By Eliseo Tumbaga
The last six months of 2016 had been an extraordinary period in Wesley So’s life as a chess professional. With success in major competitions and a much-improved financial situation, he has decided – after some tentative steps -- that the time has come to get a top-notch coach who can help him get to the next level.
So won two super-tournaments – the Sinquefield Cup in August and the London Chess Classic in December – which enabled him to win the overall championship of the Grand Chess Tour. These were the strongest competitions that he had ever won in his entire life.
Also, for the first time, he breached the 2800 rating threshold and moved up to #4 in the world rankings with a FIDE rating of 2808 on New Year’s Day 2017.
Wesley So with his two crystal trophies - for the London Chess Classic and for the Grand Chess Tour (photo by L. Ootes)
By the end of the London Classic, So had also attained an unbeaten streak of 43 games consisting of 17 wins and 26 draws. The last time he lost to anyone was on July 16, 2016, to Magnus Carlsen, in the fourth round of the Bilbao Masters super-tournament.
Part of this 43-game streak was his gold-medal result on Board 3 at the Baku Olympiad – the first time he had played in the Olympiad under the flag of the United States, with Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, Sam Shankland, and Ray Robson as teammates.
As it happened, the United States won its first Olympiad gold in 40 years – the first since Haifa 1976 – and So’s output of 8.5/10 from seven wins and three draws not only contributed significantly to the team’s first place in the final standings but also earned for himself an individual gold medal with a performance rating of 2896.
By December 2016, So had also made an important decision – employing a personal coach who could help him get to the top of the world rankings and enable him to mount a serious challenge for the world championship in the near future.
The name of the coach? None other than the Ukrainian grandmaster and veteran coach Vladimir Tukmakov, who has had a distinguished career as a player, trainer, and author of three books.
“We considered different people,” Lotis Key-Kabigting, So’s foster mother, disclosed. “And while there are many talented coaches out there, there are many different angles to be considered apart from expertise. Apart from skill level, you need to match temperament and style.”
“Wesley is a mild-mannered, quiet boy who had to make his own way in life without a personal coach up to the present time. Because of that, he has developed differently than others who were fortunate enough to move into a coaching relationship early in life.
“Wesley is used to doing it on his own. Although mild-mannered, he is not a boy to be bullied or pushed around. GM Tukmakov is very soft spoken, the gentleman’s gentleman, and although seemingly mild, he has that deep inner toughness on top of the tremendous experience that Wesley still lacks.
“We were introduced by a mutual friend who wishes to remain anonymous several months after Anish Giri and GM Tukmakov parted ways. We had seen him at a few tournaments, so we knew him vaguely. Things proceeded slowly but surely as Wesley and GM Tukmakov began to have conversations and exchange ideas while occasionally meeting over Skype.
Tukmakov was seen everywhere Anish was... and so was Sopiko (photo by Alina L'Ami)
“With his win of the Grand Chess Tour and the added help of the Samford Fellowship, Wesley is now able to make a hiring commitment for a chess coach and has asked GM Tukmakov to guide him towards improvement.”
Hiring top- notch coaches can be expensive and, without sponsors or funding in place, can be a difficult decision to make 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.
IM John Donaldson, a member of the Samford Fellowship committee that selects the awardee every year, gave this backgrounder:
“The Samford is the richest and most important chess fellowship in the United States having awarded over two million dollars the past three decades. It identifies and assists the best young American chess masters by providing top-level coaching, strong competition and access to study materials. The Fellowship also supplies a monthly stipend for living expenses so that the winners may devote themselves to chess without having financial worries.
“Since its inception the Fellowship has proven very successful. Many Samford Fellows have become strong grandmasters, members of the United States Olympiad team and U.S. champions… The winners’ potential was determined based on their chess talent, work ethic, dedication and accomplishments.”
With financial support secured, So began working with GM Tukmakov more than seven months ago on a trial basis.
“I had seen GM Tukmakov many times at tournaments but never spoke with him,” Wesley recalled. “So we started talking on and off sort of casually testing each other out. Since I never had my own coach before, I wasn’t sure how it was supposed to work, what I was supposed to do. But it got easier when we got to know each other. We got along okay so we decided and asked him to be my coach.”
