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Playing for the King

Chess Grandmaster Wesley So faces challenges both on and off the board

Playing for the King

Wesley So (Lennart Ootes/St. Louis Chess Club)

The tournament room is silent. Surrounded by the intense gazes of the watching crowd—and those of chess greats past and present staring down from photos on the walls—Wesley So, 24, prepares to defend his title of U.S. chess champion at the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center in April. Eleven other top-rated players are there to try to take it from him.

Game 1 of the 12-round, round-robin tournament pits So, the third-ranked male player in the United States and the seventh-ranked in the world, against Yaroslav Zherebukh, 23, a Ukrainian-born grandmaster now playing for the United States. Zherebukh, playing white, comes out strong, but So’s black pieces soon push back, eventually driving Zherebukh into an untenable corner position that seals a victory for So and puts him in first place.

So, who grew up in the Philippines but now lives in Minnesota, is unusual in the rarefied atmosphere of international chess: a professing Christian who is open about his faith. He grew up in a country where few care about chess—“on the whole, people prefer basketball”—and many believe in God “but are unwilling to claim much more than that.” His road to becoming both a world-class chess player and a follower of Jesus Christ was long and sometimes bumpy.

So began playing chess at age 6 or 7 with a plastic set he got for Christmas. Inspired by study of the games of Bobby Fischer, he was soon “dabbling” in tournaments. Over the next few years, he progressed rapidly to International Master (at age 12) and Grandmaster (at age 14) status, becoming the youngest Filipino to hit both of those goals. He also won two Philippine Chess Championships.

Minimal funding and limited access to professional coaching made it difficult for him to get advanced training. In 2012, he came to the United States on a chess scholarship and began playing for Webster University in St. Louis. He hoped that, if his chess dreams did not pan out, at least he’d be able to earn a degree and get a decent job.

‘You really have to want it. You have to be ready to give up everything to study, train, and compete.’ —Wesley So

While playing in a tournament in Minnesota, So met former Filipino film star Lotis Key and her husband, former basketball player Renato “Bambi” Kabigting. Both are Christians and chess enthusiasts who had been following So’s career online. Their friendship and support led to So’s decision to leave Webster University and turn pro in 2015, with Key serving as his manager. He also switched his affiliation to the U.S. Chess Federation from that of the Philippines, a move that surprised many but made sense given the greater number of opportunities available to him in the United States.

Since then So has won tournaments around the world. From the 42nd Chess Olympiad in Baku, Azerbaijan, he brought home the U.S. team’s first gold medal since 1976. He is the 11th player in history to earn a rating above 2800 as computed by the World Chess Federation (officially Fédération Internationale des Échecs, known as FIDE).

Austin Fuller/St. Louis Chess Club

Wesley So (Austin Fuller/St. Louis Chess Club)

So openly credits his Christian faith as a major factor in his perseverance and success. In a field where few talk about such things, So’s willingness to utter the name of Christ has sometimes brought him opposition and criticism—and some nasty comments on social media—from those who think he should keep his religion to himself. The upside: “I get a lot of support from Christian fans. It’s very cool. I didn’t know there were so many Christian chess players out there. It’s so great to get emails from them telling me they are praying for me.” Last summer, when So lost badly in a major tournament in St. Louis, a Christian fan drove 100 miles to talk with and encourage him. “I am happy to be a Christian,” So says: “Who gets love like that?”

So also finds many opportunities to use his prominence for the good of others: “My favorite aspect of being a professional chess player is having the ability to encourage others who are struggling. Most young players don’t have the money or the support system to train and compete. I didn’t either, yet by God’s grace I am here. I hope that inspires kids to not give up in the face of adversity. You never know what He has for you just around the corner.”

The competition is fierce as the U.S. Championship heads into Round 8. So now faces perhaps his most difficult challenger: Fabiano Caruana, 25, currently the top-rated U.S. player and the one slated to challenge reigning World Champion Magnus Carlsen for that title in London in November. The game is hard-fought, with So (white) and Caruana (black) vying back and forth, back and forth, for control of the board but neither player getting the upper hand. An exhausting battle ensues, resulting ultimately in a draw.

