What is the secret of Wesley So's success? An interview

by Satanick Mukhuty
2/16/2021 – On Sunday, February 14, Wesley So added another tournament victory to the long list of his successes: he won the Opera Euro Online Tournament by beating Magnus Carlsen in the final. Which So also managed to do in the Skilling Open and in the final of the World Championship in Fischerrandom. But why is Wesley So so successful and how does he manage to beat Carlsen again and again? In an interview with Wesley So Sagar Shah and Amruta Mokal tried to find out!

Master Class Vol.8: Magnus Carlsen Master Class Vol.8: Magnus Carlsen

Scarcely any world champion has managed to captivate chess lovers to the extent Carlsen has. The enormously talented Norwegian hasn't been systematically trained within the structures of a major chess-playing nation such as Russia, the Ukraine or China.


Why is So so dangerous to Magnus Carlsen?

Wesley So is probably the man who poses the most formidable threat to Magnus Carlsen's throne in the world of chess today. Yet, surprisingly, one hardly suspects that to be the case, when one listens to this 27-year-old Filipino-American champion speak. From his refreshingly unassuming mannerisms and happy demeanor, there's no way one can guess that he is the current World Champion of Fischer Random Chess, a two-time US Champion, and above all, the man who rattles Magnus's domineering presence at the top on a consistent basis.

Who can ever forget his massive 13.5-2.5 victory over Carlsen at the first official World Fischer Random Chess Championship in 2019? Not long ago he also beat the Norwegian at the finals of the Skilling Open, and yet again here he is, taming the best chess player on the planet - this time at the Opera Euro Online Rapid. Does Wesley have Magnus's number? Sagar and Amruta try to find out!

Wesley So, the champion of the Open Euro online Rapid, visited ChessBase India's Live Commentary Stream after winning the Opera Euro Rapid Tournament. Sagar Shah and Amruta Mokal caught up with the Grandmaster, spoke to him about everything from chess preparation to playing online internet games, and really attempted to understand the secret of no secrets of this gentle genius. Following is the transcript of the revealing conversation.

Sagar Shah (SS): Congratulations Wesley on winning the tournament! People who have been following this event closely have only one question in mind: how does Wesley So do it?

Wesley So (WS): Hi Sagar and hello Amruta! Yes, I am very happy with this victory. It is totally pleasing and unexpected!

SS: Well, I wouldn't say totally unexpected. After you beat him in the Skilling Open and the Fischer Random event before that, this result was definitely on the cards. How are you able to beat Magnus so consistently?

WS: (Laughs) I don't know. I just wait for Magnus to not be himself. He is usually very confident, plays fast, but in this tournament he hasn't really shown that! He managed to get good positions but was always behind in clock. For instance, in the last game, now that I am checking it, I was objectively lost.

SS: Yes, by the way, did you spot this move Kh1 (diagram below) that we were commentating on and thought was really unbelievable?

WS: Yes, actually Kh1 was winning but I didn't see that during the game. I thought my position was bad anyway so if I didn't play a5-a4 it would already be quite difficult for me. My idea was simply to exchange bishops with 23.Bc2 Bg6 after which also Black is probably losing, but I just didn't see a better way.


In the final game Wesley was playing with the black pieces and he pushed a5-a4 on the 22nd move, here Magnus could have tipped the scales in his favor with the subtle 23.Kh1. The point is that if now 23...axb3 is played then White is able to pierce through to Black's king with 24.Rg1+. Take note, here 24...Kh8 is met with 25.e6! which decisively threatens Be5, and 24...Bg6 is taken care of by 25.Rxg6! fxg6 26.Qxg6+ etc. which forces mate in a few moves.

SS: Yeah, but I think later the star move for you turned out to be this Qh6 which is sort of the only move to hold everything together. Did you find this easily?

WS: Yes, I think the star move was f6 because he clearly missed it. Qh6 was necessary because otherwise he would have won a piece. Probably he expected Kh8 in that position after f6, but there he can go f5 and after that if Bxf5 then Rh5 pins the queen!


