It all turns deadly after the first handshake.
Silence all throughout, bowed heads and downcast eyes, not out of dismay, but out of concentration. Every piece is essential, every move, crucial. Under scrutiny, each motion is analyzed, and what comes next is highly anticipated. There is no room for even the slightest error in this game, as miscalculation screams defeat. And defeat is one’s end game.
This is Wesley So’s environment. At 23, he is now the second best chess player in the world. Considered one of the youngest grandmasters on the planet, his position in the chess world proves that mastery and skillfulness lie not on age, but on dedication and ability.
In the Philippines, So started playing chess when he was 6 years old. With an incredible skill at such a young age, he was normally seen roaming around the community daring people to play with him.
“I started as a kid then kept working at it,” he told the Asian Journal.
He did work — real hard. At age 9, he acquired his very first major tournament victory in the 2003 Philippine National Chess Championships.
A win year after year
During the 2004 6th Asian Age-Group Chess Championship, So received gold medals for both standard and rapid chess under the individual category, and silver on the team category. He was also 13th place in the World Youth Chess Championship in Greece that same year.
In 2005, So won gold awards in standard, rapid, and blitz chess under the individual category at the 7th ASEAN Age-Group Chess Championship in Thailand. Aside from that, he also tied in first place at the World Youth Chess Championship in Greece. He also won ninth place in the 12th Nice Open International in France and was declared best among under — 12 players in Masters/ Challengers International Open Tournament in Singapore.
In 2006, he was awarded his first Grand Master (GM) norm, a title signifying a high level of performance in a chess tournament at the Offene Internationale Bayerische Schach Meisterschaft in Bad Wiessee, Germany.
The following year, So gained his second GM norm during the World Junior Chess Championship, later that year, he achieved his third in the 3rd Pichay Cup International Open in the Philippines.
So went on to became the youngest National Junior Open Chess Champion in 2007, wherein he was awarded with a gold medal on board one, at the World Under16 Team Championships.
Sacrifice, discipline and dedication
When he was 14, Federation Internationale des Echecs (FIDE) or World Chess Federation, the governing body for international chess competitions, labeled him Grandmaster, making him ninth youngest grandmaster in history and was then the strongest player in the world under 16.
“To be on this level is a full time commitment, (it’s) not an easy ride,” he said. Adding that sacrifice and discipline are two key factors in his conditioning, he explained that unlike majority of people his age, he rarely engages himself online. “I do not use social media and I stay off the internet,” he said. “I work every day on the board and have some form of physical exercise every day. I do not use social media and I stay off the internet. Time is very precious and I have a lot to learn. The wise use of time is critical to being the best you can be.”
The grandmaster also utilizes his schedule in the best way possible. “Time is very precious and I have a lot to learn. The wise use of time is critical to being the best you can be.”
In 2008, during the ASEAN Masters Chess Circuit Grandmaster Tournament in Indonesia, So won fourth place this was followed by a Battle of Grandmasters in his home country, the Philippines of the same year. He also went to UAE for the 10th Dubai Open Chess Championship and 2008 JAPFA Chess Festival wherein he both got first place.
Out of 73 players in the 2nd Philippine Open International Chess Championship, Wesley So was ranked 10. Also, he won second place in the 1st Subic Bay International Open Chess Championship.
Despite his titles and achievements, humility still stems out of the chess grandmaster as he described the love he has for the sport.
“They say this sort of work is not something you choose, it chooses you. I am grateful to be chosen,” he said. “It (chess) is my job and I am good at it and the people I work with treat me with respect. It is an arena I am comfortable in.”
During the 37th Chess Olympiad in Turin, Italy, So became the youngest Filipino International Master and the youngest member of the national men’s team.
So acquired a gold medal during the World Youth U-16 Chess Olympiad in the individual category, followed by a tie for second best in Vietnam’s 1st Dragon Capital Chess Open or also known as 1st ASEAN Grand Prix all in 2008.
Willpower and dedication strongly emanates from the Chinese-Filipino chess player. He frequently exercises calm and tranquility that even stress cannot tear down.
“I am not a person who gets stressed easily. It rarely happens to me. I think prepare well and get your work done and no reason for stress,” he shared.
In 2009, he won first place at the 71st Corus Chess in Netherlands wherein he was given the Beste Jone Talente award. He also won the Battle of Grandmasters in the Philippines and became the top junior winner for Aeroflot Open in Russia both in 2009 and 2010.
The following year, he won in NH Chess Tournament Rising Stars vs Experience and he acquired silver medal for the Team Philippines at the 16th Asian Games in China.
It was in 2011 when he was awarded with a gold medal during the 26th Southeast Asian Games by finishing undefeated with 9 points in the Blitz chess competition.
He was first place in Blitz chess and was undefeated in all 18 games during the 11th Asian Individual Open/ Blitz Chess Championships. He also became the 2012 champion in French League Top 12 also undefeated in 10 games.
He won first place in Canada for two separate meets: Quebec Open Chess Championship and Toronto International Chess Championship. He also ranked first place in SPICE Blitz 2012.
So had nine victories in 2013 alone. He was first place in the Reykjavik Open wherein he was the first player from the Philippines to ever participate and he was also the first player in the 67-year history of American Collegiate Chess to break the 2700 rating mark. From then on he was known as the no. 2 ranked junior chess player in the world.
Asked on how important the sport is to him, So described chess as something he holds dear. “It is my job. It has given me a present and a future. I feel God have given me a gift that I love and respect,” he said.
His other wins for the year include Final Four of College Chess and The Bill Wright Saint Louis Open both won also in 2014, Calgary International Chess Classic and Blitz Championship, Las Vegas International Chess Festival, 27th Summer Universiade, 2nd Noel Skelton Open, 17th Unive Chess Tournament Hoogeven and Pan American Intercollegiate Chess Championship.
In 2014, So won first place in the following tournaments: Capablanca Memorial, National Open Blitz Sectionals Las Vegas International Chess Festival, ACP Golden Classic, 3rd Noel Skelton Open, Millionaire Chess and North American Open.
22nd Bunratty Chess Festival, Cez Chess Trophy 4 Game Match, Bilbao Chess Masters were among the tournaments he won first place in during 2015.
Last year, he won The Sinquefield Cup, 42nd Chess Olympiad, London Chess Classic and Grand Chess Tour.
“I am close to challenging for the world championship. It brings me more support and I get better invitations to the biggest events. Plus you learn more when working with the top players and my ambition is always to expand my understanding,” he shared.
He also urges those who aspire to excel in the field of chess to dedicate themselves to the sport and commit wholeheartedly.
“If you love to work and study, this is the job for you. If you need more socialization, more hanging out, more party time, it is definitely not for you. Most importantly pray and ask God to guide your way.”
At present, So plays for the United States. He migrated for a better opportunity abroad and was absorbed by the chess team.
“If you are willing to work hard every door opens. They respect talent and hard work here. I have never felt discriminated against or disrespected,” he said.
He also mentioned that he had to make an effort in order to be a Filipino athlete in the U.S.
“I made an effort to learn what they want here and have already received so much in the way of encouragement and practical support and I am not even a U.S. citizen. I love to work hard here because there are rewards for your efforts,” he said.