Wesley So shooting for the stars (2/2)

by ChessBase
12/22/2014 – In this second part of an in-depth look at Wesley So, the reasons for his surprising and somewhat controversial change to play for the United States are made clear. Many of his compatriots reacted emotionally to this announcement, accusing him of being 'unpatriotic', but he explains the reasons that led to the decision, and vows he will never lose sight of his Filipino heritage.

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By Eliseo Tumbaga

Continued from part one

In July 2013, So won the chess gold medal at the World University Games, also known as the Universiade, in Kazan, Russia. It was the first time that any individual or team from the Philippines had won a gold medal in any sport in 54 years of competitions at the Universiade, and he expected to be rewarded with honours and generous perks worthy of a world champion among university students.

After all, the competitions in Kazan were recognized by FIDE and the International Olympic Committee. Instead, So found himself in the middle of a vicious power struggle between rival sports groups in the Philippines.

The group that sent him to Kazan, the Federation of School Sports Associations of the Philippines (FESSAP), was the duly accredited member of the International University Sports Federation (known by its French acronym, FISU).

Another group, the Universities Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP), with the backing of the most powerful Filipino sports official – the president of the Philippine Olympic Committee -- tried to unseat FESSAP from its membership in FISU and nearly succeeded. Intense political manoeuvring in corridors and assembly halls in Kazan only heightened the conflict between the rival groups.

So was one of the 83 athletes selected by FESSAP to represent the Philippines. More than 50 athletes from UAAP member schools were not allowed to compete in Kazan by their respective schools and the 29 FESSAP athletes who went ahead and took part in the competitions were blacklisted.

So expected the National Chess Federation of the Philippines (NCFP) to take up the cudgels for him and lobby the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC), the sports funding agency of the Philippine government, to give him formal recognition and financial incentives for winning a gold medal in a high-level international competition. But the NCFP did not even write an endorsement letter to the PSC. Without this, the government agency would not take any formal action on the matter.

Disappointed by what happened, So decided not to play at the World Junior Championships in Turkey. He also opted not to participate in the Southeast Asian Games, the main sporting competitions held every two years among the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

This got him into further trouble with the sports authorities. So was among the elite athletes who were receiving monthly allowances from the PSC, and failure to represent the Philippines in designated events would be valid ground to discontinue the allowances. In So’s case, this amounted to 40,000 pesos (approximately $889) every month.

In November 2013, he asked to be released by the NCFP so that he could transfer to the U.S. Chess Federation. This was a shocking development for Filipino chess fans, and one that has continued to divide the Philippine chess community at a very emotional level. So was considered a national treasure. Indeed, no other talent like him has emerged from the Philippines.

Wesley So's crushing win at the 2014 ACP Golden Classic included a key win over his
rival Baadur Jobava

While the issues on his transfer were pending, fierce debates raged on social media and other venues. Some outraged chess enthusiasts called him “unpatriotic.” A leading newspaper in Manila even ran an editorial entitled “So’s gambit declined,” and criticized him for his “ambition.” It took months before a solution could be found, with some help from peacemakers and “friendly persuasion” by some influential people.

Meanwhile, So did not play at the Tromso Olympiad, although he did offer to play for the Philippines for the last time on the condition that he be released immediately after the Olympiad. This offer was ignored, and he got a contract to coach Team USA instead.

Eventually, chess officials in Manila agreed to let him go by way of a technicality in the FIDE rules on transfer of players without consent. It had been very clear that the Philippines had already lost So and letting him go on a technicality was a face-saving measure for the people who were enmeshed in the controversy.

When the FIDE ratings for November 2014 came out, almost one year after he asked to be released, the effects of So’s transfer were felt immediately on both sides of the Pacific. So was ranked number 10 in the world and he stood at #2 among American players behind Nakamura.

The U.S. made a big jump in FIDE’s country rankings, moving up from #9 to #4. And, for the first time in 40 years, the U.S. had two players in the top 10. The last time that happened was in 1974, when Bobby Fischer was #1 and the Czech émigré Lubomir Kavalek was #10.

The Philippines, on the other hand, having lost its best player – the only one to have ever reached 2700  – dropped from #32 to #43.

“This is both a sad and happy thing for me,” said So. “Naturally, the ideal would have been to play for my own country, but I have chosen chess as a career and I had to make hard decisions if I wanted to move ahead. With the uncertain future of the sport of chess in the Philippines, I guess anyone in my position, given the opportunity, would have done the same thing. Maybe, if I do well in the future, it will be encouraging to my own country and we’ll see more support for chess athletes.”