After 28.f4 some precision was called for as Wesley's queen was en prise and his bishop too was pinned on the g-file. The current Fischer Random World Champion didn't disappoint and promptly played 28...Qh6, the only correct move in the position, and after that 29.Rg5 f6! came like the icing on the cake that helped him even things out with ease. Bear in mind, any other move would have allowed 30.f5 with potentially dangerous consequences, and 29...f5 30.Bf3 Kh8 31.Rag1 etc. too would not have been particularly desirable for Black.

SS: Wonderful! so here you found f6 and that helped you win the match. In fact, today seemed relatively smooth for you with three draws and one win. But yesterday, Wesley, you played this unbelievably complex game but finally you lost it. It was this Ng5 variation of the two knight's defence. What really happened? Did you forget your Bc4 preparation?

WS: No, the funny thing is I just didn't analyse Qxd4! (Laughs)

SS: You probably also have a course on this line, and you recommend this line in it, right?

WS: Yes, I have a course on the Ng5 variation. I mean it's quite complex but at the same time if you want to gain any advantage in this opening then you have to go for something concrete. I mean, you can play d3 but there are a lot of lines there, so I recommend this Ng5 and Bd3 stuff in my course. I had analysed this probably all the way till b5 and there the engine gives cxb5 as the only equalizing move, and Qxd4 is two point something in White's favour. So I didn't analyse Qxd4 at all.


Wesley himself recommends playing 4.Ng5 against the Two knight's defence in his course. Even though it leads to a lot of complications, he feels it's the only way to gain advantage against Black.


It was funny therefore to see him slightly unsure about this variation. He knew it all the way up to 21.b5, and here actually Black must play 21...cxb5 to equalize. The move he played and which he hadn't analysed at home was 21...Qxd4, this according to the engine gives White a considerable advantage. "It loses to Bc4 by force," says Wesley.


The point, as he explains, is that after 22.Bc4 Qxc3 23.Nxc3 Re8 White can simply go 24.a4 and shockingly he is only up two pawns but is already completely winning with Ba3 coming up and all Black's pieces are jammed in.

SS: But you know Wesley, the way you recovered after you lost this game was something truly special. You drew the very next game and won the one after that. How did you do it? Magnus was in a similar situation today and he was desperately vying for a win with black, you on the other hand handled it very calmly, played solidly with the black pieces and pushed for win only in the next game with White thereafter.

WS: Yes, of course with Black you usually want to play solid. But I think he was already pushing me in the second game yesterday. In the third game with the white pieces I actually decided to play for win.

SS: And today were you shocked when Magnus took Bxh4? 

WS: I almost fell off my chair (Laughs). I thought may be he was playing bughouse or something! In fact, this decision also affected his third game where he avoided taking Bxh3.

The moment when the World Champion unexpectedly sacrificed his bishop | Photo: chess24 live stream

SS: You rightly point out that Bxh4 not only led to his loss in game 1 but also affected his game 3 where, on any other day, he would have surely continued with Bxh3. Tell us, what response did you have in store for this?


Magnus hesitated continuing with Bxh3 in the third game of second set which potentially could have made things harder for Wesley. The World no.1 was uncharacteristically unsure of himself at this point because only a while ago he had lost his first game owing to a similar bishop sacrifice.

WS: I am not sure what happens after 16...Bxh3. After 17.gxh3 Qxh3 18.Bxf4 Nxf4 19.Ne3 Re8, I guess I can at least make a draw with Ng5-Qh4-Nf3. Also I had Bc4 in mind with the idea of Bf1 next.

SS: (On being pointed out by Amruta) Didn't he miss Nxg2 at some point too?

WS: Yes after 18.Qxd4. Here I thought I was losing. After 18.Qxd4 Nxg2 it's important to note that White can't take on e6 because Black has 19...Nxe1 (and fork on f3), so you go 19.Kxg2 Bxh3+ 20.Kh2 and here I couldn't find a win for Black but obviously there's something.