So has dropped a bit in the standings by now, but he remains unflustered. There is still ample opportunity to pull himself back up. All it takes is clear thinking, nerves of steel, and the right combination of moves—while battling against a series of challengers just as determined as he is to find and exploit even the smallest weakness in an opponent’s position.

As inspiring as chess can be for some, So says that the life of an elite player can be grueling: “You really have to want it. You have to be ready to give up everything to study, train, and compete. I usually study eight to 10 hours most days. Chess is not a team sport, so you are very much on your own physically and emotionally. Some matches can run up to eight hours or more, and once the clock starts there is no stopping or going back. Your mind is involved in solving problems as quickly as possible, and that motor keeps running until the game is done. I don’t think there is any professional ballplayer who is asked to play continuously like that.”

In the rare moments between tournaments and training, So likes to “forget about chess and do something completely different. I don’t play chess for ‘fun.’” He bicycles, watches movies, reads, and plays with his pets—two Birman cats. When he’s not on the road he attends Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis. He doesn’t own a cell phone and doesn’t use the internet except to analyze chess games. Others manage his official website and social media accounts, though he does see and respond to messages when he has time.

U.S. Chess Championship, Round 11: So faces Hikaru Nakamura, 30, a four-time U.S. champion and currently the second-highest-rated U.S. player. The game is fairly short for championship play, going only 30 moves, with both players gaining generally solid positions but no clear advantage either way. Another draw.

So says one of the most important things he’s learned as a Christian is that “neither I nor chess are the center of the universe.” He knows that no matter how good he gets or where his career may take him he always has more to learn: “I have a very high respect for all my opponents and am always grateful because I feel they teach me so much. Everyone has different strengths. Each one has taught me something at one time or another.”

He also knows that he has many fans who follow his every move—both personally and professionally—online or on the chess circuit. The pressure that comes with that can sometimes be overwhelming, but So keeps it in perspective: “I play one game at a time. I’m just an ordinary human being trying to have a good career and a decent life. I want fans to enjoy my games—just don’t expect me to win every one. I promise not to lose every one either!”

After two early victories, a series of draws, and no losses, So ultimately finishes the championship tournament in third place. Second place goes to Fabiano Caruana, while the first-place honor goes to another rising star in the U.S. chess world, Sam Shankland, 25, of Orinda, Calif. (The U.S. Women’s Chess Championship took place at the same time, with 12 top-rated women players facing off in similar round-robin fashion across the hall from the men’s tournament. The winner there, in a final-day, rapid-chess playoff with 15-year-old Annie Wang, is 24-year-old Nazi Paikidze, who also won the title in 2016.)

As is his way, So takes the tournament results in stride: “I would like to have done better, but that is the way tournaments are—up and down. It’s hard to say why. I can’t pick out any game where I really struggled. Sometimes life just doesn’t flow smoothly.”

He won’t waste time dwelling on the past, though. So is too busy preparing for what comes next: tournaments in Norway, Belgium, Paris, and Spain in the next few months. Then the Chess Olympiad in Batumi, Georgia—the Eastern Hemisphere country—in September, the Isle of Man International in October, and potentially the London Chess Classic after that.

Such is the life of a chess grandmaster: Win, lose, or draw, he’s always thinking several moves ahead.

—Rick Matt is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute’s mid-career course

Rick Matt

Rick Matt

Rick Matt is a graduate of the WJI Mid-Career Course.

Comments

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Mon, 05/14/2018 07:05 am

    Fascinating! Thanks for this great story. That is a world that I know little of but am eoncouraged to see an openly Christian man battling it out. Life is a battle, and I guess chess may be a micrcosm of life.

  • Daniel Strange
    Posted: Thu, 05/17/2018 10:30 pm

    Keep being wierd, So, for Christ's sake.