MINNETONKA, Minn. — This ruthless man is very tranquil. He falls asleep easily around the world in seats unsuited for sleeping. He giggles a child’s treble giggle when you don’t expect. He asks charming novice questions about baseball. He can speak measuredly at length or speak not at all, while sanguine with either. His capable wit emerges only on soft occasion. Chess people rave about his surpassing calm.
It seems the only place to avoid Wesley So would be the other side of a chessboard. There, he will take his tranquility and shred you with it. There, he seems to avoid grimacing, or sighing, or running his hands through his hair, or all the things people tend to do when presented with high ambition, time limits and the eternal 64-square puzzle.
So has risen, at 23, to No. 2 in the world, lodged behind only 26-year-old Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, who has been No. 1 for almost the whole 2010s. At the barbaric board, So has stormed into a realm found by only 11 other humans, a peak Elo rating of above 2800, a mastery of a game so bloody violent.
“Oh, it’s a violent game!” said Lotis Key, So’s adoptive mother, formerly a movie actress in the Philippines who immigrated to the United States in the 1980s. “Extremely. I say this game has an undercurrent of violence that is unsurpassed in any ball sport. It’s a very violent game, very aggressive . . . This is, once you start, someone’s got to die here. And on his level, even a draw is a small death, because he loses points when he draws. When you’re that high, drawing is like losing.”
In this savage pursuit, So, a calm native Filipino who plays under the U.S. chess federation — and credits the latter with enabling his upsurge — went unbeaten for 67 matches in a row in elite play from last July to this April. He won major events in St. Louis (August) and London (December) and the Netherlands (January), then won the U.S. championship in St. Louis in April. He won and won without bombast, even if his knight-takes-F2 move in a round in April in St. Louis did stoke rapture from all those people who know precisely why a knight-takes-F2 move could stoke rapture. With fellow bright lights Fabiano Caruana (No. 4 in the world) and Hikaru Nakamura (No. 9), So has helped make one hell of an American chess era while still not American just yet. He did all this while waking sometimes in his adoptive home here and getting going on his eight hours of chess study such that his adoptive mother tells him, “You should really wash your face first.”
“‘Oh, okay,’” Key quotes So’s usual response, as she sits across the cafe table from him at a library near Minneapolis.
His own voice sounds calming, soothing, something you might prefer on the radio if you wake in the wee hours, as when he says, “It’s my first time winning the U.S. championship, so I feel like I accomplished something, hopefully, because all the great local players starting in the early 1920s have won this tournament, and I’d never won it yet. So right now I’m, by rating, the number one player in the U.S., but I feel if I didn’t win the U.S. championship, it’s not validating my profession.”
With the profession further validated, they completed the post-tournament hubbub, made arrangements to depart St. Louis, got the taxi to the plane, stood in line, boarded, took off and only then, Key said, “He’ll turn to me, and say, ‘Oh my, I actually won it.’ We were on our way to Azerbaijan.”
Even among the chess-initiated, So’s calm stands out.
“There’s almost a seeming effortlessness to his ascent that’s a bit surprising to me,” said Daniel Lucas, the director of publications at the United States Chess Federation. “I think about Joe DiMaggio or Roger Federer who make what they do look easy, when what they’re doing is extraordinarily hard.”
“I wouldn’t say like a machine, but he is very precise, very precise, and I think that’s something unique about him,” said Alexander Onischuk, the American grandmaster from Ukraine who coaches the chess team at Texas Tech, and who opposed So in the U.S. final in April. “He doesn’t make big mistakes. He makes minor mistakes from time to time. We all do. But I’ve never seen him make a big mistake, a big blunder. That is very impressive. And look, all his results are very stable.”
“It always looks like he’s half playing the game and half thinking about a pleasant memory,” said Tony Rich, the executive director of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, the organizing body for the U.S. title event. Rich finds So “self-effacing,” and fancies a story of when So played a post-tournament exhibition last year against consensus best-player-ever Garry Kasparov, and Kasparov looked the more theatrical of the two. “He doesn’t try to play the flashy move just to make everyone happy,” Rich said. “He plays very concretely. He just seems to play the right move at the right time.”
Thus did Kasparov tweet last December, in congratulating So on the Grand Chess Tour win in London, “He showed great consistency and, bad news for opponents, he’s still improving.”
On Thursday, So and Key made off for Norway and then a binge of events in Europe. It’s plausible that over the Atlantic, he contorted himself into some posture that allowed for sleep, and slept. “Oh my gosh,” Key said. “When we’re on our way to church in the car — yeah, he can fall asleep anywhere, anytime, night or day, within seconds. And everybody starts laughing in the car” — that includes Key’s husband, Renato Kabigting, and their daughter, Abbey — “because we can see Wesley’s head. He’ll be talking and then the sudden …” She droops her head. “And we’re all like [whispering]. I always say he must have a good conscience somewhere in there, because he does not struggle with complete blackout.”
“Do you dream about chess?”
“Never,” he said.
