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.
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 all).
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 website.
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 local tournaments.
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 IV (right)
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.
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.
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
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.