Wesley So's South African swing

by Macauley Peterson
1/10/2019 – Wesley So made his first trip to Africa, as 2018 was drawing to a close, where he served as an ambassador for the sport to great acclaim at the South African Junior Chess Championship. From simuls, Q&As, blitz, and a healthy dose of photo opportunities, the USA' No. 2 player was certainly kept busy, but he also had an experience which was, in his words, "like a dream come true". | Photos: SAJCC Facebook page

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"I will never forget the wonderful people"

Wesley So was an honoured guest at the South African Junior Chess Championship (SAJCC), billed as the largest chess tournament in South Africa, with "at least 2,300 players and 300 coaches and team managers attending from all over the country", according to their press release.

A 103 board simultaneous exhibition was South Africa's largest ever, breaking the 101 games that Hikaru Nakamura played a year ago. On his Facebook page, So gives the final tally as 90 wins, ten draws and three losses. It was the centrepiece of a South African trip to Johannesburg and Cape Town, replete with sun and sea, in contrast to the grey cold of London and St. Petersburg that most of his elite colleagues were enduring.

When I lost my chance to play the London Classic this year I was devastated...I don’t want to say that I completely forgot the hurt losing London but South Africa was a real gift from God. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would ever go to Africa but somehow I got invited to attend the South African National Championships. The whole thing was like a dream come true. I will never forget my experiences there.

At the Mandela museum

So with his adoptive mother Lotis under a statue of Nelson Mandela | Photo: sachessonline.co.za
(Click or tap to enlarge)

So began his official visit by opening the festivities at the SAJCC, giving the young hopefuls a few words of encouragement.

"It's not about winning or losing but about competing and playing with your teammates...just giving your best and having fun", he told the crowd.

A smiling So

At the opening of the South African Junior Chess Championship

The main event for the Filipino-American grandmaster was a massive simul, lasting roughly six and a half hours and ending well after midnight. You can get a feel for it in the mobile phone video below, part of the sprawling coverage on the SAJCC Facebook page, which chronicled the visit.

A small sample of the 6+ hour simul


So estimates he walked some four kilometres during the simul without sitting down

Wesley acquitted himself well during the seemingly endless stream of photo opportunities for children over the course of the multi-day event. While many top GMs would grow weary of the ceaseless smiling, So barely broke a proverbial sweat.

So with girl

There are a few more in the photo gallery above and many dozens on the event's Facebook page

Another day was jam-packed with doubles chess in the afternoon followed by a ten-board blindfold simul in the evening, in which So scored 9½ — he offered a draw to the last player standing after over three hours of play, as Bruce Mubayiwa reports in a series of live video streams.

"These juniors are strong, there are no walkovers. They showed that the future of South African chess is very bright. These juniors are very young, some of them as young as eight years old but they showed that they've got a lot of character, a lot of resiliance and they really pushed the grandmaster to the limits."

Blind simultaneous at the Birchwood Hotel & OR Tambo Conference Centre

So said afterwards, "I think this blindfold simul is quite hard. I made several mistakes. I don't know how Timur Gareyev does it."

Blitz chess and more photo ops were on the agenda...

...including one in which So donned a Batman costume for some Bughouse (a.k.a. tandem chess) with The Joker as his partner!

Blitz in the park

The blitz action was not limited to indoors versus the kids. So played for over two hours in Johannesburg's Joubert Park, the "temple of African chess".

Outdoor blitz

Tshediso Mpya was the first of three opponents on the giant chess set

At the main chess tables, he played blitz against all comers at time-odds of his one minute against three minutes. He did not lose a single game, but Bruce Mubayiwa did manage to hold him to a draw...sort of — the video shows Mubayiwa made an illegal move near the end of the game after a game losing blunder.

He was clearly taking the game more seriously than his grandmaster opponent:

"During the other games some of the players were doing some serious trash talking but for me it was very different. I was quiet but I am so sure that no one really gave me any chances in the game...From the first move, there was no distraction whatsoever. I did not think I was playing a super grandmaster. I forgot I was playing someone really strong. I was just thinking of the chess game and position."

Bruce Mubayiwa vs GM Wesley So, Dec. 16th, 2018, Joubert Park


The game had a curious finish, to put it mildly: 


White's previous move — 55.a7 — gave away the draw. After 55.Rf8+ Kg3 56.Rg8+, there's no way for Black to make progress. And no, that's not a mistakenly drawn arrow — in this position, White actually played 56.Rxa7! Perhaps he hallucinated his pawn to a8. So chose to overlook what could be regarded as a park hustler's gambit in another context. In this case it seems to have been unintentional. Mubayiwa writes:

In terms of the rules Black should have claimed an illegal move. If a player does not make a claim the position stands.

However, knowing Grandmaster Wesley So, I think he just let me have the draw to be honest. That is the kind of gentleman he is. It’s a fly in the ointment for me because this illegal kind of spoilt the game but I think it’s still my best game.

Mubayiwa was streaming the whole event live to Facebook, unfortunately vertically

All's well that ends well, and this adventure was a success for both sides. So summed up his experience with a word of advice to his peers:

If you are ever fortunate enough to get invited to South Africa on behalf of the SA Chess Association … buy your tickets immediately so they can’t change their minds.

When his "work" was done, So travelled to the port city of Cape Town, for a bout of tourism, but of course, meeting new chess friends along the way.


Macauley served as the Editor in Chief of ChessBase News from July 2017 to March 2020. He is the producer of The Full English Breakfast chess podcast, and was an Associate Producer of the 2016 feature documentary, Magnus.


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