Wesley So at age sixteen and already a force to reckon with

So has a message to his millions of followers and supporters in the Philippines.

“I want them to know that I am very grateful for their support. I am especially touched by the many people who stood with me during this difficult year, with all its ups and downs. Yes, I made a move for my career. That does not mean that I am no longer a Filipino. I work in a specialty field in which local opportunities are not abundant.

“There are millions of Filipinos all over the world who work abroad because they have to. That does not make them less Filipino. That does not make them ‘traitors’. They do what they have to do to survive and compete on a global scale.

“I am now and always will be a Filipino. Wherever I am competing, everyone will know that I was born, raised, and nurtured in the Philippines. That will never change. I hope my countrymen will understand my situation and allow me to succeed as best I can in bringing pride to the Filipino identity.”

In spite of many distractions away from the board, So managed to win some big events and even tested the waters in other areas.

He has just ended his rookie season as the top player of the Saint Louis Arch Bishops in the United States Chess League, and his team won its first national championship. He was undefeated on top board, scoring 9 wins and 2 draws, and ended a successful season in the first week of December as the league’s Most Valuable Player.

Looking back at all his other activities outside the confines of Webster University, one can say that So had been preparing for the life of a chess professional all along.

While he did not play for the Philippines in Tromso, he got to coach Team USA. And while in Tromso, he did interviews and live commentary on TV plus some networking with important people in the world of chess such as tournament organizers, business people and chess officials from different countries. One of the outcomes from these off-the-board activities was a deal to do annotations for Chess Informant.

“I feel all these are growing and learning experiences for me,” he said. “I immensely enjoyed doing them and I would love to continue doing all these things.”

He also said that “playing in clubs and leagues are always open for me…. The German Bundesliga is more complex as they play only a couple of games every two weeks. I might play in the French League again. At this stage, I’m looking at all possibilities.”

But for now, he is very intent on doing well at Tata Steel.

So has a long history with the Wijk aan Zee tournament

“I have several tournaments that are not yet confirmed. But I don’t want to look too far ahead. Right now I’m focusing on giving my best at Tata Steel. I am totally focused on that. Whatever comes after that, is after that.”

So is not a stranger to the rigours and the challenges, as well as the thrill, of competing at Wijk aan Zee. He has been there three times, competing first in Group C in 2009 as a 15-year-old GM. He finished first in that group, scoring 9.5 points in 13 games, one point clear of GM Tiger Hillarp Persson of Sweden and an even younger Anish Giri, then still a FIDE Master playing for Russia.

Group C of Corus Wijk aan Zee was not, of course, in the category of the Group A super-tournament. But it was a high-profile event for up-and-coming young talents from different countries and it was, up to that point, the biggest win of So’s young career.

(Later in 2009, So also made big waves at the World Cup in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, by beating Gadir Guseinov in the first round, Vassily Ivanchuk in the second, and Gata Kamsky in the third before bowing out of the knockout matches with a loss to Vladimir Malakhov.)

In 2010 he moved up to Group B at Wijk aan Zee but fell just a bit short of winning a slot for Group A the following year. In January 2014, he returned to the Netherlands and played in Group A of Tata Steel for the first time. He was, by that time, already a 2700+ player, a legitimate member of a cohort of young lions who were challenging the more established stars for their own place among the world’s chess elite.

When So returns to Wijk aan Zee in January, he certainly hopes that it will be the beginning of another successful year. It will be the first major tournament in his new life as a full-time professional and he will play under the U.S. flag for the first time.

From the time he learned the moves at age six, he was always looking to challenge bigger and older opponents in his neighbourhood. Eventually he traveled far and wide, meeting other prodigies from many countries at the World Youth Championships and the ASEAN Youth Championships. He even led the Philippines to third place in two consecutive Under-16 Olympiads, behind India and Hungary in Singapore in 2007, and behind India and Russia in Mersin, Turkey, in 2008.

Even though So is only 21, he had long ago moved up to the ranks of the world’s strongest grandmasters. His neighbourhood is now populated by the brightest chess stars in the world. In that small community of big boys, no one looms larger than the reigning world champion, Magnus Carlsen. So can hardly wait for the opportunity to test his mettle against the pride of Norway.

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 specialized practice in strategic planning, business development, business reengineering, and marketing strategy.

Reports about chess: tournaments, championships, portraits, interviews, World Championships, product launches and more.


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