The Cavite-born GM’s sad loyalty gambit has become almost irrelevant, thanks to his mercurial rise
Grandmaster at 14. Check.
National champion at 15. Check.
Breaks the 2600 Elo rating at 16. Check.
Surpasses 2700 at 20. Check.
Crashes the world’s top 10 at 22. Check.
Breaches 2800 at 23. Check.
For all intents and purposes, Wesley So is right on track for a world championship title. And, gauging by his dazzling performances in last week’s London Chess Classic and the Sinquefield Cup in August, becoming the king of chess may happen before the decade ends.
Pitted against the world’s best in Kensington, London, So notched an unbeatable 6.0 points on three wins and six draws to top the tournament and clinch the overall title in the elite, four-leg, country-hopping 2016 Grand Chess Tour.
Earlier in St. Louis, Missouri, So scord 5.5 points and likewise bested the field in the Dinquefield Cup. Each victory was worth $75,000 (P3.72 million).
Counting his fourth-place finish in the Paris leg and runner-up effort in Leuven, Belgium, the Cavite-born So amassed a total of 36.0 points, well clear of fellow United States Olympic team stalwarts Hikaru Nakamura, who placed second with 24.5, and Fabiano Caruana (23.75) in the chase for the series’ $100,000 bonus prize.
Inclusive of his leg prizes, So bagged a total of $295,000, almost 20 times bigger than the $15,000 he earned in the 2015 edition, where he played only once in four legs—in the Sinquefield Cup—and ended up dead last.
Indeed, 2016 is a banner year for So, an avid social-media citizen who now spends more time reading books of chess greats like Garry Kasparov and Jose Raul Capablanca when preparing for tournaments.
The recipient of the 2016 (Frank) Samford (Jr.) Chess Fellowship and the $42,000 annual endowment that goes with it, So emerged Board 3 gold medalist in last September’s 42nd Chess Olympiad held in Baku, Azerbaijan, pushing the US to the team title at the expense of Ukraine.
While he relishes the US triumph in the Olympiad, So says his Grand Chess Tour victory means more to his career.
“This is definitely my best achievement ever,” says So, who quit his studies at Webster University, where he was a chess scholar under former women’s world champion Susan Polgar, to turn pro in 2014.
After bolting the National Chess Federation of the Philippines (NCFP), which he represented in four Olympiads (2006 Turin, 2008 Dresden, 2010 Khanty-Mansiysk and 2012 Istanbul), So made a stunning decision to switch to the US Chess Federation a year later.
His loyalty shift wouldn’t have happened in the first place. Disappointed that he was already receiving meager support from the government, So was denied cash incentives by the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) after the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) refused to recognize his gold-medal feat in the 2013 Universiade in Kazan, Russia.
Politics was to blame for it. The country’s delegation in the Universiade was put together by Graham Lim, the former secretary general of the national basketball federation whom the POC had blacklisted.
But So didn’t totally cut his ties with Philippine chess. During the 2014 Tromso Olympiad in Norway, he had dinner with members of the national team and NCFP president Rep. Prospero “Butch” Pichay.
For now, though, So would rather focus on his career. Almost everyone in the elite circle of the world’s super GMs concedes he’s in a zone and that his rise in the world rankings—he moved up to fourth this month with an Elo rating of 2807.8 behind world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway (Elo 2840), Caruana (Elo 2827.5) and Vladimir Kramnik of Russia (Elo 2820)—is nothing short of meteoric.
While So appeared calm and stoic during his London matches, he admits he was actually fidgety battling the stellar opposition, collectively one of the strongest in history, Elo-wise.
“I give total respect to my opponents because they are the greatest chess players in the world and this win was not easy,” he says on his Facebook account. “I had to focus like crazy to be able to sit across from (The Netherlands’ Anish) Giri, Caruana, Kramnik, (India’s Viswanathan) Anand, (Bulgaria’s Veselin) Topalov, (France’s Maxime Vachier-Lagrave) MVL, (Armenia’s Levon) Aronian, (Britain’s Michael) Adams and Nakamura. My heart was pounding pretty hard most of the time.”
Following his conquest of Adams in the second round of the London Classic that shoved him past the Elo 2800 barrier for the first time, So, a devout Christian like Manny Pacquiao, posted: “I shouldn’t be on the Internet right now. Supposed to be working on my match for tomorrow but I wanted to publicly praise my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Today I passed the 2800 chess rating barrier and for most of my life I never even imagined a small fish like me could ever do that. Thank you, Lord, for such kindness to me. I know that alone I can’t account for this success. Without You I am nothing.”
Now, of course, So is The Big Thing. He is only the 12th player in history to breach the 2800 mark. His December rating (2807.8) is the 11th all-time best and he’s now a legitimate threat to Carlsen’s long reign.
Even Kasparov, one of the greatest players of all time, and Anand, India’s five-time world champion who actually lived and played chess in Manila during his teens, have taken notice.
Kasparov says So shows great consistency and is still improving; a “totally impressed” Anand praises So’s “effortless” and “easy” play this year.
As he sustains his climb to the top, there’s little doubt among his peers that the world title is now within So’s reach.
Local chess fans mesmerized by his brilliance may have been initially offended by So’s shift to US affiliation. In all likelihood, though, they will eventually forgive him if only to show their appreciation for his roots. He’s a Filipino by birth and Filipino blood flows through his veins.
As So himself posted on Dec. 23 on Flickr: “Proud to be a Filipino-American!”