Wesley So: Life at the top (1/2)

by ChessBase
2/26/2015 – Wesley So has always been a great talent, now he is seen as potential challenger for the World title. In the last two years the 21-year old has won 106 rating points and is currently number 7 in the world. In an extensive report Eliseo Tumbaga writes about So's new life at the top, the rivalry with Hikaru Nakamura, and the prospects of challenging Magnus Carlsen.

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Wesley So’s new life as one of the world’s best

By Eliseo Tumbaga

2015 is turning out to be a big transition year for Wesley So, with new opportunities opening up after his strong performance at the Tata Steel super-tournament in January.

Wijk aan Zee has been a special place for So ever since he made his debut there in 2009 as a 15-year-old grandmaster from the Philippines, taking first place in Group C of the Corus tournament.

Last January, he played in Group A for the second time, under the flag of the United States for the first time, and delivered the best performance of his young career so far. He finished in a tie for 2nd-5th places, just half a point behind world champion Magnus Carlsen, and ended up eventually in 4th place after the Sonneborn-Berger tiebreak.

Wesley So in Wijk aan Zee 2015

After his +4 result in that Category 20 event on the strength of five wins, seven draws, and one loss (8.5/13), he rose to #7 in the world rankings and overtook Hikaru Nakamura as the #1 player in America. He also achieved his highest rating ever: 2788, just 12 rating points away from his goal of reaching 2800 this year.

As the newest member of the chess elite, he is now getting invitations to some of the world’s highest-rated events. Just two weeks after Tata, he accepted invitations to play in the Gashimov Memorial in Shamkir, Azerbaijan, and Dortmund Sparkassen in Germany.

Chess is fun, much more so when you have success

The Gashimov Memorial, scheduled for April 17-27, is projected to be a Category 22 event, the strongest tournament ever in So’s entire life. Among the participants are eight of the world’s top 10, including Carlsen and three former world champions (Viswanathan Anand, Vladimir Kramnik, and Veselin Topalov).

Vugar Gashimov (1986-2014

Dortmund Sparkassen is scheduled for June 27 to July 5. Organisers have not announced yet who the other players will be, but last year’s event was an eight-man Category 19 tournament with average rating of 2719, with Fabiano Caruana taking first place with 5.5/7.

These are the kinds of events that So needs and wants in order to continue his impressive rise in the world rankings. But as new opportunities open up, he has to make a lot of adjustments in his new life as one of the world’s best.

His next major event will be the U.S. Championships, scheduled March 31 to April 14 in Saint Louis, Missouri, the chess capital of the United States. This will be an all-GM event, and projected to be a Category 16 tournament. Gata Kamsky, a former challenger for the world championship, is the defending champion. But, two months before the first move is made, many chess fans in the Philippines and the U.S., as well as many Filipinos around the world, have been anticipating fierce rivalry between So and Nakamura. And chess promoters and tournament organisers are already watching what promises to be a compelling rivalry for many years to come.

Indeed, Nakamura has found extra motivation in his play with the arrival of So as a player for the U.S.

Hikaru Nakamura is no longer the unrivalled number one in the USA.

Nakamura last played in the U.S. national championships in 2012 and has focused on staking his claim for a place among the world’s top 10 with an eye toward challenging Carlsen eventually for the world title. However, that has increasingly become a more daunting challenge, not only because he has an awful personal record vs. Carlsen, 0-11 with 16 draws, but also because a younger cohort of potential future challengers have begun staking their own claim. Among these are Caruana (who has dual Italian and American citizenship), Anish Giri (the Dutch No. 1), Ding Liren (the No. 1 player from China), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (the French No. 1), and So himself. All of them are younger than Nakamura.

But Nakamura showed everyone at the Gibraltar Masters tournament that he is still a force to reckon with. He began with six straight wins, including an important victory over Topalov in the 6th round, and finished clear first with 8.5/10. After Gibraltar, he had a live rating of 2792.1 and thus regained the honour of being America’s #1.

Hikaru Nakamura in Wijk aan Zee 2011

When he registered early for the Millionaire Chess Open, scheduled October 8-12 in Las Vegas, where So will be the defending champion, Nakamura also sent the unmistakeable message that he will not cede his supremacy among American players without a fight.

In their only previous meeting under standard time controls, So and Nakamura drew in 27 moves at the 2014 Tata Steel tournament. So himself downplays this brewing rivalry with Nakamura.

“I am not aware that there is an active rivalry,” So said just days after returning from Wijk aan Zee to his home in Minnetonka, Minnesota, in the Midwest region of the U.S. “While I admire him a lot and will try to do as well, and hopefully even better than him, that is not a ‘rivalry’ or an ‘antagonism’ of any kind. It is normal for any serious competitor, in any field, to want to be the best and take down those ahead of him. That is what it means to compete. It’s never personal.”

