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General Oct 16, 2021 | 4:51 PMby Jabe Esguerra

The resilience of Wesley So: 2-time US Chess Champion

With three rounds of the 2021 US Chess Championship to go, Wesley So co-leads with Alex Lenderman and Sam Sevian, making him the clear favourite to clinch a 3rd title. In a look back on his career so far, Jabe Esguerra focuses on "resilience" as the characteristic that's seen Wesley emerge from humble beginnings to reach the top of world chess.

Wesley So is looking to defend his title and clinch a 3rd US Chess Championship | photo: Lennart Ootes

Resilience is the ability to stand strong against adversity and bounce back from stressful or tragic life events... and it's a trademark of two-time US Chess Champion Wesley So.

Wesley has been ranked number two in the world and is a mainstay in the top ten... while his peak rating of 2822 makes him the fifth highest rated player in chess history.

Money — often a source of concern for the average chess professional — isn't likely to keep Wesley sleepless at night.

This year alone, he took home $242,500 after winning the 2021 Grand Chess Tour... earned $184,714.43 from the 2021 Meltwater Champions Chess Tour... and may very well have received a six-figure paycheck for his interactive opening repertoires.

But perhaps the best part: Wesley lives with a supportive foster family, who spare no effort in giving him everything he needs to play his best chess. 

Looking at the brightest spots of his career, one may get the impression that Wesley has everything figured out. But who would have thought that Wesley's dreams of becoming a chess professional were on the brink of collapse on more than one occasion?

Let's take a look back at the life of Wesley So, and reminisce at how this young man overcame the odds stacked against him to become the super grandmaster he is today.

Home Alone... but no comedy

In Home Alone, Kevin McCallister — played by a 10-year-old Macaulay Culkin — was overlooked and accidentally left behind by confused family and friends when they left for Paris. It was the perfect set-up for nearly two hours of slapstick comedy.

In 2009, at age 16, Wesley found himself in a similar situation, except this one was no laughing matter.

It seems no-one else in Wesley's family understood his potential in chess.

It didn't matter that he was already a Top 100 player and a 2600 Elo grandmaster. It didn't matter that he had scored top-three finishes in the 71st Corus Chess Tournament... Phoenix Petroleum & Dapitan City Battle of GMs... and the Zonal Men's Championship of 2009.

Wesley was determined to pursue professional chess full time, but his mother was bent on making an accountant out of him.

At odds with each other, they parted ways in the same year.

The rest of the family moved to Canada. Meanwhile, Wesley had to squat in a Manila apartment owned by the Philippine Chess Federation... so he could keep pursuing his dream of going pro. It wouldn't have been half as bad if the apartment had electricity most of the time. But alas, it didn't.

Wesley endured the less-than-ideal conditions for years, drifting from one tournament to another, until he got the opportunity to move to the United States.

Empty-handed gold medalist

From the moment Wesley entered the Top 100 list, his status as a championship-caliber grandmaster was never in doubt, but for years he had no clear plan for taking things to the next level.

Things took a turn for the better when, in 2012, Wesley got a scholarship offer from Webster University. In exchange, he carried the Webster banner in tournaments and helped the university build a chess program.

In August of the same year, Wesley arrived at his new apartment in Webster, which he shared with fellow U.S. Grandmaster Ray Robson. There, he was guided by Woman's World Chess Champion Susan Polgar and her SPICE program... helping catapult Wesley from Top 100 to Top 10 in the world.

Wesley's two-and-a-half year stay at Webster University was extremely productive, to say the least. 

He won the 2012 Toronto International Chess Championship...the 2012 Quebec Invitational Championship... the 2013 Reykjavik Open... and the 2014 Capablanca Memorial to name just a few.

But perhaps his most memorable tournament win during the period — and not always for the right reasons — was winning the gold medal in the 27th Summer Universiade. The Armageddon tie-breaker saw Wesley grind down Armenian GM Zaven Andriasian in a 51-mover. 

