GM Wesley So, Renaissance Kid of Philippine Chess
By IM Rodolfo Tan Cardoso
With all these political turmoil happening in the Philippines, it would be
hard to notice the achievement of one of its proud sons in chess. Well, Wesley
So, had done something truly astonishing: at the tender age of 14 years, one
month and 28 days, he had just completed his final grandmaster norm at the recently
concluded international tournament in Manila (2nd Pichay Open). He was born
on October 9, 1993 and completed his GM requirements on December 7, 2007. Thus
when FIDE convenes next year; he would become the seventh
youngest chess player to achieve the grandmaster title in chess history.
Oh yeah, he is not a Chinese or a Russian, nor an Indian – he is a Filipino.
The prodigy's road to success
I first saw Wesley during the junior active chess tournaments in 2003 in Manila.
He was then a young lad who would sacrifice a queen or any other pieces in his
arsenal to get a winning attack. He was well ahead of his foes, indeed at nine
years old he won the National Kiddies Tournament for 14-Under, and at 13 he
won the National Juniors (20 Under) and the Philippine National Open (Open to
A GM in the making: 14-year-old Wesley So
2005 was a breakthrough year for Wesley. First his official FIDE rating was
published, then in July he tied for first in the World Youth U12 Festival, ahead
of chess prodigies GM Negi and WGM Hou Yi Fan, among others. The following year
was even better; he qualified for the Philippines chess team in the 2006 Torino
Chess Olympiad, at 12 years old, with a plus score performance in five games
at board six. He also completed his IM title requirements before he celebrated
his 13th birthday. Finally, before the end of the year, he made his first GM
norm with a fantastic performance at Bad Wiessee, Germany, which included a
win against GM Pruskin, which was given a Creativity Award by a big Russian
Wesley at 12: during the 8th Dubai Open in April 2006
The road to the GM title was not that easy: there were near misses, and his
is studies as a high school student had to be given priority. Compared to other
prodigies, who had full sponsorship backing all the time needed, GM-elect So
has received only breadcrumbs and has no luxury of full-time practice. He cannot
afford a decent training given by well known chess GM-coaches, and had to rely
to his pure talent, diligence and of course the Fritz programs before competing.
He rarely plays in international tournament, except for those international
He could have completed his GM norm at 13 years old; he missed the GM norm
by one point in the GMA Cup (2006) in Manila, when he lost to GM Belov of Russia
in the last round. He missed it by half-point in the Zone 3.3 Zonal Tournament
(2007) in Vietnam. Also, he has 2600+ performances during the National Championships
(2006), 15th Asian Cites Chess Team Championship (2007) in Iran, where he won
the gold medal in board three, in the and World U16 Chess Olympiad (2007) in
Singapore, where he won the gold medal in board one with a (9.5/10 and 2700+
performance) – but due to the fact that he had faced less that three grandmasters,
he failed to get any GM norm.
The GM elect in action
Then his time came. After missing a slot for the current World Cup 2007 in
Khanty-Minsk, during the Asian Continental Chess Championship in Cebu, Philippines,
last September 2007, he proceeded to Armenia to compete in the 2007 World Juniors.
He had a great start and was the solo leader by the fifth round, after remarkably
beating GM David Howell. He was still tied for the lead in the sixth round,
before losing to the eventual champion GM Ahmed Adly of Egypt and then to GM
Wang Hao of China in rounds 7 and 8 respectively. But when he beat IM Sasha
Kaplan of Israel in the ninth round, he was able to complete the requirements
for a nine-game GM norm. However, due to fatigue, he would only score 1.5 in
the final 4 games, to finish at 20th place. Two months later, before actually
the start of the Pichay Cup, there was a failed coup attempt in Manila led by
a former military man, turned rebel and elected senator, but now a detained
prisoner due to his rebellious activities, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV. But
those political distractions did not affected his focus, as he manages to withstand
the pressure of becoming the current youngest grandmaster in the world. He won
his first three games before hanging on to six straight draws against six GMs
to complete the coveted title. He finished 6/9 with a rating performance 2620
and a share for fifth place behind the chapion Ni Hua of China.
Rebellious Philippine Senator and military man Antonio Fuentes Trillanes
The Philippines had its glorious past in chess too
GM-elect Wesley So's emergence to prominence might be the needed ingredient
to a renaissance in Philippine chess. During the time of the honorary FIDE president,
Florencio Campomanes, in the 1950s to 1970s, chess in the Philippines reached
its golden age. There were numerous international and local tournaments. The
Karpov-Korchnoi match was even held here in 1978. Imagine, almost two decades
before China produced its first grandmaster the Philippines had GM Eugene Torre,
Asia's first grandmaster, as well as GM Rosendo Balinas. Even the current world
champion, Viswanathan Anand, cannot deny the fact that he learnt the rudiments
of chess here in the Philippines as a young lad, through chess tournaments and
the daily television chess program hosted by GM Torre and Campomanes. Anand's
father worked in Manila, his family stayed here until he was nine years old.
Just 14 and he has the I'm-gonna-get-you GM glare: Wesley So
The turning point in the deterioration of chess in the country was when Campomanes
was elected president of FIDE in the 1980s. It was a great honor for us, Filipinos,
but a big sacrifice for Philippine chess. The highly innovative Campomanes would
lead an international chess crusade for less develop countries, for many years.
He would apply that same grass-roots programmes and strategies in organizing
and funding tournaments that he did in home soil. While Campomanes was out,
Philippine chess was simply neglected and politicized by his successors. Add
to that, the political instability led to collapse of the chess programmes.
