Wesley So's Rise to Chess Fame
He became the Phillipines’ youngest grandmaster at age 14, and after moving to Minnesota in 2015 he rose to the No. 2 spot in the world. Will he become America’s first world champion since Bobby Fischer?
photos by JAMEY GUY
Last April in St. Louis, after nearly two weeks of grueling competition against the nation’s top players, Wesley So sat across a table from Alexander Onischuk, a veteran player almost two decades his senior, locked in a two-game tie-breaker for the title of U.S. Chess Champion. With little emotion showing on his boyish round face, So breezed to victory in the first game. By the middle of the second, though, Onischuk was two pawns up on So, and looked likely to force a decisive winner-takes-all finale. But with 18 seconds left on his playing clock, So initiated a flurry of moves that Onischuk was helpless to counter, and the championship was his.
Taking the U.S. title extended the 23-year-old Minnetonka resident’s unbeaten streak to a remarkable 67 games, a nine-month stretch that elevated So to the second-highest spot in the world chess rankings. During that time, he won major tournaments in England and the Netherlands, and played a pivotal role in putting the U.S. team at the top of the podium for the first time in 40 years at the biennial Chess Olympiad, the chess world’s equivalent of the Olympics, held last year in Azerbaijan.
The national title win also earned So a generous measure of personal redemption. At the same event in 2015, soon after switching federations from his native Philippines to the United States, So experienced what can only be described as a meltdown, culminating in his forfeiting of a game for a rules violation. He later attributed his poor performance, resulting in a third-place finish, to a surprise appearance from his estranged mother, Eleanor, who had moved to Canada with So’s father and sisters in 2010, leaving 16-year-old Wesley to live alone in an apartment in the Philippines.
The family tension had bubbled to the surface several months before the loss, after So decided to turn professional and left St. Louis’s Webster University, where he had been a chess scholarship student and a member of the nationally dominant chess team. Eleanor So, in an interview with a chess website, expressed her dissatisfaction with the decision, saying that Wesley had been given bad advice. Speaking out again after the incident at the national championship, she made it clear that the advice was coming from Lotis Key, her son’s “adopted” mother in Minnesota, who had accompanied him to the tournament—and who continues to travel with him to all of his tournaments, combining the roles of surrogate mother and pro bono manager (she uses the term “momager”).
In a meeting room at the Ridgedale Library in Minnetonka, where he used to occasionally meet with a local high-ranking chess player for training games, So talks about the odyssey that led him to Minnesota and to the highest echelons of his sport. Soft-spoken and self-deprecating, sometimes punctuating his comments with a disarming little laugh, So often defers to Lotis Key, who sits at his side and frequently speaks on his behalf. Key’s daughter, Abbey, who handles travel arrangements and drives for So since he does not have a license, sits at the end of the table, quietly working on her laptop.
“For the most part, I’m a pretty adaptable person,” says So, who spent the first 18 years of his life in the Philippines, and who, at age 14, became the youngest Filipino ever to earn the title of grandmaster (the highest status conferred by the game’s governing body). “The people and the culture are very different here. But Lotis has helped me adapt to that culture. I’ve been here for three years now, and I’m pretty much getting used to it. We do a lot of things outside of chess. We drive around Minnesota, and we’ve made friends with people from our church.”
Key, a former film star in the Philippines who moved to Minnesota many years ago with her husband, a Delta employee and an amateur chess player, says she and her family met So at a dinner party in Minnesota hosted by another local chess enthusiast, where they made an “immediate connection.”
“When we first met him he was planning to give up chess,” Key recounts. “He only came to the U.S. to try to change his life and maybe get a degree and get a job in something. He had not ever really felt any real support for him as a chess player.” Through their church, Key and her husband have informally fostered several children in need over the years and she became convinced that her family could give So what he needed to make the most of his abilities. “People say to me, you don’t play chess—how would you know? Well, you don’t have to be a horse to understand how to teach a horse how to run, or to race, or to jump. You just know there’s talent there, you know there’s potential. It needs some kind of support and encouragement.”
Key freely admits that she encouraged So to leave school and go pro. “I said ‘if you do, you can walk away from your scholarship and come live with us and we’ll help you get started,’” she recounts. “He thought about it, and decided that he wanted to try.” That So had just celebrated his 21st birthday by winning $100,000 at a chess tournament in Las
Vegas no doubt made his decision to take the leap a lot easier.
Although So’s unusual relationship with Key and her family has been the subject of much debate on internet chess forums, it would be hard to deny that So seems happy or that his career has thrived under the arrangement. And the fact that Minnesota is hardly a hotbed of top-level chess—So is the state’s only resident grandmaster—doesn’t appear to have held him back in any way.
In the rarified realm of elite chess players, So is an anomaly for being almost completely self-taught after he was introduced to the basics when he was seven. “I learned by reading books, and also reading newspapers,” he says. “In the Philippines they have a weekly column about chess, so I’d wait for that and look at the games.” Practically all players of his caliber have had the benefit of personal coaches from a relatively young age. It wasn’t until early this year that So finally hired a coach, engaging the services of Vladimir Tukmakov, a former Ukrainian champion who came up through the ranks of the formidable Soviet system. So hopes that through their online work together, using Skype, Tukmakov will help him fill in some of the gaps in his chess education. “I feel like it can only help,” he says, before adding with his characteristic humility: “I don’t completely follow everything he says. I just try to get the best out of it.”
So is also an anomaly among millenials. He doesn’t have a cell phone, and he doesn’t spend time on his computer surfing the internet. “I try to avoid it,” he says. “There are just too many websites and too many things to read that take up a lot of time.” When he’s not traveling for tournaments, he spends many hours a day studying chess. To relax, he prefers biking and swimming.
So may need to maintain that kind of intense focus if he’s to achieve his ultimate goal of becoming the first American world champion since Bobby Fischer. His next shot at the title, currently held by Magnus Carlsen of Norway, would be next year, though he first has to qualify for and win a candidates tournament that will determine who the challenger will be. Of course, nothing is guaranteed; in August, a poor showing at a tournament in St. Louis bumped him down to eighth place in the world rankings. But he has come back from losses before.
“I’ve only been a chess professional for a bit over two years now,” So says. “Different people blossom at different ages. Some of the players at the top have been playing since they were very young. They have a lot of support systems—they have their families and they have very experienced coaches. But I didn’t really get that until a late stage of my life. So I feel like, why not me?”