Here's the game:

1. ♘f3 c5 2. g3 ♘c6 3. ♗g2 g6 4. d3 ♗g7 5. O-O e5 6. e4 ♘ge7 7. h4 h6 8. ♗e3 d6 9. ♕d2 ♗e6 10. ♘c3 ♕d7 11. a3 ♗h3 12. ♘h2 ♗xg2 13. ♔xg2 f5 14. b4 ♘d4 15. ♘d5 ♘xd5 16. exd5 ♕f7 17. bxc5 ♕xd5+ 18. ♔g1 dxc5 19. ♖ab1 O-O-O 20. ♗xd4 exd4 21. ♕a5 ♔b8 22. ♖b5 ♖c8 23. ♖fb1 ♖c7 24. ♘f1 f4 25. gxf4 g5 26. fxg5 hxg5 27. h5 ♗e5 28. ♕a4 b6 29. ♘d2 ♗h2+ 30. ♔xh2 ♖xh5+ 31. ♔g3 ♕e6 32. ♖xb6+ axb6 33. ♖xb6+ ♕xb6 34. ♕e8+ ♔b7 35. ♕xh5 ♕d6+ 36. ♔g2 ♕d5+ 37. ♘e4 c4 38. ♕f3 cxd3 39. cxd3 ♔b6 40. ♕f8 ♔a7 41. a4 g4 42. ♕f4 ♖h7 43. ♕d2 ♕h5 44. ♘g3 ♕d5+ 45. ♔g1 ♖b7 46. ♕h6 ♖b1+ 47. ♔h2 ♖b7 48. ♘e4 ♕e5+ 49. ♔g2 ♕f5 50. ♕d2 ♕f3+ 51. ♔g1 ♖b1+  0-1

Winning the tournament was sweet.

But being rejected and deprived of the promised reward? Not so much.

Here's the problem:

When Wesley topped the 27th Summer Universiade in 2013, he was still playing under the flag of the Philippines. And under the Athletes and Coaches Incentives Law, he was entitled to a P1-million prize (about $19,800  today) for bringing honor and recognition to the country.

It sure sounds good on paper, but Wesley received not a cent... because politics.

Both the Philippine Chess Federation (PCF) and Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) pointed fingers at each other over the fiasco.

In the end, the latter denied Wesley the prize because the Universiade isn't among the international events where gold medalists were guaranteed the P1-million incentive.

This was the straw that broke the camel's proverbial back. Just a little more than a year after the disaster, Wesley switched federations and took up the United States flag.

Wesley would go on to win gold for the USA in the 2016 Olympiad

Besieged on and off the board

Every time Wesley faced adversity, he rose to the occasion and turned the problem into an opportunity. 

But nothing could have prepared him for the debacle of the 2015 US Chess Championship. In Round 9, after losing games which he had no business losing, Wesley was forfeited only six moves into the round.

1. d4 e6 2. c4 d5 3. ♘c3 c5 4. cxd5 exd5 5. ♘f3 ♘c6 6. dxc5  0-1

Timur Gareev in the foreground with Wesley So being forfeited in the background was perhaps the chess photo of 2015 | photo: Lennart Ootes

The reason for the forfeit: Wesley wrote notes of encouragement to himself during the game.

The decision of the tournament's Chief Arbiter Tony Rich was justified — no questions about it. But why did Wesley feel the need to give himself some 'pep talk' in the first place?

It turns out his biological mother, who left him to move to Canada in 2009, confronted Wesley and insisted that he return to college... or face losing contact with the rest of the family.

At one point, after the day's game, his mother, aunt and Wesley got into a shouting match just outside of the tournament venue — prompting Wesley to apologize for the scene.

The arguments and threats, which lasted for days, sapped Wesley of his energy and took away his focus from the games. It was also unfortunate that his way of regaining his motivation was against the tournament's rules.

But in true Wesley fashion, he wasted no time bouncing back and won his remaining games.

