What is wrong with Wesley So?

by Frederic Friedel
4/11/2015 – It was incredible and mind numbing: the number eight player in the world rankings, Wesley So, won four games, drew one and incredibly lost three, one against a 14-year-old GM with the white pieces. Then in round nine he was forfeited for writing or having an encouraging note to himself below his scoresheet. Clearly the 21-year-old GM was in emotional distress. Here is some background.

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Controversial news around Wesley So

After a lot of rumours and blog postings a newspaper from Wesley So's town of residence, Minnetonka, Minnesota, where he currently lives with his foster parents, came out with the following explosive story, from which we excerpt the most important passages. [Correction: StarTribune is not a local newspaper from Minnetonka, but is published in Minneapolis, the largest city in the state of Minnesota. It is the seventeenth most read newspaper in the United States]. The technicalities of the forfeit of So in round nine of the US Championship 2015 – an appeal by Wesly So has just been rejected – will be the subject of an upcoming report.

The incident, which rocked the national championship competition, led [Wesley So] — and the Minnetonka family that has taken him in like a son — to reveal a tale of what the family called an ambush by his estranged mother on the eve of the tournament, an incident that created stress and distraction that threw him off his game. “There are personal problems in my family,” So said after the forfeit. “Trying to fix them during this tournament caused a lot of stress and tension. It diverted a lot of energy from the board when I should be focusing on my game.”

As the shock over the forfeit reverberated at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, the Minnetonka family that So lives with said it was time to explain publicly what has been behind his poor performance in the event.

Lotis Key and her husband, Renato Kabigting, took So, a 21-year-old Filipino, into their home last October after So decided to drop out of Webster University in suburban St. Louis, where he had a chess scholarship. He had just won the $100,000 first prize at the inaugural Millionaire Chess Open, and he wanted to pursue a chess career full time.

The decision to drop out did not sit well with So’s mother, with whom he’s had a difficult relationship since at least his midteens, when his parents and siblings moved from the Philippines to Canada. So stayed behind.

According to Key, So’s mother and aunt came to St. Louis and contacted So minutes after his arrival at a hotel. Key said they began, in strident encounters over the course of several days, to insist that he return to college or face losing complete contact with his family, including his sisters. At one point, So’s mother and aunt confronted him outside the chess club after his game, trying to grab his arm and yelling at him when he wouldn’t go with them to talk, according to Key and So. That led to an apology by So to the club for the scene, and a request that the mother and aunt be banned from the tournament site.

Key said So’s mother admitted to her that So’s former chess coach at Webster had a hand in her trip to St. Louis to confront her son, including reserving a hotel room for her. Key and So said the former coach, Paul Truong, was angry over losing one of the world’s top players from his team when So left Webster. “Wesley fell apart after that, knowing that his own biological family was working with his worst enemy,” Key said. “Paul will never forgive Wesley for leaving Webster.” Key said that “three adults conspired to destroy a kid.”

Truong acknowledged that he had e-mail contact with So’s mother about a month before the tournament in which “she asked me if she could come down.” He said he replied that the tournament was open to anyone to watch. But he denied reserving a room or otherwise engineering their trip, saying that Key’s allegations are “absolutely 100 percent false” and that Key is manufacturing excuses for So’s losses.

Read the full story on the StarTribune web site

Since he was explicitly mentioned in the above article – in previous blog postings it was generally "a certain gentleman" – we contacted Paul Truong, who is the husband of of the initiator of SPICE (the "Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence") which joined Webster University in suburban St. Louis in 2012. Paul sent us the following statement, which we have slightly abbreviated. The full version can be read on Paul's Facebook page. He also sent us pictures to support his version of events.

The current saga with Wesley So is very very sad. I wish that he can resolve it quietly and peacefully with his family. Unfortunately, I am now being used as an scapegoat. I am being attacked in the media by Mrs. Lotis Key (the woman who Wesley is living with right now in Minnesota) with false information for months. I have held my tongue until now because I did not want Wesley to get hurt. But unfortunately, the truth has to come out when I am now being directly attacked and mentioned in the media.

