He arrives in the U.S. as a promising recruit from the Philippines, and in two years makes the jump from the top 100 to No. 10 in the world. He becomes an instant collegiate star, a freshman phenom who leads St. Louis’ powerhouse Webster University program to back-to-back national titles — and then plays the nation’s heartstrings by announcing that his promising future will be played under the red, white and blue for the burgeoning U.S. Chess Federation.
Indeed, Grandmaster Wesley So was the hottest name to come out of the U.S. Capital of Chess in 2014, a World University Champion on a two-time national champion team, voted last year’s Best College Athlete even before he blasted off into the next headline-grabbing stratosphere.
In October, So used everything but luck to take down the Millionaire Open in Las Vegas, winning its never-seen-before $100,000 top prize and taking his first big gulp of that delicious green wine. His follow-up was an undefeated run through a “rookie” season in the U.S. Chess League, an outstanding 8/9 performance against the nation’s best players to lead the Saint Louis Arch Bishops to their first championship in December.
And now, with national titles seemingly nothing more than swag collected any time he participates in an event, Wesley So has officially made the leap. Just before the turn of the new year, the 21-year-old announced that he was going pro in 2015 — then he returned to Vegas to celebrate his new business suit, stomping on the North American Open to bag an easy $10,000 in another undefeated effort.
The announcement came rife with all the controversy that a budding mind sport could want, exhibiting all the classic storylines of any athlete’s early declaration. Cue the standard well-wishing from his former coach, Susan Polgar at Webster, not speaking on his abrupt departure (just as the major collegiate tournament season hit full swing) and instead giving quotes mixed with the affirmation of his talents and the veiled concerns for his future.
Even Mama So played a role in the fray, less guarded than Polgar and publicly expressing concern on her son’s decision. Since chess doesn’t have any of the professional restrictions like traditional sports under the NCAA (that $100,000 check in Vegas last October did not affect his amateur status), So’s decision is less about “going pro” and more about simply dropping out of school. He left behind two-and-a-half years worth of a finance degree by not returning for Webster’s winter semester, and has since vacated the city completely, now working professionally out of Minnesota.
“No matter how good he is as a chess professional, it cannot replace education and a university degree,” said Leny So in an interview with Chessdom.com. “All of us encouraged him to stay in school. He has so much to learn. Unfortunately, there were poor advice given to Wesley, which is not to our liking. I have a negative feeling as a mother that this is a very huge mistake on Wesley. It hurts me terribly.”
Eeesh. If there was any worse vote of confidence behind such a huge decision, it came directly from So’s new stars-and-stripes teammate, currently standing next to him in the world rankings: Hikaru Nakamura, the World No. 9 who has spent years as the lone American ranked among the world’s top 10 — up until So’s sudden arrival.
Last weekend, Chess.com wasted no time in sparking the new American rivalry, pitting the two juggernauts together in the highest-rated episode of the site’s Death Match series — grueling, three-hour, online blitz matches that test speed, skill and endurance across three different time controls.
Nakamura did not leave much to the imagination, stomping right out of the gates with four wins in the first five games and holding So without a victory until game 10 — when Nakamura briefly disconnected in a winning position. The final score was 21.5-11.5, the third-largest margin in Death Match history, and a clear message that the top of American chess would not be shuffling any time soon.
All this drama, of course, serves as nothing more than a sideshow: So has made his professional decision, and only the future lies ahead. Where there was not much more than bragging rights on the line from his recent spat with Nakamura, So will get his first true test as a top-10 professional starting tomorrow. The 77th Tata Steel Chess Tournament, one of the most-prestigious events held in Wijk aan Zee, Holland, pits 14 of the world’s top grandmasters annually — including World Champion Magnus Carlsen and No. 2 Fabiano Caruana. It kicks off Friday, with So listed as the fifth seed.
Despite his lofty world ranking, to this point So earned much of his rating jump cashing in on small-pond wins from national Open events and other collegiate-level competition. Tata Steel will only be So’s second event playing against the world elite, his first time coming in last year’s installment of Tata Steel. He held his own there, scoring 6/11 and tying for fourth place. But this time around, it's different. This time it’s official.
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.