TWO nights ago, Feb. 15. 2021 (Philippine time), chess grandmaster and current World Fischer Random Chess Champion Wesley So again defeated World Classical, Rapid and Blitz Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway. This marked the third time that So has beaten Carlsen in a major chess competition in recent years.
In 2019, So dominated Carlsen in the inaugural staging of the International Chess Federation (more popularly known by its French acronym FIDE, or Fédération Internationale des Échecs) World Fischer Random Chess (FRC) championship. He needed only six games out of 12 to win the title. Final score in the last round of the match-up was 13½ to 2½, in favor of So.
The qualifying matches for the competition started in April 2019 with online games at Chess.com, which was open to all. From the initial round, 160 players advanced to the next round, where they were pitted against all FIDE title holders in an 8-round Swiss tournament involving 12 groups. Seven from each group (total of 84) advanced to the next round where, bunched into 16 groups, they competed in a single-elimination tournament. A quarterfinal, from which point those who currently lead the FIDE classical rankings have also emerged as main contenders, then a semifinal (which now shifted to face-to-face contests in Norway) followed, from which So and Carlsen emerged as finalists.
FRC — Fischer Random Chess — which is a derivative of standard (also called classical) chess, was introduced by the American legend Bobby Fischer, who ruled the game from 1972 to 1975 as the 11th world chess champion. Unlike in standard chess where all pieces and pawns are placed at their traditional positions before the start of every game, FRC chess randomly places the pieces at the back rank for each of the opposing players. Except for this, the rules of standard chess apply similarly for FRC. There are at most 960 possible starting positions in FRC, compared to only one in standard chess, which is why FRC is variably called Chess960. In FRC, the huge number of opening possibilities makes it hard for players to apply theory or book knowledge (lately enhanced by powerful computer chess programs and the wealth of their databases) and are forced to rely on their talent to create devices on the board.
So has also outplayed Carlsen twice already in the ongoing Champion’s Chess Tour. This elite-level competition aims, according to its website, to determine the world’s best chess player over a full competitive season of online chess. The 2021 edition started in November 2020 and will end in September 2021. It features 10 tournaments. In three tournaments that have been completed so far, Wesley So has emerged in two of them as champion, prevailing over Carlsen each time in gripping, awe-inspiring, final matches.
The Bacoor, Cavite-born So, who now plays for the United States Chess Federation, used to be the Philippines’ top chess player. His dissatisfaction with the way the government has treated him, among other factors, pushed him to transfer to the US in 2014. The previous year, in 2013, he won for his country the first — and so far, the only — gold in Universiade, the world Olympics for colleges and universities. But for reasons known only to those who wield power, he never (except for a Senate resolution years later) got the recognition, including monetary incentives, that he deserved.
He is grateful for the doors of opportunities that his adopted country has opened for professional chess players like him, as well as the filial support he got from his adopted family. He cites the benefactors of US chess and the way conditions have been built for an environment where every ounce of effort one puts into his or her craft is recognized and fairly rewarded. Yet Wesley So remains grounded in his Filipino upbringing. And as his legend grows among Filipino chess-playing fans, he is quick to acknowledge them. At the post-match interview the other day, the champion tipped his hat: “A big shout-out to all the Filipino fans out there watching my chess.”
His crowd is thrilled, evidently.
At Chess News and Views, a Facebook page managed by business consultant and sportswriter Eliseo Tumbaga, chess fans provide a wellspring of support for their hero. His latest exploits bring in more cheers. A few examples:
Dante Bacal Garcia: “Congratulations GM So! Proud pinoys kami dahil sa galing mo.”
Ric Ambatali: “GM Wesley So, Sir, you deserved what you have achieved. I’m so proud to be called a PURE FILIPINO BY BLOOD. You’re an inspiration, Sir.”
Robert Sanchez Paguia: “Mabuhay ka, SGM Wesley So. Can’t wait for you to challenge for the world title.”
At Chess24.com, this comment — “This very welcome news makes me an inch taller as a Filipino. Congratulations to GM Wesley So!” — drew a bunch of replies. Here is an example from one who uses “pupccool” as screen name:
“Cool! You have tons of reason to be proud. Now go out to the streets of Manila and rally behind those young and talented yet exploited Filipino chess players before they migrate to the USA. You can start by lobbying in front of your lawmakers to protect Philippine chess players from corrupt leadership in your chess federation. You cannot be always “ride-sharing” to the exploits of Filipinos who left the Philippines for better treatment elsewhere. You can start being patriotic now.”
The government’s inhibition to accord Wesley So the fitting recognition he deserves is hard to understand, especially if one considers how Congress dissipates time and taxpayer’s money just to get basketball players of foreign nationalities naturalized. He is inching closer to the pinnacle of global chess supremacy. Philippine basketball, on the other hand, is currently ranked by FIBA, the International Basketball Federation, at number 31 among 168 countries.