It is a blatantly false narrative that was purposely presented to the media by Mrs. Lotis Key that Wesley So decided to quit school and left Webster. She also claimed that because of this, I decided to sabotage his chess career out of revenge. It would make a good Hollywood story but this is 100% false. The idea about his Mother and Aunt were trying to get him to come back to Webster last week is also 100% not true because they knew the real reason. Wesley could not come back even if he wanted to. The reason is simple.

Wesley So did not quit school after winning Millionaire Chess to turn professional. Wesley So's SPICE chess scholarship was fully revoked on October 28, 2014 at 12:02 am for multiple team rule violations. He was informed and his biological family was copied on the email. The false narrative started in the first ChessBase article written by Mr. Eliseo [Tumbaga]. I did inform him that there was serious misinformation in the article. But I did not demand a retraction because I did not want to embarrass Wesley.

If I wanted to sabotage his career, why now? Why after Webster dominated the PanAm and Final Four without Wesley. And why not all these previous months? He played Las Vegas North American Open, Wijk aan Zee, and Bunratty, etc. without any incident.

Wesley was completely winning against Sevian and Robson. But in sharp positions, and especially in time pressure, mistakes are bound to happen. He offered a draw to Sevian but Sevian refused and played on to win. In the game against Holt, he was caught in an opening line which Holt previously prepared for the PanAm. And for his forfeit against Akobian, he was specifically told by us and his former Webster teammates at least a dozen times not to do it again. He ignored what we told him. The last time I saw him do this was during Millionaire Chess in October 2014. I immediately told him to stop it. GM Ramirez also saw him do it and commented on it yesterday. He was warned by Chief Arbiter Tony Rich twice during this US Championship. He also ignored those warnings. He knew full well that the 3rd time would result in a forfeit. I was not even at the venue. How am I responsible for this?

  • I also stated a few days ago, after Mr. Eliseo posted a false accusation from Mrs. Lotis Key, that
  • I did not book any hotel room for anyone, especially Wesley's relatives.
  • I did not pay for for any hotel room in cash or credit card.
  • I did not buy any airline tickets for anyone.
  • I did not arrange any trip for anyone. Neither did Webster or anyone I know.
  • I did not go to the St Louis Chess Club. In fact, I have not been to the St Louis Chess Club since March 2012.

Whoever said that I paid for these things to purposely harm Wesley is is either a liar or delusional. This is an issue between Wesley and his relatives, not mine. Leave me out of it. I want to have nothing to do with it. I went to work at Webster U every single day and all of us have more than our hands full preparing our three students competing at the US Championships. I do not have time for someone else's drama. All of the chess students and coaching staff at Webster U are sick and tired of all the drama. Enough already. Leave all of us alone.

I have no ill will toward Wesley, even today. We always treated him like family and we have gone out of our ways to help him on and off the chess board for 2.5 years. All of us feel sad and sorry for what he is going through right now and we all wish him the best.

Pictures sent to us by Paul Truong

Wesley and Elenanor (Leny) So, his biological mother, a day before the start of the 2015 US Championship

Leny, Wesley and Susan So Leonard, Wesley's aunt, in front of the
World Chess Hall of Fame in the Central West End, St. Louis ...

... and at the Opening Ceremony of the 2015 U.S. Championship, in the Saint Louis Art Museum

Leny So during the start of round one, watching her son playing (and beating) Daniel Naroditsky

Lotis Melisande Key is a former professional film and theater actress who starred in 85 major films in Asia. She is the currently Vice President of Minnesota Christian Writers Guild.