On the prospect of meeting Nakamura in the U.S. Championship, So had this to say: “My game plan is to play the best I can and beat everyone else. Same as everyone else’s game plan, I suppose.”

As Brian Jerauld of St. Louis Public Radio put it in a preview of the showdown in Saint Louis: “The power struggle for America’s throne has already begun… The return of Nakamura and the threatening arrival of Wesley So is shaping the 2015 U.S. Championship to be one for the ages: two world top-10 players who headline arguably the strongest field in the history of our national title.”

The fight for #1 may not be just a matter of prestige. So and Nakamura have both qualified for the World Cup, scheduled September 10 to October 4 in Baku, Azerbaijan, based on average rating from February 2014 to January 2015. The two World Cup finalists will automatically get slots in the next Candidates Tournament, which will determine the next challenger for the world championship.

Magnus Carlsen - Who will be his next challenger?

In case neither So nor Nakamura will make it to the World Cup finals, one of them may still get to play in the 2016 Candidates as a wild-card entry if, as expected, the tournament will be held in the United States, with Saint Louis, backed by the billionaire chess patron Rex Sinquefield, as the likely host. (FIDE has scheduled the Candidates for March 9-28, 2016, but has not announced where it will be held.)

Leonard Barden, one of the oldest hands in chess journalism, has singled out So as a future challenger for the world title. “Suddenly, a huge opportunity may be opening up for So,” he wrote in his column for The Guardian. “If So can continue his fine start at Wijk and build on it in future 2015 events, he could suddenly become the real deal, the American with a chance of regaining the crown once held by Fischer.”

One other thing that So achieved in Wijk aan Zee, something many fans have not even noticed, is that he surpassed the highest official rating of Bobby Fischer, the last American to become world champion. Fischer’s highest official rating, 2785, came after his epic world championship match in 1972 with Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland. This was Fischer’s FIDE rating on January 1, 1973, from an era when official ratings were published every six months.

When asked about the comparisons to Fischer, So was quietly pleased. “Becoming world champion is any serious player’s dream,” he said, “and being mentioned in the same breath with Bobby Fischer is big. I have always deeply admired Fischer’s games. I think he was the best player ever.”

Bobby Fischer

Carlsen, the reigning world champion, has said, however, that So is not yet among the very best. “I think he’s a good player,” Carlsen said during a post-game interview in the 10th round at Tata Steel. “I think he’s not one of the very best yet and he still needs to get more experience, but you can get far even at this level with a good tactical eye and excellent preparation. That’s what he’s showing. He’s doing well. I think also the field suits him. I don’t know if he would be quite as comfortable playing more of the old guys like Vishy and Kramnik and so on. But by all means his result here speaks for itself.”

Magnus Carlsen and Wesley So fighting it out in Wijk aan Zee 2015

Some of So’s many followers in the Facebook group Chess Philippines said that, perhaps, Carlsen was already seeing So as the future challenger for his crown and that the Norwegian was playing mind games with his newest rival. When So was asked about Carlsen’s remarks, he was circumspect about the whole thing.

“People are entitled to their opinions,” he said. “And who knows? Maybe he’s right. Of course, he could also be wrong. It’s true I am the newest full-time player in the top ten. Prior to 2015 I had to compete around my various school schedules. Before that, I was based in the Philippines and just getting opportunities to play was difficult. Then I had issues with federation change that prohibited me from joining certain events. I’ve always been trying to play chess around a life that was chaotic. This year I’m making an effort to set all distractions aside and just play chess. I live quietly, I have largely turned off the Internet and the phone, I eat and sleep better, and I have moved into a simpler, more disciplined lifestyle.”

Determined to get even better: Wesley So

(Part two to follow soon...)

Pictures: Alina l'Ami, Joachim Schulze, Nadja Wittmann

About the author

Eliseo Tumbaga is a FIDE National Instructor and Admin of the Facebook group Chess Philippines. He was a sportswriter and chess columnist at The Times Journal, People’s Journal, Sports Journal, and other publications of the Journal Media Group in the Philippines. He also worked as news-desk editor at The Manila Times, columnist at Sports Weekly Magazine, and contributor to the Philippine News Agency. He was also assistant editor at Credit & Financial Management (a monthly business magazine published in New York City) and senior writer at Manila Times East (a weekly newspaper published in Jersey City, New Jersey, for the Filipino community on the East Coast of the United States). In addition to his journalism work of more than 15 years, he has been an entrepreneur, corporate executive, and business consultant, with specialised practice in strategic planning, business development, business reengineering, and marketing strategy.


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