue getting good results, So is very much aware that he has to keep on studying many aspects of chess, such as openings, middlegames, and endgames. Previously, much of his preparation consisted of studying openings with the help of powerful computers and the most advanced chess software. When not traveling or playing in tournaments, his study sessions last at least six hours per day and can be as long as eight hours. Most recently, he has been studying the games of previous world champions.

Many of his followers have noticed the vast improvement in So’s endgame play in the past two years – a result of many hours of study in between tournaments as well as superb physical conditioning which is necessary to keep a clear head in games that last five hours or longer. Other elite players have also leveled up in endgame play – a response to Carlsen’s successful ploy of playing for wins even in theoretically equal positions in the belief that he can outplay and outlast his mostly older and less physically-fit opponents in the game’s last phase.

To stay in top physical shape, So swims and works out in the gym regularly, often with stepsister Abbey Key, who also does the driving and acts as secretary of his support team. When the weather is good, he hikes or bikes with family in Minnesota – a big change from his previous life, where he never learned how to ride a bicycle or swim because his childhood was pretty much occupied by school and the demands of becoming a chess champion.

And to be in the best possible shape, he sleeps eight to nine hours every night, keeps a balanced diet, and takes nutritional supplements. He has other recreational activities, too, most recently watching the home games of the Minnesota Twins baseball team with family and going on sightseeing tours on tournament rest days. In addition to hiring a coach, he also set up a training base in Saint Louis where he works with other grandmasters.

“I need to improve my physical conditioning,” he said, “because each game can last up to six hours and the person with more energy in the last hour has a lot of advantage.“

Grueling Schedule

Fatigue can also set in due to frequent traveling to tournaments in different places with little time to rest and recover between events. He often falls asleep in airports, totally exhausted after big events, while waiting to board for his next destination.

“Wesley is strong physically,” said Lotis Key-Kabigting, Wesley’s adoptive mother who is also his unpaid manager, constant travel companion, and indispensable guiding light. “It’s just mentally hard to be separated from our family for so long and moving from place to place and constantly re-establishing ourselves is wearying. The good thing is, the tournament directors and basically everyone involved in his tournaments are so kind and help us with every detail and do their best to make it easier for the players. This is the life of the chess professional and you just have to get used to it. But on the plus side, the places he plays are very, very nice and every comfort is provided and we don’t have any complaints.”

Lotis Key-Kabigting with Wesley So at the Qatar Open (Source: twitter.com)

Lotis Key-Kabigting with Wesley So at the Qatar Open (Source: twitter.com)

They left Minnesota a few days before the start on June 5 of Altibox Norway Chess. Then So and others from the same event proceeded to Paris the day after the awards ceremonies to play in the first leg of the Grand Chess Tour’s new season. This event, held June 21 to 25, had a different format and faster time controls – nine rounds of rapid games at three rounds per day plus 18 rounds of blitz with nine rounds per day.

Adjusting mentally and physically to different time controls poses extra challenges to professional players. In Norway there was a blitz tournament on the first day, before the main event was played under classical times of 100 minutes per player for the first 40 moves plus 50 minutes for the next 20 moves plus 15 minutes to finish the game with additional 30 seconds for every move after 60 moves had been made.

Meanwhile, the Paris event was a combination of rapid and blitz matches, with 25 minutes for rapid and five minutes for blitz. Faster time controls also mean hearts beat faster and minds work at heightened levels of alertness to tactical possibilities and, without enough time to calculate many lines of attack and defense, players make more mistakes.

The Paris event also introduced new challenges for So as he had to cope with strong lighting because matches were held inside the TV studios of the French network Canal+, one of the event sponsors, which provided live-streaming and daily TV broadcasts for a general audience. The problem was the glare on many of the chessboards. So noticed that the glare affected his eyes and he had to borrow dark glasses from someone. Some fans thought it was a fashion statement.

A similar thing occurred at the Leon Masters rapid tournament in Spain held July 6-10. The venue was a theatrical stage and organizers used theater lights which were also quite strong. After the first day, Wesley and Lotis asked if the intensity of the lights could be reduced for his final match, against Anand.

