If you want to get somewhere, you gotta make a move.
It’s not exactly a new lifehack. We’ve probably heard it a thousand times. And we see it made real, in the flesh, through Filipino chess grandmaster Wesley So. The 27-year-old recently beat Magnus Carlsen at the Skilling Open, becoming $30,000 (about P1.4M) richer, and earning new global acclaim for toppling a world champion.
Those who are not chess fans may have at one time ignored Wesley’s story. But it’s the stuff Netflix series are made of.
The prodigy grew up in a chess loving neighborhood in Bacoor, Cavite, which was how he discovered the sport at the age of seven. It was where he began toying with the idea of becoming a grandmaster. “Every week I would cut out newspaper clippings about famous grandmaster games, study them, and then I’d go from street to street with a makeshift board, challenging anyone who knew how to play,” Wesley told British journalist David Cox in a 2019 interview on Chess.com.
But it must be tough when the only person in your family who believed your dreams can get you anywhere is you. “No one else in my family played the game, so they didn’t really understand it at all,” he told Cox. Both Wesley’s folks were accountants, and his mother Eleanor, according to Wesley, wanted her son to pursue the same career. Meanwhile, young Wesley wanted nothing but to become a professional chess player.
When the Sos emigrated to Canada, 16-year-old Wesley decided he was staying behind to pursue his chosen sport. Back then, of course, not even the kid knew becoming a chess grandmaster was on the horizon.
“I drifted for a while, squatting in an apartment in Manila owned by the chess federation, but it often had no electricity,” he shared with the British journalist. “I got some monthly support, and I’d play and win tournaments here and there, but I was just drifting for several years, until I got the opportunity to move to the U.S. in 2012.”
The move was made possible by a chess scholarship offered by Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri. In his head, he would take the scholarship, get a degree, and then find himself a job. “But the main thing was to get out of the Philippines,” he told Chess.com. “I guess you could say chess was a way out for me.”
Taking the Webster scholarship proved pivotal as his training with university coach Susan Polgar allowed him to rise “from around #100 in the world” to #15 in less than two years. According to Wesley’s official website, he won five major tournaments in 2013, which included a gold medal for the Philippines at the 27th Summer Universiade (World University Games) in Kazan, Russia. It was said to be the first gold medal for the country in the history of the tournament.
At 21, the boy from Cavite felt he had to make drastic decisions to advance his career—first was switching to the US Chess Federation, and second was leaving school to become a full-time professional chess player, and possibly a world chess champion.
Wesley cited the lack of sufficient training in the Philippines as one of the reasons for his decision to leave the NCFP (National Chess Federation of the Philippines). “At this stage of my career, I need to have serious training, and have the opportunity to compete in level appropriate events (category 19-20-21 or higher) in order to improve,” he was quoted as saying in an interview that came out on the blog of Polgar.
There was also that thing about his fear of being deprived the financial support from the NCFP if he can’t compete at the South East Asian Games. Competing there, he mentioned in that interview, could conflict with his studies at Webster University.
As reports would have it, Wesley already had a falling out with the local sporting committees when he opted to compete in the World University Games instead of the 2013 Asian Indoor Games, which was what the Philippine Federation would have wanted. The kid clinched the gold medal in the former, which was touted as the Olympic Games for students, but he did not receive the monetary incentive worth P1 million from the Philippine Sports Commission and the Philippine Olympic Committee.
A new family
October of that same year—after pocketing $100,000 first prize at the inaugural Millionaire Chess Open in Las Vegas—Wesley made another decision that would alter his life’s narrative: he left Webster University to pursue a full-time career as chess player.
Wesley at that time had already developed close ties with Filipinos in Minnesota whom he met at a dinner party. This is the family of former film actress Lotis Key, who was popular in Philippine cinema back in the 70s as the reel and real love interest of Dolphy. Lotis’ family moved to the suburban city in the 80s. “Wesley just dropped into our lives in the most surprising, unexpected way,” Lotis told StarTribune. “None of us saw what was coming… And it couldn’t be better. He’s the most charming, most delightful boy you’ve ever met, and he fits in very, very well with the family.”
