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

by ChessBase
3/3/2015 – In the second part of his extensive portrait of potential World Championship candidate Wesley So, Eliseo Tumbaga reveals that So and Magnus Carlsen once trained together and wonders how the career of the 21-year old will continue in 2015, if he will work with a professional coach, and how he will adjust to the new life as one of the world's best.

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

By Eliseo Tumbaga

So and Carlsen have known each other for years now. In the first quarter of 2011, Carlsen contacted So and offered to pay the expenses to Europe if the rising 17-year-old GM from the Philippines would train with him. They did work together in Majorca, according to D.T. Max, a writer for The New Yorker magazine, noting that Carlsen had described So as his stylistic opposite. “I think his entire training has been with a computer,” Carlsen noted then with amazement.

Wesley So and Magnus Carlsen, (Source: Wesley So Facebook Fanpage

When So was asked, a few days after Tata Steel, about that training session almost four years ago, he declined to give details. “I don’t know if I should talk about that without permission from the Carlsen camp,” he said. “Anyway, it was a long time ago. We were kids then and we are both different players now.”

One of the new things that he has to deal with now is adjusting to the new demands of being an elite player. The U.S. Championship will end on April 14 but he will get very little rest after that because he has to fly to Azerbaijan immediately for the Gashimov Memorial, which will begin on April 17.

That is part of the life he chose when he gave up a chess scholarship at Webster University, also in Saint Louis, to become a full-time chess professional. When opportunities show up, he needs to grab them quickly lest they slip away from his grasp.

In playing against the strongest opponents, particularly in long events such as Tata Steel, which had 13 rounds with no easy games, physical fitness and strong nerves always become a big factor.

A member of Team Wesley reported on one of the rest days at Wijk aan Zee: “It is terribly exhausting and I can hardly fault anyone here for losing or not doing their best. The weather is horrendous, rain every day and the cold and wind are exceptionally bitter. We walk back and forth to the venue and often arrive wet. The schedule is exhausting and the games quite long. But then again, this is the way champions are made and we are all grateful to be here at this event.”

Windswept Wijk aan Zee

Everyone at Tata lost at least one game. So’s only loss, against Giri in the 12th round, lasted 111 moves and took eight hours and 20 minutes to finish, well past normal dinner time. It was the longest game in the entire tournament. The following day, with the last round starting 1.5 hours earlier, So came back strong and ended another successful stint at Wijk aan Zee with a brilliant win against Loek van Wely.

Giri has so far proven to be a particularly difficult opponent for So. Their lifetime record against each other is now 3-0 in favour of Giri, with three draws.

“Anish is a nice guy and obviously an extremely talented player,” So said upon his return to Minnesota. “He deserved to win although there was a moment I thought it was a draw. You can always learn from any loss and, personally, it motivated me to work harder and stay more focused.”

Anish Giri

That loss stopped So’s unbeaten run at 54 games, beginning from April 2014 in the 4th round of the Bill Wright Saint Louis Open. During that remarkable streak, he won four high-profile tournaments: the Capablanca Memorial in Havana, Cuba, in May; the ACP Golden Classic in Bergamo, Italy, in July; the Millionaire Chess Open in Las Vegas, in October, where he got into the world’s top 10 for the first time; and the North American Open, also in Las Vegas, in December. He also finished second, just half a point behind the Ukrainian legend Vassily Ivanchuk, at the Edmonton International in Alberta, Canada, in June.

Considering how closely So had come to at least a tie for first with Carlsen at Tata, his many fans could only rue the one that got away and couldn’t help but wonder how things might have turned out differently. So himself had thought about it and this is what he had to say –

“Hindsight is always 20/20 and of course you tell yourself, I should have done this or that. Losing a game is hard but that is what gaming is about. The heartbreaking losses make it interesting. If you always won, you’d get bored and stop growing.”

Objectively, So had a fantastic result. He defeated Levon Aronian of Armenia, last year’s champion at Tata Steel, in the 3rd round. He beat Baadur Jobava of Georgia, Ivan Saric of Croatia, and Van Wely of the Netherlands.

Especially memorable was So’s remarkable victory from the black side against Ivanchuk, whom he stunned with a gutsy knight sacrifice on the g2-square in a delayed Marshall Gambit arising from a Ruy Lopez opening – a product of superb home preparation that clearly enhanced So’s reputation as a truly world-class player.