That decision was bolstered by his first place at the London Classic which enabled him to win the overall championship of the Grand Chess Tour and the winner’s bonus of $100,000. His total earnings from playing in the four legs of the tour amounted to $295,000 and he is investing a big part of that on the prospect of challenging for the world championship eventually.
Wesley So had a spectacular 2016 (photo by L. Ootes)
“I assess Wesley’s chess potential as very high,” GM Tukmakov said. “But to reach the very peak in chess you need to have special additional abilities also. Good health, strong character, skill to survive in the conditions of constant stress – just to mention some of them.
“We have been working together for just over seven months and our cooperation takes place mostly through Skype, so I don’t know him well enough as a person. As far as I know, Wesley has never had a personal coach. This circumstance has positive and negative sides. On the one hand, he is a self-made player and a very original one. On the other hand, I sometimes see a shortfall of basic knowledge. The computer and different chess programs partly compensate for this disadvantage. I consider his originality as a much more important factor.
“It is too early to talk about Wesley’s chances for the world championship. It is just the beginning of his life in elite chess and although he has won a few prestigious tournaments, he still has a lot to do. He should become stronger in every aspect of his profession and I will try my best to help him in this very hard but extremely interesting work.”
GM Tukmakov’s history as a player can be traced back to an era when strong chess computers had not been invented yet – a time when his native Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union and among the leading players were such legends as Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Boris Spassky, Viktor Korchnoi, and Anatoly Karpov among the Soviets, plus the American genius Bobby Fischer, who went on to break the Soviet chess hegemony and defeated Spassky in an epic world championship match in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972.
“My only game with Fischer stands apart,” GM Tukmakov recalls. “Buenos Aires 1970 was my first really strong international tournament. I lost that game but I am still very proud of my second place.”
That event was an 18-man round robin which was totally dominated by Fischer. Tukmakov scored seven wins and nine draws and the game with Fischer was the only loss on his scorecard. Other strong GMs who finished below him in the standings were Oscar Panno, Miguel Najdorf, and Miguel Quinteros of Argentina; Florin Gheorghiu of Romania, Samuel Reshevsky of the United States, Henrique Mecking of Brazil; and Vassily Smyslov, the former world champion from the Soviet Union.
“Most of my games were with other chess legends. I played in Soviet national championships and the only way to get into these was to qualify for the main tournament. The first time it happened was in 1969, the last in 1989, altogether 13 finals and not counting semifinals and First Leagues. Three times I won silver in Soviet championships: in 1970 after Korchnoi, in 1972 after Tal, and in 1983 after Karpov. In such tough competitions I had no time to evaluate the greatness of my opponents, because I had to prepare for the fight.”
Vladimir Tukmakov at the 1973 USSR Team Championship (photo by RIA Novost)
GM Tukmakov’s career began to blossom earlier in team competitions, when he helped and then led the USSR to consecutive wins at the World Student Team Championships from 1966 to 1972 – with a personal haul of nine team and individual gold medals. He also played in three European Team Championships – in 1973, 1983, and 1989 – from which he brought home three team gold medals and two individual gold medals. In his only appearance at the World Chess Olympiad, in Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1984, he was part of the USSR team that won the gold medal.
“It’s true that I’ve been a good team player, and a lucky one – which is also very important for the team,” GM Tukmakov said. ” I’ve won a lot of team competitions. The most memorable was the Olympiad in Thessaloniki 1984. I played on Board 4 and the USSR team won the champion’s title by a huge margin without Karpov and Garry Kasparov. The same year I had the honor to play for the team of USSR against the Rest of the World. Our team won 20.5-19.5. As a reserve player I played two games against Ljubomir Ljubojevic on Board 4 and scored 1.5-0.5. I also drew with Black against Korchnoi on Board 3 in the last round.”
He was fielded in lieu of Smyslov against Ljubojevic, the rising star from Yugoslavia, and substituted for Lev Polugaevsky against Korchnoi, who by then had already defected from the USSR to the West.
