Wesley So became a chess Grandmaster (GM) at age 14. Now 21, he’s a three-time Philippine National Champion and one of the biggest names in the international chess world. When he’s not playing the greatest chess minds on the planet—and vying for even bigger titles—he makes his home in Minnetonka.
Though his Filipino biological family doesn’t play chess, So says he’s been gifted with a knack for it. “God just wired me this way. Patterns stick in my brain and I am intrigued by deep calculation and positional playing.” When So met actress and novelist Lotis Key and her family at a private dinner in Minnesota, they had an instant connection, and he eventually moved in with them when he decided to pursue professional chess full time in 2014.
“The care and feeding of the child genius is not for the faint hearted,” says Key, foster mother when So is in Minnesota. “He is an extraordinary boy, wonderfully funny and charming. Being an elite chess player is a pressure that takes a heavy toll both mentally and physically. It requires a tremendous outlay of time, energy and discipline.”
“Nothing is easy and time always seems to run short, but that’s why God created laptops, cell phones and airplanes,” says Key. “Although his schedule is pretty overwhelming, we make sure Wesley has a life outside the long hours of study, travel and competition.”
Says So, “Chess is a full-time occupation even when you’re not at the board. Stamina is crucial in chess because the mental calculation can go on for hours.” He says a game of professional chess can be even more physically demanding than basketball, so he has a strict workout schedule to stay in shape between matches.
So also trains with a number of elite international chess experts, including four-time U.S. Champion and international chess commentator GM Yasser Seirawan. They first met in 2008, when a mutual friend exclaimed that So was “the future of Philippine chess.” Years later, Seirawan was Resident GM at the Saint Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center, and So was an up-and- coming chess star studying at nearby Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri.
Says Seirawan, “In 2014, Wesley had a breakout year where he won basically everything in sight.” He says it was So’s victory in the 2014 Millionaire Open in Las Vegas—earning him $100,000—that cemented So’s decision to go pro. Having joined the U.S. Chess Federation in 2014, So is (as this issue goes to print) the highest ranked American player and in the top 10 internationally. He came in second, tied with others, to highest-ranked Magnus Carlsen at the world-renowned Tata Steel Chess Championship in Holland in January 2015, and will play in his first U.S. Championship this year.
Seirawan says that So needs “a clear focus on becoming world champion. The talent is there—no question. He has more than a chance—rather, a very big chance—to succeed beyond his wildest dreams.”
“So is a hidden gem,” says Riaz Khan, a Twin Cities chess enthusiast who first met So—Minnesota’s first-ever resident GM—when he was helping coordinate a local tournament. “The thing about chess,” says Kahn, “is that you’re exercising your mind. We have a pretty educated population in the Twin Cities, and very strong scholastic chess… and it’s probably the only sport where you can lose to a nine-year-old and not feel bad about it!” Kahn says players like So being involved with young players has increased the sport’s local popularity.
So what would So say to someone wanting to master the sport? “If you’re not going pro… just have fun with it. It’s a good workout for your brain,” he says. “If you want to get to the top, though, you’ll have to focus like a laser. And watch your clock!”
Want to give chess a try? Already a rated player looking for a local club? Chess Castle in Minneapolis features rated games several nights a week, plus tournaments on weekends. Annual memberships available; $3 Tuesday “casual nights” are great for getting your game on, commitment- and pressure-free. 1121 Jackson St. NE, Suite #134, Minneapolis