After a brief discussion on sleep — he also does so in taxis, lounges, so on — it comes up that he’s No. 2 in a world of 7 billion.
“Well, not all of them play chess,” he deadpans.
Then: “Well, I never thought I would be number two. But now that I’m here, I want to try to be number one. I’m not entirely satisfied with number two. I mean, I’m very happy to get there, but I hope I can reach further.”
So has emerged from out of the chess way, with less of the formal chess training. A shy boy who took up the game in earnest around age 8 and would wake to study chess books and whatnot, he turned up as part of the Philippines team at the Chess Olympiad in Turin, Italy, in 2006, at age 12. By January 2012, when he prepared to venture to the United States to play for chess powerhouse Webster University in St. Louis, he held a world ranking of No. 98. He refers to that as low, revealing an elite athlete’s mind-set.
That mind-set seems to have taken itself into the pool at his adoptive family’s local gym. When So moved to Minnesota with Key’s and Kabigting’s family, he couldn’t swim, a reality odd to Key given a homeland of 7,107 islands. Now he swims nonstop for about a mile, they say.
“Backstroke, and also front-stroke,” he said charmingly.
“Ah, well,” he said, “chess is not just about playing. It’s other aspects. I have to improve my mental state. I have to be tougher, more confident, more comfortable playing the top guys. More experienced. Out of the top 10 or top 20 in the world, I have the least experience out of all of it. I’ve only been a chess professional for two-and-a-half years. . . . And I also need to improve my physical conditioning, because each game can last to anywhere up to six hours and each tournament usually has around 10 games, so that’s a lot of work, and the person with more energy in the last hour has a lot of advantage.”
Further: “And also, I need to improve my chess skills, too, my end game. And my middle game. Knowing when to take risks, knowing when not to take risks, and finding my own style. In chess, every player has their own style. Some people can be really aggressive, while others can be more calm. I think I tend to play more quietly, and I tend to play longer, like more solidly. I don’t just go out there and . . . ”
He trailed off there.
“I don’t really start the game with a bang,” he said earlier. “I don’t go for all-out complications at a very early stage of the game. I mean, some players just want to fight: You know, it’s either a win or a loss, it’s very unstable.”
Amid all of this hushed violence from city to city and country to country, Key has imposed a structure. “There is no partying, no drinking, no drugging, no smoking, no eating fast food, no Internet,” she said. “We don’t have a cellphone, either one of us. Our daughter has the cellphone. She’s the secretary. Everything is geared toward being the best you can be. Because I tell him there’s a short window in life where you can be the best you can be, and young people throw this away. So we created an atmosphere for him where he can focus on being the best he can be. It’s pretty disciplined.”
Into that frame, she aims to tuck real-life, non-chess excursions: chunks of time off, church, barbecues, museums, state fairs, hiking, canoeing, Asian restaurants, falafel restaurants, social events, and lately a Minnesota Twins game.
They went to the stadium. They posted their family photo on Facebook. So sat next to Kabigting, and asked questions about the rules. He showed a grasp of much of it on the car ride home.
“Well, it’s a really simple game,” he said.
“No, it’s not, for the rest of us,” Key said.
“I think chess is a hundred times harder,” So said.
“I think the hardest part about baseball,” he said, “is for when you’re a hitter, you know. You have to hit the ball very accurately. Also you have to be very powerful. And I suppose it takes years to master.”
Told that those who master it three times out of every 10 tend to wind up in the Hall of Fame, So said, “Because the thrower is extremely good, too, right?”
More dialogue about the throwers ensues, and then So has a question: “What happens if you hit the ball, and one of the defenders caught it? Is it a strike?”
“No, it’s an out.”
“So you don’t get the run,” he said. “So that’s hard, too.”
So is still a legal resident and not yet a U.S. citizen, even while playing under the U.S. federation. He travels with his Philippines passport, which requires a truckload of paperwork for the visa acquisitions.
It’s also presented at least one sour memory among Turkish police in the Istanbul airport, on a day when So didn’t quite have the proper visa to reach Azerbaijan. Key tells this story, tells how the police went to Google to see if their story of this young chess grandmaster held up, tells how at some point, she felt scared.
At this, So lets out a giant kid’s giggle.
“He is, naturally, the happiest boy I’ve ever met,” she said.
This happiness seems to fit in the vast chess woods and their ever-gathering severity. So sighs that computer programs “have really made the chess life much more difficult than it should be.” He laughs briefly, then continues: “Because there are millions of games online, which, and I, myself, I’ve played over a thousand chess games, so my opponents look at those and they look at my recent games and try to figure out the best possible way for him to try to outplay me.”
If things continue like this, it’s plausible that one of those opponents could be Carlsen, maybe sometime late next year, maybe in a challenge for the summit. That would be something, given that seven years ago, as Key and So tell it, Carlsen secretly invited a 16-year-old So to Spain to help Carlsen prepare him for an event. At that point, neither might have envisioned some rematch that would be so towering, but would figure to find Wesley So weathering the violence as if half-thinking about a pleasant memory.
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