Lotis Key and Wesley So before the start of round eight

Lotis received the FAMAS Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress in 1973. She has worked with the likes of Ramon Zamora, Tony Ferrer (Kung Fu Master), Chiquito, Eddie Garcia, George Estregan and Dante Varona. She made about eleven movies with Comedy King Dolphy. In 1986, she moved to the U.S. and worked in industrial video, trade shows, TV commercials, theater, radio, narration and actress until 1999. She became a theater director and writer. She wrote and produced plays that traveled all over the US and Canada. From producing theater she moved on to writing and apart from numerous magazine and newspaper articles has published two literary novels: The Song of the Tree and A Thing Devoted.

Information above: Wikipedia, Images: Google + Lotis Key's web site

Lotis has told us that that when Wesley is stressed he writes himself notes on what to do – wash your hair, eat more fruit, exercise. "I find them in odd places all over the house," she said. "He had been warned not to scribble on the score sheet so he scribbled it on another paper."

Wesley So, born on October 9, 1993 in Bacoor, Cavite, to William and Eleanor So, became the youngest Filipino International Master in history, at the age of 12 years and 10 months. He achieved his GM title at the age of 14 years, 1 month and 28 days, making him the ninth youngest chess grandmaster in history. In October 2008, So was rated 2610 and thus became the youngest player ever in the history of the game to cross the 2600 Elo barrier, breaking the record previously held by Magnus Carlsen.

Ten youngest grandmasters in history

 Sergey Karjakin
 Parimarjan Negi
 Magnus Carlsen
 Wei Yi
 Bu Xiangzhi
 Richard Rapport
 Teimour Radjabov
 Ruslan Ponomariov 
 Wesley So
 Etienne Bacrot

As of April 2015, Wesley is number eight in the world rankings, with a 2788 rating

In August 2012, Wesley began full-time study at Webster University in St. Louis under the SPICE program, founded by former women's world champion Susan Polgar. After a string of successes he won the Millionaire Chess Tournament held in Las Vegas in October 2014 scoring 8.5/13, transferred to the United States Chess Federation in November 2014 and soon after left Webster University to focus full time on chess. He moved to Minnetonka, Minnesota, to live with foster parents. He shared second place at the Tata Steel Masters in January 2015.

ChessBase recent portrait articles on Wesley So

  • 12/20/2014 – Wesley So shooting for the stars (1/2)
    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.

  • 12/22/2014 – Wesley So shooting for the stars (2/2)
    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.

  • 2/26/2015 – Wesley So: Life at the top (1/2)
    Wesley So has always been a great talent, now he is seen as potential challenger for the World title. In the last two years the 21-year old has won 106 rating points and is currently number 7 in the world. In an extensive report Eliseo Tumbaga writes about So's new life at the top, the rivalry with Hikaru Nakamura, and the prospects of challenging Magnus Carlsen.

  • 3/3/2015 – Wesley So: Life at the top (2/2)
    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.

Addendum: The title of this article "What's wrong with Wesley So" does not translate to the denigrating "what is he doing wrong", but was used with a sense of concern, as in what is going wrong for him, why is he in turmoil, why is he struggling? It is a normal sports idiom, as in "What Is Wrong With Rick Nash" ("Rick Nash has struggled to produce points in the last month. What factors are contributing to that, and will things turn around for him?"), or "What is Wrong with the Boston Bruins?" ("Coming into the 2014-15 season, many questions surrounded the Boston Bruins and how they would respond after losing to their rivals, the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference semifinals.") – just two headlines from recent sports news.

On a personal note: I met Wesley So in Wijk aan Zee in January 2009. I was having breakfast with Anish Giri, who had just completed his final GM norm (the report with really cute pictures of the fourteen-year-old is here). On the next table was a 15-year-old Filipino whom Anish kept joking with. I got into a fairly intense conversation with the lad, who was struggling to express himself. In the end he said something like: "Can we continue this discussion when I have learnt more English?" Utterly charming – turned me into an instant fan. Incidentally Anish is currently number seven in the world, just two points ahead of Wesley. I am proud to count both as my friends.

Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.


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