During a training session at the Ridgedale Library, Wesley So briefly scanned a complex position set up for him on a chessboard.
Then he closed his eyes, bowed his head and pinched the bridge of his nose — a study in concentration.
On the table, the pieces remained frozen in place. In So’s head, they were in rapid motion — advancing, retreating, slicing along diagonals, landing wherever his calculations took them.
Seconds later, he looked up, reached for his queen and made his move.
So is a young, fast-rising grandmaster who recently claimed a place among the world’s elite players. Ranked No. 8, he’s one of two or three young stars being hailed as a possible world champion. Already, he has eclipsed some of the records of chess phenom Bobby Fischer.
A few months ago, the 21-year-old Filipino surprised chess experts by making another move — settling in Minnetonka, far from the world’s premier chess centers. He was drawn here by a special bond he developed with a local family, which has taken him in like a son.
So is an intriguing mix of genius and youthful innocence. At the chessboard, he wears a game face worthy of an assassin as he calculates impossibly long streams of potential moves and crushing counterattacks. Away from the board, he’s a fun-loving jokester who delights in teasing the members of his newly adopted family.
“He is absolutely remarkable in terms of how modest and down-to-earth and kind he is for someone of his caliber,” said Sean Nagle, the reigning Minnesota Chess Champion. “If we were to have one top-10 player settle here, we were lucky to get him.”
So’s journey to Minnesota has been complicated and controversial.
He arrived in the U.S. in 2012 to attend a powerhouse chess college, Webster University in suburban St. Louis. Coached and surrounded by fellow grandmasters at the college, he flourished, rising to a world No. 10 ranking.
Last year, So made two life-altering moves. After a protracted dispute with the Philippine Chess Federation, which So felt wasn’t giving him sufficient support, he won the right to switch to the U.S. Chess Federation. Now, he’ll play for the U.S. in international team competitions.
And after winning the $100,000 first prize at the inaugural Millionaire Chess Open in Las Vegas in October, So decided to leave college (“I’m taking a break,” he maintains) and devote himself to his chess career.
Both moves spurred furious online chatter, from critics and supporters alike. Was he making a mistake? Who was guiding him? So shot back with a Facebook posting in December: “I make my own decisions. Will I succeed? Will I fail? No one knows the answer to that. I decided I want to play chess professionally. That means taking certain risks. I’m willing to take them.”
One universal element in the online buzz was surprise that So chose Minnesota, which boasts several international masters, but no grandmasters.
What the social media speculators didn’t understand was that So had forged a deep connection with a Minnetonka family he met when he played in a tournament here in 2013.
Lotis Key and her husband, Renato Kabigting, an amateur chess enthusiast, are Filipinos who moved to Minnesota in the 1980s. They were invited to a private dinner party with So during his 2013 visit. The meeting proved pivotal.
“Wesley just dropped into our lives in the most surprising, unexpected way,” said Key, who starred in Asian films before coming to the United States. “None of us saw what was coming. … And it couldn’t be better. He’s the most charming, most delightful boy you’ve ever met, and he fits in very, very well with the family,” which includes daughter Abbey.
So now lives with them, calling Key and Kabigting his mother and father. Key, a novelist and freelance writer, essentially serves as So’s manager, making arrangements for him and traveling with him to tournaments all over the globe, leaving him time to focus on chess.
Speed and vision
The tumult of leaving the Philippine Chess Federation and college clearly has not distracted So. His performance at a prestigious tournament in the Netherlands in January was proof that his rapid rise is no fluke.
“Wesley So has shredded any doubt that anyone could possibly have about his strength,” Grandmaster Alejandro Ramirez wrote on the Chessbase website. “After having a meteoric ascent, including his victory in the Millionaire Open, many still claimed that he hadn’t had a real challenge with the ‘big boys.’ Well, here he is.”
So’s recent successes deliver on the promise he displayed as a child prodigy when, at age 14, he became the seventh-youngest grandmaster in history, younger even than Fischer. He followed that up by being the youngest ever to reach a chess rating of 2600.
“I always liked playing the game when I was young,” So said. “I was fascinated by it. I like how the pieces move.”
What makes So one of the world’s best is how quickly and accurately he’s able to grasp the essence of a position, according to Nagle.
“The raw speed at which he’s calculating things is very impressive,” said Nagle, a lawyer-turned-stay-at-home-dad and chess professional who coaches talented juniors. “He sees things quickly and he keeps all of it in his mind. As the position is changing, he’s not losing track.”
Nagle, of Plymouth, has been helping So train in their hours-long sessions at Ridgedale Library, but he’s been doing it as a colleague, not as a paid coach. In fact, So is essentially on his own.
While some of the other world’s elite arrive at the board wearing shirts or jackets embroidered with their corporate sponsor’s logo, So has no such financial help. Instead, he mostly depends on winning tournament prize funds.
Playing to win
So spends as many as 30 hours a week studying chess — roughly half on the computer and half at a board. When it’s study time, Key enforces a blackout rule — no phone calls, no checking NBA scores on the Internet, no interruptions. Distractions rob the mind of the ability to think in long stretches, Key reasons.
Besides studying chess, So exercises diligently. Chess tournaments, which can stretch over weeks, are grueling affairs. Despite the sedentary nature of the profession, most elite players try to build stamina. Since moving to Minnesota, So has learned to swim and now logs up to 2 miles in the pool most days.
His immediate goal — besides learning to drive a car — is to win the U.S. Chess Championship in April against a field that is one of the strongest ever for the national title.
Although So has set down roots in Minnetonka, glimpses of him may be fleeting. The life of an elite chess player is one of international travel. He’s already played in the Netherlands and Ireland this year and gave a lecture in San Francisco. In addition to several U.S. tournaments, his 2015 calendar includes competitions in Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic, Germany, Turkey and France.
So also plans to defend his title (“against the invaders,” he quips) at the second Millionaire Chess Open in Las Vegas in October.
“I like Las Vegas,” So said, laughing. “People are usually drunk. Makes them easier to beat. Just keep drinking.”
Long-term, of course, So has his eye on the world title. In the meantime, he’s eager to keep testing himself. “It’s good to play against great players because you have to beat the best to be the best.
“And it’s fun. As a popular chess player once said: ‘Chess is fun, but only if you keep winning.’ I try to keep winning.”