“Chess as a game has changed a lot since the time I was a player,” GM Tukmakov said. “Twenty or thirty years ago, the experienced specialist could identify a famous player just by his moves without knowing their names. Botvinnik and Tal, Spassky and Petrosian, Karpov and Kasparov. They were so different, you would never mix up their playing styles, their approach to the game. All the best players were bright individualists.
“Now the group portrait of the chess elite looks quite different. As a rule, everybody is a universal player without real weaknesses but without real individual features at the same time. There is an absolute authority in chess whose opinion nobody can ignore. The name of this authority is Computer. He is much, much stronger than any human being and he can prove it in practice. Every chess player accepts this reality. The Machine became the universal trainer for all the players at the same time. As a result, we have very few bright individualists now.
“The character of the game has changed dramatically as well. You know chess has three stages: the opening, the middlegame, and the ending. It is quite easy to reach perfection in the opening – at home with the help of the computer, of course. But you have to start to play by yourself sooner or later. The level of play drops at this stage. The modern technique of playing endings is also very modest, in my opinion.
“My aim is to make the playing abilities of my pupil as balanced and harmonious as possible, and to save his chess individuality at the same time. It is a very hard task, I know, but I believe that chess is still a human game. To be the best, you should remain true to yourself.”
GM Tukmakov will be 71 years old in March and has had a lot of experience as a coach or trainer. In the beginning he was tapped to help other players on short-term arrangements.
“From time to time I’d received invitations to help someone during a tournament. Just to mention some names – Vitaly Tseshkovsky at the Manila Interzonals 1976, Korchnoi for the 1991 Candidates cycle, Karpov for the World Championship Match against Viswanathan Anand in Lausanne 1998. I liked this kind of work. But as you can see, it wasn’t a regular job.
“The first official trainer’s contract that I signed was in 2004, with the Ukrainian Chess Federation. That’s how I became the coach and the team captain of the Ukrainian men’s national team at the World Chess Olympiad. In Calvia, our very young team won gold medals for the first time, and that’s why I was given the title of FIDE Senior Trainer. Our team achievement is one of the most memorable events of my sports life. And, by the way, Ukraine won another Olympiad gold medal six years later, in Khanty-Mansiysk, with me as team captain.”
More recently, he worked with the Azerbaijan national team that won the silver medal at the European Championship in 2011. He also worked as team captain of the Socar Club in Azerbaijan from 2010 to 2015, with his team winning European Club Cup championships in 2012 and 2014. He is currently the team captain for the Netherlands.
GM Tukmakov has written three books – Profession: Chessplayer (Grandmaster at Work), Modern Chess Preparation: Getting Ready for Your Opponent in the Information Age, and Risk & Bluff in Chess: The Art of Taking Calculated Risks.
He also worked as personal coach of Anish Giri, the Dutch #1 who is currently ranked #10 in the world, up to the Candidates Tournament in March 2016.
“I started to work with Anish in the very beginning of 2014, just before the annual tournament in Wijk aan Zee,” GM Tukmakov said. “He was No. 19 in the world rating list at that time with a rating of 2734. Two years later he climbed to the third position in the world and his rating was 2798. When we parted after the Candidates Tournament in 2016 his rating was 2790 and it was enough for the fourth position in the world. So altogether our cooperation lasted two years and three months. It was a very interesting and exciting job for me. Hopefully, it was also useful for Anish.”
Wesley So is hopeful that he will benefit from GM Tukmakov’s experience, instruction, and guidance.
“I’m taking things one step at a time,” So said before leaving from Saint Louis, Missouri, for the Tata Steel Masters super-tournament. “I’m grateful I had a good 2016. I appreciate that I can benefit from the vast experience of GM Tukmakov. It’s clear he knows a lot more than me. And he is nice and patient. A younger person might be more arrogant. GM Tukmakov is a very nice person.”
Eliseo Tumbaga is a FIDE-licensed trainer 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 has been a journalist, entrepreneur, corporate executive, and business consultant during the past 43 years. He is currently working on a biography of the Filipino chess legend Eugenio Torre, the first grandmaster from Asia.