Wesley So shooting for the stars (1/2)

by ChessBase
12/20/2014 – Wesley So is hardly a new name on the horizon as one of the youngest grandmasters ever, and a prodigy in every sense of the word. He went to the United States on a chess scholarship, where he has now transferred as a player, but after a series of successes in 2014, breaking into the world's Top 10, he has decided to go all out for chess after announcing his next goal of 2800.

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By Eliseo Tumbaga

This year has been a very eventful one for Wesley So, with many ups and downs, and he has made several life-changing decisions as part of his quest to be among the top five chess players in the world.

So is currently ranked number 12 in the world with a FIDE rating of 2762. He is now a permanent resident of the United States and his transfer from the Philippines to the U.S. Chess Federation was confirmed by FIDE on October 28.

When the FIDE ratings for November 2014 came out, he was #10 in the world and #2 among America’s best players, just behind Hikaru Nakamura.

Also in October, just days after emerging as champion in the high-stakes, high-profile Millionaire Chess Open in Las Vegas, he left Webster University, giving up a chess scholarship that is much coveted by rising stars from around the world, to focus on a career as a professional chess player. Now he is aiming to be the next 2800 player and he is hoping that he can achieve this milestone in 2015.

“Reaching 2800 in the ratings is my main goal,” the 21-year-old So disclosed in an exclusive interview. “And I’m giving myself every chance to be the best that I can be.”

There are only four men in FIDE’s list for December 2014 with ratings of 2800 or higher – world champion Magnus Carlsen (2862, Norway), Fabiano Caruana (2829, Italy), Alexander Grischuk (2810, Russia), and Veselin Topalov (2800, Bulgaria).

Is he ready to be among the top five?

“Absolutely!” So replied. “To continually improve is my main goal. Naturally, I hope it happens without too much delay.”

Wesley So's win at the Millionaire Chess Open has inspired him to shoot for the stars

Though he may sound impatient, he does not underestimate the difficulty of getting into the very small circle of the most elite players in the world.  “Realistically, you can only work hard and take each day as it comes.”

He had set ambitious targets for himself at the beginning of this year and he achieved them, and So is confident that even loftier goals are within reach.

On New Year’s Day 2014, he announced to the world that his goal for the year would be to reach 2750. It was a bold statement to make because, without saying so outright, it actually meant his goals was to break into the world's Top 10. His rating was 2719 and he was ranked #28 at the time, but he was ready for the challenge and was given opportunities to show that he could compete with some of the strongest players on the planet.

At the Tata Steel Masters in January, he had many ups and downs but he proved nonetheless that he could play with the best. He finished with 6.0/11 in a tie for 4th-6th places with Caruana and Leinier Dominguez among the twelve participants but ended up in 6th place on tiebreaks.

It was a good result for him at that stage in his young career: three wins, six draws, and two losses. He defeated Boris Gelfand (2777, Israel), Richard Rapport (2691, Hungary), and Loek van Wely (2672, Netherlands); drew with Nakamura (2789, USA), Caruana (2782, Italy), Sergey Karjakin (2759, Russia), Anish Giri (2734, Netherlands), Arkadij Naiditsch (2718, Germany), and Pentala Harikrishna (2706, India); and lost to Aronian (2812, Armenia), ranked #2 in the world at the time, and Dominguez (2754, Cuba).

That loss to Dominguez, in just 21 moves on the black side of a Petroff Defence, was painful for So and his many fans around the world. However, he learned much from the experience and redeemed himself just over three months later by taking first place at the Capablanca Memorial in Havana, Cuba, and beating Dominguez in the latter’s home turf in the second half of the double round-robin event.

“The Capablanca Memorial was one of the toughest tournaments I’ve won,” So recalled. “Everybody was rated high, some higher than myself. It was a great encouragement for me to win it.”

Wesley So avenged his painful loss to Dominguez in style by beating him in front of his home crowd

It was especially memorable for him and elating for his fans because it banished the ghost of that psychologically devastating loss at Tata Steel.

“Probably my best game this year was my win against Dominguez at the Capablanca Memorial,” So recalled.

He finished the tournament without a loss, a feat that he would repeat in Bergamo, Italy, two months later.

At the Capablanca Memorial, he won three games and drew seven for 6.5/10 in a double round robin among six strong GMs. In addition to that memorable win against Dominguez, So also defeated Francisco Vallejo Pons (2700, Spain) and Zoltan Almasi (2693, Hungary).

At the ACP Golden Classic, he defeated Ian Nepomniachtchi (2730, Russia), Baadur Jobava (2713, Georgia), and Daniele Vocaturo (2584, Italy) and drew with Almasi, Emil Sutovsky (2620, Israel), and Sabino Brunello (2568, Italy) for 4.5/6.

It was at Bergamo where he attained his declared goal for the year, reaching 2755 in time for the August 2014 FIDE rating list.

In between those two strong events, he also placed second at the Edmonton International Open in Alberta, Canada, behind Vassily Ivanchuk. He did not lose a game there. He won six games but conceded three hard-fought draws (to Ivanchuk, GM Irina Krush of the U.S., and FM Vladimir Pechenkin of Canada) and finished just half a point short of a tie for first place.

It was at Millionaire Chess, a ground-breaking event created by the Canadian entrepreneur Amy Lee and American GM Maurice Ashley, where So earned enough rating points to reach 2762 and join the world’s elite at #10.