There were a few sponsors willing to take the cudgels for nationwide development.
We had to wait for almost 20 years before we could produced our next grandmaster,
Rogelio Antonio in 1996. By that time China and Anand's India had overshadowed
us, in terms of organization, financing and chess talents. Add, to that the
emergence of former Russian states in Asia.
Inspiring Precedent of GM Darwin Laylo and the challenging future
Before Wesley So the Philippines actually produced a new grandmaster, two months
ago during the Asian Individual Chess Championship in Cebu, Philippines. He
is Darwin Laylo, born from a poor family in Manila (his father is a cycle rickshaw
driver). GM Laylo, who is actually a two-time Philippine Open Champion, was
suspended for one year starting January 2007 by the National Chess Federation
of the Philippines (NCFP), along with promising players like IM Ronald Dableo,
who holds two GM norms, for their alleged game-fixing activities during the
GMA Cup in 2006. His suspension was lifted after six months, when the NCFP officials
failed to prove that he indeed committed the alleged offense. Lo and behold,
GM Laylo grew through adversity; he finished seventh place to qualify for the
World Cup, breached the 2500+ mark in the October 2007 FIDE ratings and completed
his third and final GM norm to become a full pledged grandmaster. All of this
after losing potential income from chess, and with his reoutation damaged. He
eventually lost to GM Etienne Bacrot in the first round of the 2007 World Cup,
which is incidentally the same guy that GM-elect Wesley So beat for seventh
place among the world youngest player to achieve the GM Title.
GM buddies: Wesley So and Darwin Laylo
There are other Filipino chess players capable of becoming grandmasters, such
as those who have at least two GM norms: IM Dableo, IM Ronald Salvador (who
plays in Italy), the semi-retired IM Rico Mascariñas, who is now based
in Saudi and IM Rogelio Barcenilla, now US-based. Barcenilla is the former two-time
Asian Junior Chess Champion and has actually gained five GM norms. But FIDE
has always denied his application for GM title.
I have seen other chess playing kids who are capable of beating the best but
are not given the chance to compete aboard. These kids are better than the prodigies
in India or China. We hope that politics and chess would not be mixed together.
But that's how our chess activities are being run. No offense to Mr. Prospero
Pichay, the NCFP President, who is a former congressman and a losing senatorial
candidate. He had done a great job. But what the country needs is a complete
chess program that is sustainable for years to come. I know there are more Wesley
Sos in the Philippines out there.
A selection of Wesley So games
Wesley So (2531) - David W Howell (2527) [C47]
World Junior Championship Yerevan ARM (5), 07.10.2007
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.d4 exd4 5.Nxd4 Bb4 6.Nxc6 bxc6 7.Bd3 d5 8.exd5
cxd5 9.0-0 0-0 10.Bg5 c6 11.Qf3 Be7 12.Rfe1
White's chances are tied with his ability to maneuver his rook to support an attack
on the kingside. That is Black must immediately oppose the rook. A sample of what
can happen if Black is careless: 12...Re8.
12...Be6 13.Qg3 Rb8 14.b3 Bb4
15.Re3 Bxc3? (15...d4
loses to 16.Qh4)
16.Bxh7+ Kxh7 17.Qh4+ Kg8
18.Rxc3 Simutowe, A (2421)-Ippolito, D (2395)/ Parsippany 2007 1-0 (55). 13.h3
h6 14.Bf4 Nh7
The usual move is now 14...Bd6, but Howell gets an idea to bring his knight to
g5. 15.Bxh6 Ng5.
After 15...gxh6 16.Bxh7+ Kxh7 17.Qxf7+ Kh8 18.Qg6 Bd7
19.Qxh6+ Kg8 20.Qg6+ Kf8 21.Re3 White has th ree passed pawns on the kingside
for the sacrificed piece, and Black's king is still exposed to mating threats.
This is a no-brainer and he doesn't need a second invitation. 16.Bxg5 Bxg5
17.Rxe8+ Qxe8 18.Nxd5!
To his chagrin Howell notices that 18...cxd5 19.Qxd5 introduces a double attack
on a8 and g5. 18...Bd8 19.Ne3 Rb8 20.b3 Qe5 21.Rd1 Bc7 22.Bc4 Be6 23.Bxe6 Qxe6
24.Qf5 Qe8 25.Rd4 g6 26.Qe4 Qf8 27.Qxc6 Bb6 28.Rd3 Rc8 29.Qf3 Bxe3 30.Qxe3 Rxc2
31.Qxa7 Qe8 32.Qe3 Qc8 33.Qe7 Qf5 34.Rd8+ Kg7 35.Qf8+ Kf6 36.Qd6+ Kg5 37.h4+.
The following sequence is forced 37...Kh6 38.Qf8+ Kh5 39.Qh8+ Kg4 40.Rd4+.
About the writer
IM Rodolfo Tan Cardoso, a former Philippine Champion and chess Olympian, was
born in the Philippines in 1937. He was awarded the IM title in 1957, was Philippine
Champion in 1958 and 1963. Winning the Asian zonal tournament of 1957-58 he
qualified for the interzonal at Portoroz in 1958. There he finished in 19th
place (out of 21 players), but his performance was notable for the last round
defeat of David Bronstein which kept Bronstein out of the subsequent Candidates
Tournament. Currently Rodolfo lives in Cebu in the Philippines, where he coaches
young Filipinos chess talents.