18...Nxg2 was a dangerous possibility that once again Magnus overlooked. Sagar pointed out adding to Wesley's analysis above that after 19.Kxg2 Bxh3+ 20.Kh2 Nh4 21.Bd1, the move Bg2 would have been absolutely decisive.

SS: So Wesley, it was a brilliant victory. Last time when you won you had a grand dinner at your place if you remember. Today is Valentine's day, any celebration plans for today?

WS: Yes, actually Lotis (Wesley's adoptive mother) is here, she is cooking. She made Siopao which is a Filipino-Chinese dish, also there are sausages. We usually do movie nights during the weekends, so today we will watch some shows and also tomorrow. It's actually extremely cold here in Minnesota. Can you guess the temperature here?

SS: Is it minus 10 degree Celsius?

WS: Oh no! it's negative thirty-eight!

SS: Oh my god! What happens then when you step outside your home?

WS: Well, I immediately run back in! (all laughing). 

You can't really go outside without a thick jacket on. So we will stay inside watch some movies and try not to do chess, because these last few days have been quite stressful.

Wesley also gives a glimpse of the snow outside his house to Amruta and Sagar!

SS: Yes, I think these tournaments take so much from you. But in this tournament, we have been saying this throughout, in terms of accuracy you have been second to none. You even beat Radjabov who was going really solid in this event, so just want to ask you what's the secret of performing so well in these online events?

WS: Of course you need a bit of luck. The outcome always depends on how your opponent plays. Before the event I did some serious preparation also. A week of opening preparation, studying my opponent's games, studying games from the Tata Steel event. I also played online games in various websites and then just a few days before the event I tended to relax more and that seemed to work out well. As a player, I always say, you just want to play good chess and not think of the results too much. It's hard to say what exactly works. Normally, the explanation is you need discipline and preparation.

SS: When it comes to discipline and preparation Wesley So is definitely the epitome of that. Tremendous dedication and focus. But Wesley, we are still waiting for the "Among Us" stream that you had promised earlier. Everyone was shocked to hear that you would play Among Us, but then it never happened, right?

WS: Yes, we should do it. Do you have it installed on your computer?

SS: I would definitely install it if you are going to play. The thing is I have never played it, Anish Giri too hasn't played it. Vidit of course plays it regularly. But if you're going to do it, I will definitely do it.

WS: I actually also have a Steam account!

SS: Oh you also have a Steam account. Well then we will definitely do it if you're planning to play.

WS: Yes, actually I was waiting for your email related to it! (smiles)

Amruta Mokal (AM): Everyone in the chat is saying "R a yaar ye kitna humble hai!" They are sending hearts and are really pleased by you.

WS: Well, I am not the World Champion yet, okay Fischer Random Champion maybe, but there are still players out there who are stronger than I am.

SS: Well, I am sure your humility wouldn't change even if you became the World Champion one day!

AM: You said two weeks you really prepared hard. How was your routine exactly? What did you do for your physical fitness?

WS: After the pandemic hit I lost motivation and didn't work much, but now as many online events are popping up I am getting into shape. I have been working quite a bit - at least four to five hours per day looking at opponent's games, trying to understand what they are up to. Also my work with Chessable helped me. In terms of physical fitness it's difficult to do much if the temperature outside is minus thirty-eight degrees, but I do swim regularly, there's an indoor pool nearby.

AM: And finally before leaving which movies are you watching currently. Is there a plan?

SS: Actually, we are watching a great British television show called All Creatures Great And Small. You too should check it out.

On special request from the chat Wesley also showed his cat before leaving. Check out the full video below!

Humble Wesley So on how he beat Magnus Carlsen and won the Opera Euro Rapid!



Satanick Mukhuty has a background in Mathematics. He is an avid enthusiast of composition chess and is sincerely committed to promoting it around the world. He works for ChessBase India.


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