Lotis suggested to Wesley to give the game two more years and see how things pan out for him. If it’s not a success, she said, there’s always school to come back to. After spending Christmas with Lotis in Minnesota, her family eventually provided Wesley the support he needed to pursue a professional career. This included a place to stay, which was not intended to be for long—six months, they agreed. But the six months got longer until the family decided to adopt Wesley.
In a Facebook post that December, Wesley insisted it was time he makes his own decisions. “Will I succeed? Will I fail? No one knows the answer to that. I decided I want to play chess professionally. That means taking certain risks. I’m willing to take them.”
The adoption did not only inspire a lot of talk in the chess community but also hurt Wesley’s already sore relations with his biological parents, which he claimed to Star Tribune affected his performance in the U.S. Chess Championship in 2015. He was forfeited from a round nine game against Varuzhan Akobian after it was found he was “taking notes” on a sheet of paper that was not the score sheet.
Lotis later on told the news site what, according to her, happened behind the scenes, which she claimed was the reason Wesley lost focus. Lotis said his biological mother, Eleanor, and his aunt, in a series of encounters had confronted Wesley, admonishing him to go back to college lest he loses complete contact with his family, including his sisters.
“There are personal problems in my family,” Wesley admitted in the StarTribune report. “Trying to fix them during this tournament caused a lot of stress and tension. It diverted a lot of energy from the board when I should be focusing on my game.”
In an interview with chessdom.com, Eleanor expressed displeasure over her son’s change of behavior, his neglect of his contractual obligations with the university chess team, and his leaving school without permission. She said her son refused to meet with his coaches to discuss his issues, which led to the loss of his chess scholarship.
Eleanor claimed this started when Key and her family drove to St. Louis to visit Wesley. “She took my son out of school to stay with her for nearly a week in a rented place.” Her son, she said, had since become cold and distant to his friends and family. He did not even call or write to her, said Eleanor, and also failed to visit his own father, William, when he met a serious accident.
Thinking that someone was blocking her access to Wesley, Eleanor decided to personally see her son. “[Wesley] was very happy to see us,” she said in the same interview. She also showed a photo of Wesley with her and her aunt. Eleanor told the site that the only person who did not look happy was Lotis.
Eleanor refuted Lotis’ early statements, saying she has no intentions of sabotaging her own son. “I am a mother, I have no reason to want to sabotage my son. More importantly, for the entirety of Wesley’s career, I have never done a move that sabotaged or harmed him,” she said to Chessdom.com. “On the contrary, I have always helped him pack his bags, arranged his tournaments, do his taxes, etc.”
She acknowledged that Wesley is of age to make his own decisions and live an independent life but she said she is “very worried that someone is making his wrong decisions for him.”
Meanwhile, Wesley only has nice words for his adoptive family. In an interview with hunochess.com, he said “Lotis is very professional and influences me to be the same.” He said having led “a hard and mostly solitary life,” he is grateful to have people he can trust “during the good and bad and even the boring moments.” He also appreciates the fact that Lotis, a book author and freelance writer, serves as his manager, taking care of the arrangements and other details of his tournaments, allowing him to focus on his game.
If we base it on his recent performance in the world chess tournament, it appears Wesley has only been making the right moves since moving to the US—at least in furthering his career in the chess universe. The Philippines’ sporting legend Eugene Torre, in a 2017 interview with Spin.ph expressed confidence in So’s decisions in life. “Wes knows what’s best for him. Kung best position nga sa chess, na-master n’ya, sa buhay pa kaya.” But the OG grandmaster also wishes him a “happy ending for his biological family and his second family.”
Meanwhile, Wesley is currently number 9 in world ratings and his recent win has already assured him a spot in the Champions Chess Tour final later this month. The world, if it still needs to be said, awaits his next move.