1. d4 ♘f6 2. ♘f3 e6 3. g3 b5 4. ♗g5 c5 5. ♗g2 ♗b7 6. c3 cxd4 7. cxd4 ♗e7 8. O-O h6 9. ♗xf6 ♗xf6 10. e3 O-O 11. ♘c3 b4 12. ♘e2 ♕b6 13. ♘f4 ♖c8 14. ♘h5 ♗e7 15. ♘e5 ♗xg2 16. ♕g4 ♗g5 17. ♔xg2 ♕b7+ 18. ♔g1 d6 19. ♘d3 ♘d7 20. h4 ♗f6 21. ♖fc1 a5 22. ♘df4 ♕e4 23. ♕e2 ♗e7 24. ♕b5 ♘f8 25. ♕d3 ♕b7 26. ♘g2 e5 27. dxe5 dxe5 28. g4 ♘g6 29. ♕f5 ♗xh4 30. ♘e1 ♖e8 31. ♖d1 ♖ad8 32. ♘g2 ♕b5 33. ♖xd8 ♖xd8 34. ♕c2 ♕d5 35. ♕e2 ♕d2 36. ♔f1 a4 37. ♘e1 ♕d5 38. e4 ♕e6 39. ♘c2 ♗g5 40. ♘e3 ♗xe3 41. fxe3 ♘h4 42. ♖d1 ♖xd1+ 43. ♕xd1 ♔h7 44. b3 axb3 45. axb3 g6 46. ♘g3 h5 47. ♕d5 ♕f6+ 48. ♔e2 hxg4 49. ♔d3 ♘g2 50. ♕b7 ♔g7 51. ♕b5 ♘xe3 52. ♘e2 ♘f1 53. ♔c4 ♕d6 54. ♕xb4 ♘d2+ 55. ♔c3 ♘b1+ 56. ♔c4 ♕a6+  0-1

1. ♘f3 ♘f6 2. c4 g6 3. ♘c3 d5 4. cxd5 ♘xd5 5. ♕b3 ♘b6 6. d4 ♗g7 7. ♗f4 ♗e6 8. ♕a3 c5 9. ♕xc5 ♘c6 10. e3 ♖c8 11. ♕a3 ♘c4 12. ♗xc4 ♗xc4 13. d5 ♕a5 14. ♕xa5 ♘xa5 15. ♗e5 ♗xe5 16. ♘xe5 f6 17. ♘f3 b5 18. b4 ♘b7 19. ♘d4 ♘d6 20. ♔d2 h5 21. e4 ♔f7 22. f3 h4 23. a4 bxa4 24. ♘xa4 ♖h5 25. ♘c5 a5 26. ♖xa5 ♗xd5 27. ♖a7 ♗c6 28. ♔e3 ♗e8 29. ♖c1 ♖b8 30. ♘d3 ♖g5 31. ♖c2 ♗b5 32. ♖cc7 ♘c8 33. ♖a2 ♘d6 34. f4 ♖h5 35. ♘c5 ♘e8 36. ♖b7 ♖xb7 37. ♘xb7 ♗f1 38. ♘d8+ ♔g8 39. ♘8c6 e5 40. fxe5 fxe5 41. ♘f3 ♘d6 42. ♘cxe5 ♔g7 43. ♖a7+ ♔f6 44. ♘g4+  1-0

Not only did he have the most number of decisive games (6 wins, 4 losses, 1 draw), his score of 6.5/11 was enough for clear third in the US Chess Championship.

Best games from the 2017 and 2020 US Chess Championships

In just six years after the failed campaign in 2015, Wesley won the US Chess Championship twice — in 2017 and 2020. Not only did he win the trophy, but he did so by playing games that will live on in the history books (and chess tactics trainers).

Let's take a look at five of the best highlights from his championship-winning years.

If you enjoyed this post and the games of Wesley So, then you'll love the game-changing insights and analysis he delivers in Lifetime Repertoires: Wesley So's 1.e4 Part One and Part Two

The US Championship has become one of the toughest national championships to win | photo: Lennart Ootes

Oh, and while you're at it, catch the action from the 2021 US Chess Championship right here on chess24!

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