[Event "77th Tata Steel GpA"] [Site "Wijk aan Zee NED"] [Date "2015.01.18"] [Round "8"] [White "Ivanchuk, V."] [Black "So, W."] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "C88"] [WhiteElo "2715"] [BlackElo "2762"] [PlyCount "52"] [EventDate "2015.01.09"] [Comments "Alejandro Ramirez"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 6. Re1 b5 7. Bb3 O-O 8. h3 Bb7 9. d3 d5 10. exd5 Nxd5 11. Nbd2 Qd7 12. Nxe5 Nxe5 13. Rxe5 Nf4 14. Nf3 Nxg2 {As spectacular as this move is, along with the idea that follows it, it was already known. Gustafsson had employed two months ago against Guliyev. Before that, there was also a game Jolly-Gozzoli in July.} 15. Kxg2 a5 {This is the point of the position. Black wants to swing over the rook via a6 to g6, but he is also threatening a4 trapping the White bishop. This is very uncomfortable to meet over the board.} 16. Rxe7 (16. a4 Ra6 17. Qe2 Rg6+ 18. Kh2 Bd6 19. Nh4 Bxe5+ 20. Qxe5 Re8 21. Qf4 Rf6 22. Qg3 Re1 23. Bh6 Rxf2+ $1 24. Qxf2 Rxa1 25. Nf5 Rh1+ 26. Kg3 Bc8 27. Qg2 Qxf5 28. Qxh1 Qg6+ 29. Kf2 {and here Black, for some reason, had to first place the strong intermezzo 29...bxa4 before taking on h6 to keep his advantage. Gulyiev-Gustafsson, 2014.}) 16... Qxe7 17. c3 Ra6 {White isn't up much material. Black's game kind of plays itself, bring the pieces over to the kingside, while White has no development. Ivanchuk is already lost at this point.} 18. d4 Rf6 19. d5 a4 20. Bc2 Rd8 21. Qe1 Qd7 22. Ng5 h6 23. Ne4 Rg6+ 24. Kh2 f5 25. Ng3 Qxd5 26. Qg1 Qf3 (26... Qf3 {Black is threatening to take on g3 and, if White recaptures with the f2 pawn, to play Qe2 followed by mate.} 27. Be3 Qxe3 $1 {fails just the same.} 28. fxe3 Rd2+) 0-1

Vasil Ivanchuk

In his first tournament game against Carlsen, he played the black pieces and did not have any trouble at all in getting a draw with a Nimzo-Indian Defence. Against Caruana, with whom he has an equal lifetime record, now 1-1 with four draws, he also played black and did not have problems in getting a draw with the Breyer Variation of the Ruy Lopez. Against these two, who are the world’s top two players, So was not intimidated at all: he played black in both games, used a solid opening repertoire, and had no problems equalising early.

He also drew against Radoslaw Wojtaszek of Poland, China’s Hou Yifan (the women’s world champion), Teimour Radjabov of Azerbaijan, Vachier-Lagrave of France, and China’s Ding Liren.

In last year’s Tata Steel, which had only 11 rounds compared to 13 this year, So finished with a +1 result from three wins, six draws and two losses, and he got a rating of 2738 in the February 2014 FIDE rating list, good enough for #18 in the world. Exactly one year later, he is 50 rating points higher and ranked #7.

“I did the best I could, I learned a lot, and the biggest lesson was that there is always room for improvement and greater effort,” So said. “It was a wonderful time for me at Wijk aan Zee. To survive a long challenging tournament, it is crucial to be disciplined and Tata Steel provided me the opportunity to test myself in this and in many other ways.

“The organisers were kind and thoughtful, providing for our every need even though they were under tremendous pressure from morning to night. Holland is a great country and I have never had a bad time there. The organisers even took us to see two other cities [Rotterdam for the 5th round and The Hague for the 10th], giving us a refreshing change of pace.”

One big question that many fans have been asking since So left Webster University in October 2014 is, who are the members of his new team? At Webster, he had coaches such as GM Susan Polgar, a four-time women’s world champion, and her husband, FM Paul Truong, who took care not only of training but arrangements for various tournaments in the U.S. and other countries. There were 10 grandmasters at the Webster campus and it was near the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis – possibly one of the best environments that any aspiring player could ever have.

Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis

While So is not particularly eager to talk about all the changes that he made after he turned pro, he has allowed a few peeks into his new situation. For one thing, he has revealed that he has a sparring partner in Minnesota: IM Sean Nagle.

Nagle was a whiz kid who won the Minnesota state high-school championships in 1998, 1999, and 2000 and became a USCF master when he was 15 years old. Chess took a back seat for him when he went to the University of Chicago for a B.A. in economics, then a law degree at the University of Michigan. He practiced corporate law with the firm of Frederikson & Byron in downtown Minneapolis, near So’s home in Minnetonka. Since returning to Minnesota, he has been state champion or co-champion every year since 2009.

In June 2013, Nagle gave up his law practice to become a stay-at-home dad, which also gave him time to again pursue his passion for chess. He began coaching several promising junior players in the western suburbs of Minneapolis on a professional basis, and last year he got his IM title after a strong showing in July at the World Open in Arlington, Virginia.

“Sean Nagle is a good friend who spars with me in Minnesota,” So disclosed. “He is more disciplined than I am, and his calm and organised style helps me a lot. Plus, he is a really nice guy.” A member of Team Wesley added that Nagle is very methodical and professional in setting up training sessions with So.

Ultimately, So might have to level up and get a top-notch GM coach. Caruana has GM Vladimir Chuchelov, Giri has GM Vladimir Tukmakov, and Vachier-Lagrave has GM Alexander Beliavsky. (Chuchelov also coached Giri previously.) Carlsen has a whole team behind him, including people on the business side.

Vladimir Chuchelov

Vladimir Tukmakov

Alexander Beliavsky

So does not know yet when or if he will get a full-time coach at some point. “Right now, I’m just getting started and trying to stabilise my life and find my way,” he said. “It will come if it is meant to come.”

A big part of the picture is that top-notch GM coaches do not come cheap. They are professionals who may have to give up other opportunities if they take on long-term coaching arrangements with one or more players. On the other hand, So does not have a financial backer or commercial sponsor and he is just beginning to get into the lucrative high-level tournaments and just starting to explore other income-generating prospects.

It is also true that much of So’s training and preparation for tournaments are done with the help of computers, chess engines, and databases, and he is known to be one of the best in the world in using these technologies. As Eugene Torre, Asia’s first grandmaster, observed many years ago, Wesley So -- even when he was still a kid playing for the Philippines -- had a special talent in preparing for tournaments by himself.

Philippine chess legend Eugenio Torre

So himself has already coached Team USA twice, at the 2013 World Team Championship in Antalya, Turkey, and in last year’s World Chess Olympiad in Tromso, Norway. The U.S. team captain, IM John Donaldson, has acknowledged So’s contributions as a coach: “He knows an incredible amount about opening theory [and] likes to work on chess all the time.…”

A member of Team Wesley revealed that So has gotten some help from a friendly GM, whose name shall not be disclosed for now, and that they had some training sessions via Skype beginning in December of last year. It is not a professional coaching arrangement but an informal relationship in the “friendship” category.

Who trains with Wesley So?

“Yes, we have talked about a loose coaching relationship where they Skype once a week or twice a month depending on how busy they are and where they are,” the source said.  “It’s a loose relationship of occasional coaching help when our travel schedule could work that in.”

One unavoidable part of a chess professional’s life is the constant travelling to tournaments and other chess-related activities such as doing simultaneous exhibitions and teaching in chess camps. In So’s case, he also has to fulfil certain commitments made long ago, before he joined the top 10. But going forward, his playing schedule will be focused on high-level invitational tournaments, events leading to the world championship, plus a few high-profile open tournaments that might help pay the bills, such as the Millionaire Chess Open, where he won $100,000 last October, the largest prize money in the history of open competitions.

Wesley So receiving first prize at the Millionaire Chess Open

For this year, he is already committed for team play in the French League (May 30 to June 9) and in the Turkish Super League (August 3-15), as well as to a four-game classical match with David Navara in Prague, Czech Republic, from June 12 to 16.

David Navara

As he gets more invitations in the future, more fine-tuning will be made in his playing schedule. But the focus remains the same: to reach 2800 during the year, and thus be among the top five in the world, and to begin campaigning for a chance to challenge for the world championship, perhaps by next year if the pieces fall in the right places. So is only 21 years old and, as Carlsen put it, may need more experience. But he is hopeful that his time will come sooner or later.

How far can he go?

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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