Zamudio: So intriguing life of GM Wesley So

SUPER Grandmaster Wesley So’s story is not unlike those of other Filipinos who left their homeland to pursue a better life elsewhere. His journey so far, and the possibility of achieving the pinnacle of world fame in chess, however, make it intriguing and has the eerie makings of a great success drama with a tragic ending.

Origin and childhood

Wesley So was born in 1993 in Bacoor, Cavite toWilliam and Eleanor So. His childhood was distinguished by numerous triumphs and awards in local board clashes and abroad since he started competing in junior tournaments at the age of nine. He became the youngest Filipino grandmaster in December 2007 at the age of 14 and the seventh youngest in the world to have garnered the norm at that time. In October 2008 he became the youngest to have achieved an Elo rating of 2600, breaking the record of current World Chess Champion and top ranked chess player Magnus Carlsen of Norway. Though the record has since been broken by American John Burke, the feat illustrates So’s early prodigious wood pushing talents. He won the Philippine Chess Championship three times.

After performing consistently in many high category tourneys and improving his Elo ranking, invites to more prestigious contests participated in by top players flooded So’s schedule. It culminated in his capture of the US Chess Championship in April this year. In November 2015 he won the Bilbao Chess Masters Final tournament and in August 2016 he finished first in the Sinquefield Classic ahead of strong competitors that included former world champion Viswanathan Anand. He also dominated the London Chess Classic in December 2016 and in January 2017 he won the Tata Steel Masters ahead of the world number one by a full point. So is currently ranked number two in the world with an Elo of 2807 just a shade behind Carlsen’s 2831. As of this writing, So, at 23, is the youngest of only four players with Elo above 2800.

Move to the US

In 2012, So’s parents immigrated to Canada leaving him in the country of his birth at an age when he was no longer a child but not yet a man in the midst of a flourishing chess career. Many suggest that this feeling of being abandoned is the source of the resentment that the young genius feels towards his parents which could have certain destructive consequences on his game. In the same year, he accepted a scholarship to Webster University where it was understood that he will enroll in economics and finance while being part of the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (Spice). The institute was founded and is managed by many times women’s world chess champion Susan Polgar together with her husband Paul Truong.

Disagreements with the National Chess Federation of the Philippines (NCFP) prompted So, on the advice of his coach Paul Truong, to request for release to transfer to the US Chess Federation. He cited the lack of a viable training system in the Philippines and the difficulty of juggling his studies and commitment to the country in international competitions. He reasoned that the shift to the US will give him the opportunity to join world class tournaments that would accelerate his growth as a chess player towards ultimately challenging for the world championship. Some of So’s fellow countrymen labeled his move unpatriotic, but most experts including Asia’s first grandmaster Eugene Torre agree that better competition and training abroad will help him in the long run. In November 2014 he was officially rated in the FIDE rankings under the American flag.

Adoptive family

Living by himself in the US where the way of life is vastly different from the one he knew in the Philippines So must have felt lonely that he longed for emotional support. He found the comfort he so desperately needed from a most unexpected source. While participating in a tournament in Minneapolis he met Abbey who is the daughter of Lotis Key, erstwhile starlet in the Philippines who is married to Renato “Bambi” Kabigting, a former professional basketball player. The family took in So in their home in Minnetonka, Minnesota after he quit Webster University to devote his full energy as a professional chess player with his eye on the chance to vie for the ultimate prize in the 64-square board combat.

Like all parents, especially Filipinos, So’s decision to forego his college education in exchange for a full-time chess career, which is considered financially unstable, did not sit well with his mother. During the 2015 US Chess Championship, So forfeited a winning game for writing notes to himself in the middle of the match despite repeated warnings that it is against the rules.

It was later revealed that So was stressed because his mother and aunt appeared at the venue on the eve of the contest to demand he came back to school. The confrontation turned ugly when his relatives grabbed his arm to force him to speak with them but he refused. Apparently, the chess master’s testy relationship with his biological family had hit rock bottom. The incident prompted So to request the organizers of the Championship to ban the ladies from the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis to whom he later issued an apology for the disturbance.

Key denounced Truong for instigating the trip of Eleanor that caused the embarrassing forfeit making the headlines in chess news. Truong denied the allegation that he facilitated the flight and hotel room of the two ladies to get back at So for exiting Webster and SPICE.

The Bobby Fischer kinship

The parallelism of Wesley So’s chess career and personal life to that of Robert James Fischer, the American overachiever who many consider as the best player that ever lived, is creepy. Both produced amazing results in their craft at a very young age. They did not pursue higher traditional education to devote all their energy to chess and for slightly different reasons (except for having been left alone in their teens) Fischer was estranged from his parents as Wesley is from his.

Both geniuses credit their faith for their success in chess, Fischer with the Worldwide Church of God and Wesley as a Christian. Fischer was US Chess Champion eight times and was world champion in 1972 after beating Boris Spassky of the former USSR in Iceland. Wesley was Philippine Chess Champion three times, 2017 US Chess Champion, and has his sight on the world championship. After leading a reclusive and erratic life running afoul of US laws, Fischer died in 2008 at the age of 64. A few writers claimed that Fischer had mental health issues as his ranting and behavior against the US government and Semitism, despite his Jewish roots, grew worse as his health deteriorated.

But the most mysterious coincidence in the lives of the two men is the Lotis Key connection. She is well known to most Filipinos as the former reel and real love interest of the late Dolphy, Philippine cinema’s comedy king. She is a devout Christian, theater producer, and author who is Wesley So’s adopted mother and confidant. In a recent interview with ChessDom, she claimed that Bobby Fischer used to live in her older sister’s house in Pasadena, California.

It was confirmed that Fischer indeed spent time in Pasadena and was known to have not invested the money he won in Reykjavík against Spassky. Many suspect a good portion of his fortune was “donated” to his church.

Can Wesley So’s ties to Bobby Fischer by way of Lotis Key help bring him the coveted World Chess Championship? Will the turmoil and chaos of Fischer’s relatively short existence be replicated in the life of Wesley?

Only time can tell if the answer is yes. At the moment, it is enough for Filipinos to relish the sight of Wesley So receiving his trophy when he wins in chess tournaments as an American clad in barong tagalog.


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