“They did the best they could but Wesley still felt some glare off the board,” Lotis said. “Perhaps it’s just the new way things are. So many matches are now televised and people want to see the faces of the players up close. The intensity of the spotlights really affected him.” On the plus side, he looked good in a dark pair of Giorgio Armani eyeglasses.

As in the other events where he finished as champion – at the Sinquefield Cup in August, in London in December, and in Wijk aan Zee in January – So again wore a barong Tagalog at the awarding ceremonies, an acknowledgment of his emotional ties to the land of his birth.

After Paris, So as well as Carlsen and Vachier-Lagrave proceeded to Leuven, Belgium, for the next leg of the tour from June 28 to July 2. The format was the same as in Paris but the venue was different and they faced a new set of opponents.

Carlsen won the Paris leg via playoff against Vachier-Lagrave and finished first in Leuven way ahead of the field, three points ahead of So after a superior blitz performance. After two legs of the tour, Carlsen led in the standings and money won with Vachier-Lagrave at second and So in third place.

And while So’s combined results in Paris and Leuven placed him “only” in third place after the GCT’s first two legs, he still reached important milestones that showed how fast he could adjust to difficult situations and hinted at how far he can go.

Many fans in different countries were thrilled when So outplayed Kramnik in the first round, then defeated Carlsen in the third round of rapid matches on the first day in Leuven. This gave him a career plus score of 2-1 over Carlsen in rapid events, with one other game ending in a draw. The next day, in Round 6, So also beat Anand. These results meant that So had outplayed, in just two days of rapid matches, the reigning classical world champion and the two previous world champions.

When the nine rounds of rapid matches had been completed, So stood at the top of the standings with 14 points out of a possible 18 – two points ahead of Vachier-Lagrave and three in front of Carlsen. He also breached 2800 in the rapid ratings for the first time and got his highest rapid rating ever – 2822, good enough for #5 in the world in a time control that he doesn’t play often. Moreover, his new rapid rating is now exactly the same as his highest official rating in standard, or classical, time controls – another indication that he continues to improve in different dimensions of a very complex endeavor.

From Leuven, he went to Spain to play for the first time in the annual rapid tournament in the city of Leon and ended his visit as the new champion, beating Anand – a ten-time winner there – in a blitz playoff after all their rapid games in the final were drawn.

As in the other events where he finished as champion – at the Sinquefield Cup in August, in London in December, and in Wijk aan Zee in January – So again wore a barong Tagalog at the awarding ceremonies, an acknowledgment of his emotional ties to the land of his birth. Every time he does this, Filipino fans always break out in expressions of national pride with some measure of regret that he no longer plays under the Philippine flag.

Family Support

As he continues to climb the heights of greatness, perhaps no one will be more emotionally engaged than his adoptive family in Minnesota.

The hours after So had ended a successful campaign in Wijk aan Zee in January were very emotional for the Kabigting family. Renato “Bambi” Kabigting, Wesley’s stepfather, had prayed very hard for victory so that Wesley’s photo could be placed in the gallery of champions in the hallway of the De Moriaan Community Centre.

Every classical world champion since Max Euwe of the Netherlands has played in this event, except the American genius Bobby Fischer. Euwe, a high-school math teacher in his time, was the fifth world champion and the most successful Dutch participant at Wijk aan Zee, winning the title in 1940, 1942, 1952, and 1958.

Carlsen, the 16th world champions, shared the title in 2008 with Aronian, then won alone in 2010, 2013, 2015, and 2016. He clearly wanted to set the all-time record of six titles at Wijk, but So took first place and joined the ranks of first-time winners there.

The previous world champion, Anand, also won five times though three of those titles were shared. He was sole winner in 2003 and 2004 and shared the titles in 1989, 1998, and 2006. Kramnik, Anand’s predecessor in the classical line of world champions, was the co-winner in 1998.

