The acquisition of Grandmaster Wesley So was the big news coming out of 2014. The Philippine-born prodigy and former Webster University star joined the U.S. Chess Federation after cracking the world’s top 10. But just a month into 2015, So is already setting new headlines -- the latest causing a literal stir on the top.
So donned stars-and-stripes for the first time at the prestigious Tata Steel Chess Tournament, which just wrapped up last Sunday, and he represented us quite well in the Wijk aan Zee, Holland, super-event. Only his second time appearing in a world-elite event, he proved his mettle on chess’ top layer by finishing in a tie for second place, just a half-point behind winner World Champion Magnus Carlsen.
So scored 8.5/13, notching five wins and suffering just one defeat -- ending a lossless streak of more than 50 games, his first zero since last year’s Tata Steel event. He also scored a draw against World No. 2 Fabiano Caruana, as well as Carlsen in his first-ever match against the World Champion, a total performance that padded another 17 points onto a worldwide rating that -- despite all types of excuse-makers and naysayers -- has only gone in one direction.
The jump has pushed So to yet another new peak, this time not only for himself but also for American chess. The World Chess Federation’s rating list will update on Feb. 1, and So will appear as 7th in the world -- though perhaps more newsworthy, leapfrogging GM Hikaru Nakamura as the No. 1 player from the U.S.
It will be the first time Nakamura has been relegated to America’s No. 2 slot since January 2013.
In fairness, Nakamura has sat idle thus far in 2015 and will get his fair-ups to reclaim those American bragging rights at the Gibraltar Chess Festival, which kicked off on “the Rock” on Tuesday. The event, one of the best open-to-anyone tournaments in the world, has pulled in 250 players in its Masters section alone, including 72 Grandmasters.
Nakamura still holds the World No. 9 spot, trailing So by only 9 points, and it is safe to expect a strong showing in Gibraltar: Nakamura should be the first to admit he has no interest in being No. 2; and an impressive performance to kick off his new year will at least quell arguments that his long-time American throne is up for grabs -- at least for now.
Nakamura has certainly proved his mettle against the test of time, spending enough years among the top ranks to eyeball a World Championship as serious consideration, but concerning should be the aforementioned steady direction of So’s rating: The new American frontrunner needs just 8 points to pass 2794 -- the highest rating Nakamura has ever reached.
The United States now boasts two top-10 players in the world and six in the top-100, including Gata Kamsky, Alex Onischuk, Sam Shankland and Webster University’s top board, Ray Robson.
Shankland finished clear third in Wijk aan Zee, scoring an impressive 9/13 in the Tata Steel Challengers section, which regularly features up-and-coming global strength. Also appearing as a Tata Challenger was 15-year-old Sam Sevian, who received his first invite to a world-class event on the heels of becoming the youngest-American Grandmaster in history after earning the title at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis last November.
Other Americans participating in this week’s stacked Gibraltar event are GMs Varuzhan Akobian, Aleksandr Lenderman, U.S. Women’s Champion Irina Krush and each of our last two U.S. Junior Champions, Daniel Naroditsky and Kayden Troff.
Brian Jerauld is the 2014 Chess Journalist of the Year, and the communications specialist for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. He is a 2001 graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism and has more than a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other ways to relax. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.