Long-time followers of So have noted the vast improvement in his play, which has been reflected in his steady rise in ratings and rankings. He has not lost a single game under standard time controls in his last four FIDE-rated tournaments, and he has an unbeaten streak of 34 games running from April 2014, beginning from the 4th round of the Saint Louis Open, of which 26 were against GMs.

To what does he attribute his successes this year?

“I developed a vision for my future and started setting up goals, and I tried to achieve them,” he said. “After I achieved one, I moved on to the next one.”

So was invited to play in the A-group in the Tata Steel tournament as a new 2700+ player.
He breached 2700 at the Reykjavik Open in February 2013.
In 2015 he will return to the Tata Steel tournament in Wijk as a deserved guest.

His first major test as a full-time chess pro will come very early in 2015, from January 9 to 25, at the 77th Tata Steel Masters, the world’s oldest running super-tournament. This will be a Category 20 event with average rating of 2747. Most of the games will be held in the seaside town of Wijk aan Zee in the Netherlands where past, present, and future world champions have tested themselves against the best in the world. (The 5th round will be in Rotterdam while the 10th will be at The Hague.)

Eleven of the participants are over 2700, with Carlsen and Caruana as the top seeds, and Aronian (2797) as the defending champion.

The others are Giri (2768, Netherlands), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (2758, France), Radoslaw Wojtaszek (2744, Poland), Teimour Radjabov (2734, Azerbaijan), Jobava (2733, Georgia), Ding Liren (2732, China), Ivanchuk (2715, Ukraine), Ivan Saric (2679, Croatia), women’s world champion Hou Yifan (2673, China), and van Wely (2667, Netherlands).

All of them are in the top 100 and he has already crossed swords with most of them.

To prepare for the big challenges ahead, So has adopted a strict regimen at his new home in Minnetonka, Minnesota, in the Midwest region of the United States.

“I live in a very disciplined and structured environment,” So disclosed. “A full eight to nine hours of sleep every night, a balanced diet, nutritional supplements, vigorous daily exercise, and a minimum of six hours of daily chess study. I also have various recreational activities to balance my work life, but they are built around my training routine.”

His new home is located in a quiet, upscale suburb west of Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Minneapolis/St. Paul. There are a lot of park areas, biking trails, beaches, and lakes. A long-time resident there described the place as “beautiful, very safe, and expensive.”

Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport, an international airport with direct flights to Europe, Asia, among other places, is just 20 minutes away from So’s new home --  very convenient for the life that he envisions as a chess warrior travelling to the strongest tournaments anywhere in the world.

He prefers not to talk about his private life but he said he is happy where he is, and where he lives is a house full of interesting things, including thousands of books and two cats.

“I think being happy is certainly a key to doing your best at anything,” he said.

On previous visits to Minnetonka, while he was still a student at Webster University in Saint Louis, Missouri, he learned to swim and bike – activities that he didn’t get to enjoy when he was a kid, because his childhood was pretty much occupied by school and the demands of becoming a chess champion.

His rise in 2014 has been nothing short of meteoric, and he
has no intention of stopping there

Born on October 9, 1993, of Filipino and Chinese parents, he learned the moves from his father when he was six years old. He began playing in tournaments when he was nine, and won his first event in 2003 in the under-10 category of the national age-group championships.

So’s rise from there was swift and unstoppable. He became a FIDE Master in 2005 after taking first place in the under-12 category of the ASEAN Age Group Championships in Pattaya, Thailand. He was the youngest Filipino to get an international chess title at the time.

The following year, he became the youngest ever to play for the Philippines in the World Chess Olympiad, as second reserve in Turin, Italy. Later in the same year, he got his International Master title, again the youngest Filipino to get that distinction.

And in 2007 he completed the requirements for the GM title at the age of 14 years, one month and 28 days, at the time the seventh youngest in history. He was also ranked #1 in the world for the under-16 age group.

After graduating from high school in 2011, he decided not to go to college immediately. Instead, he spent one year trying to work on his chess. However, there was no proper training program in the Philippines for someone like him and his results drifted sideways.

In the meantime, his family had migrated to Canada and he was left behind in the Philippines.

In August 2012 he moved to Saint Louis, the chess capital of the United States, after getting a scholarship at Webster. He was ranked #99 in the world with FIDE rating of 2652, in a tie with four others up to 103rd place.

Under the tutelage of GM Susan Polgar, a four-time women’s world champion, and her husband, FM Paul Truong, So led Webster to unprecedented victories at the Pan American Games, an annual competition traditionally held between Christmas and New Year among university teams from the U.S., Canada, and other countries in the Americas, and to two straight national championships at the Final Four of U.S. intercollegiate chess in 2013 and 2014.

“I am grateful for everything I learned there and for all the help I received,” said So when asked about his stint at Webster, which had the strongest university-level team in the world, with 10 GMs in the last school term competing for places in three five-person squads. So was the highest-rated chess player to have competed in any varsity event in the U.S.

“It was a good experience for me and I have no regrets. The time had just come for me to make a decision to try for a solo career in chess. I was finding it difficult, if not impossible, to carry a full study load and commit to the preparations for competition at the highest levels. I decided if I was going to do the best I could, I needed to try for one thing at a time.”

Winning $100,000 at the Millionaire Chess Open, the biggest prize money in the history of open competitions, emboldened him to turn pro at this time.

“It’s nice having some financial security as I step out to begin my professional career,” he said. “It was very motivating in that direction. At present I don’t have any financial backers or sponsors, so I am taking this enormous risk on my own and winning that event gives me some time to get on my feet.”

But while he was making breakthroughs over the board, he found himself dealing with contentious issues away from it.

Continued in part two

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