Kasparov, the 13th the world champion, was victorious for three straight years, in the only times he played in Wijk aan Zee – in 1999, 2000, and 2001. On Jan. 20, 1999, in the fourth round, he played one of the greatest games of all time -- against Bulgaria’s Veselin Topalov – which Kasparov himself considers as one of the three best games that he has ever played.

Kasparov’s predecessor and fierce rival, Anatoly Karpov, won in 1988 and 1993. Boris Spassky won in 1967 while Mikhail Tal did the same in 1973. Tigran Petrosian shared the title with Bent Larsen in 1960 while Mikhail Botvinnik shared the honors with Efim Geller in 1969. All of them, except Larsen, came from the Soviet era of world domination.

Among all the world champions who played there, only the Russian Vassily Smyslov did not win a title. Other legends of the game – such as Estonia’s Paul Keres and the Soviet defector Viktor Korchnoi – also competed in Wijk aan Zee and brought home the champion’s crown. Korchnoi, a two-time challenger for the world championship, won four times and did so in three different decades – in 1968, 1971, 1984, and 1987.

Next January, when the Kabigtings return to Wijk aan Zee, Wesley’s photo will be displayed at De Moriaan together with those of the greatest players of all time.

“It is so overwhelming,” Lotis Key said just hours after Wesley had won the tournament. “When you enter the hallway, you pass the photos of all those who have won before. Now Bambi’s prayer has been answered and next year we will walk past Wesley’s portrait.”

The 2017 edition of the super-tournament in Wijk aan Zee was the first time in his career that So finished ahead of Carlsen and the third consecutive super-tournament that he had won -- all in a span of just six months. It was the closest thing to achieving a grand slam in chess – winning three of the strongest tournaments in the world and winning two gold medals in the Olympiad, one for team and another for individual performance.

So and Carlsen go back a long way – to the first quarter of 2011 when Carlsen contacted the 17-year-old rising star from the Philippines and invited him to a training camp, with the Norwegian superstar covering the expenses to Europe and paying a substantial fee for So’s services. They trained together from March 4 to 12 that year in Palma de Mallorca, in the largest of Spain’s islands in the Mediterranean.

“I think his entire training has been with a computer,” Carlsen noted with amusement at the time. So, on the other hand, was starstruck and asked Carlsen to autograph a chessboard which So still keeps to this day. “It was a long time ago,” So said in early 2015. “We were kids then and we are both different players now.”

As So rose through the ranks of the chess elite, breaking first into the Top Ten in the last quarter of 2014, then breaching the 2800 threshold for the first time in December 2016, and finally reaching #2 this year, he got less awed by Carlsen and, with psychological guidance from Lotis, has now reached a point where he is no longer intimidated when he meets Carlsen over the board.

He still has to qualify to the Candidates Tournament and then win it before he can even assess his prospects in a one-on-one match against Carlsen. But So’s many loyal followers around the world are excited already, and hoping and praying that he will get to challenge for the world title soon.

The next step toward that goal is the World Cup. He returned to Minnetonka immediately after the Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis last Sunday (Aug. 13) to get much-needed rest before leaving just 11 days later for Tbilisi, Georgia. Matches won’t begin until Sept. 3 but he has to leave early to give himself enough time to recover from jet lag, which he has to endure with participation in every other big event – one of the many challenges that he has to deal with to realize his dream of becoming world champion one day.

Eliseo Tumbaga

Eliseo Tumbaga

Eliseo Tumbaga is a licensed trainer of the World Chess Federation and the secretary general of the Professional Chess Trainers Association of the Philippines. He is the founder and admin of the Facebook group Chess News & Views. He has been a sportswriter, news-desk editor, chess columnist, and features writer for various daily newspapers and weekly magazines in the Philippines. He also worked as assistant editor for a monthly business magazine in New York City and senior writer for a weekly community newspaper in Jersey City, New Jersey. He has been an entrepreneur, corporate executive, and business consultant. He is working on a biography of Eugene Torre, the first chess grandmaster from Asia who is known as the living legend of Philippine chess. He has also begun work on story development for a movie project.

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