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U.S. Chess Champion Wesley So Sets Sights on World Crown

Image: Viswanathan Anand shakes hands with Wesley So rior to the start of the Leon Chess Masters 2017 final game

Former world chess champion Viswanathan Anand, right, shakes hands with Wesley So prior to the start of the Leon Chess Masters 2017 final game in Leon, Spain on July 9, 2017. J. Casares / EPA

As a professional chess player, 23-year-old Wesley So has one main goal — to be the best in the world.

It isn’t a stretch considering that So, who was born in the Philippines and now lives in United States, is currently the third highest ranked chess player worldwide, according to the July standings published by the World Chess Federation (FIDE).

A grandmaster who has played for the U.S. since November 2014, So will get a crack at achieving his dream in September when he competes at a qualifying event known as the World Chess Cup, held this year in the country of Georgia.

Assuming So moves on to an eight-player tournament next year and wins that, he’ll then face off against Magnus Carlsen, a 26-year-old grandmaster from Norway who has been the world champion since 2013.

“He’s very tough for everybody because he’s been around for a long time,” So told NBC News in a recent interview by phone.

So’s story begins in the Philippines in the city of Bacoor in Cavite, just south of Manila. Born in 1993, So began to take an interest in chess around the age of 7, he said. It started with chess books, old newspaper clippings with algebraic notations of games, and a chessboard at home, according to So.

Image: Wesley So plays against Viswanathan Anand during the Leon Chess Masters 2017 final game
Wesley So plays against Viswanathan Anand during the Leon Chess Masters 2017 final game in Leon, Spain on July 9, 2017. J. Casares / EPA

He played classmates and neighbors and participated in weekly weekend tournaments, So said. His first big win, according to his webpage, came in 2003 when So placed first at the Philippine National Chess Championship for the under-10 age group.

Another success soon followed around 2007.

“I just kept playing until I became a grandmaster at 14 years old,” So explained.

To date, there are a little more than 1,500 people worldwide who claim the grandmaster distinction, according to a tally from the website of the World Chess Federation, the group that bestows the honor.

So almost took that title two years earlier, he said.

“I remember when I was 12 years old, I lost a game in the last round’s tournament,” So recalled. “If I had won that, I would have gotten grand master. But I didn’t get it, and it was very hard for me. I couldn’t sleep for the next few nights, thinking about the game.”

The year 2013 proved another pivotal point in So’s chess-playing career. He won five tournaments, according to his webpage, taking home the gold medal for the Philippines at the 27th Summer Universiade in Kazan, Russia.

But something was missing, according to So.

Image: Philippine chess player Wesley So during the first semifinal against Polish Jan-Krzysztof Duda at the 30th Leon Chess Master tournament
Chess player Wesley So during the first semifinal against Polish Jan-Krzysztof Duda at the 30th Leon Chess Master tournament, in Leon, in Spain, on July 7, 2017. J. Casares / EPA

“To be frank, we weren’t getting enough support, nor were we getting enough recognition,” So said, referring to his time playing for the Philippines.

When he turned 18, So said he got advice from friends who suggested he go abroad “and try to make things better.” He said he studied at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, for two-and-a-half years, but left before graduating.

“It’s very difficult to play chess and be a student at the same time,” he said. “It’s practically impossible.”

So said he chose to go professional upon turning 21, a decision he said he made based on advice from a woman named Lotis Key, whom he met at a weekend tournament in Minnesota in 2013.

So, who has residences in Minnesota and St. Louis, also officially switched his chess federation to the U.S. in 2014, according to the group’s website.

“For chess players and also for athletes in general, you only have a small window and it’s better to [do] what you’re doing at a young age than wait to graduate and then go professional,” he explained, adding that he can finish college at any age.

Key, who has become So’s manager, said in an email to NBC News that she was introduced to So at a private dinner that his Filipino host gave while So was competing in Minnesota four years ago.

“My husband and I have worked with a lot of kids in church programs and when we met Wesley we saw that he was lonely and displaced,” Key wrote. “As our relationship with him grew (over about a year) we nurtured him like we would any kid who needed support.

“We are not chess people and had no idea his chess was going to become what it has. He was just an unhappy kid and in getting to the root of it, I found out that he loved chess but didn’t see any future for himself there.”

So, a permanent U.S. resident of Filipino and Chinese descent, refers to Key, her husband, and daughter as his family.

Asked about his biological parents from the Philippines, So said it was “a very private subject” and declined to discuss them.

So has had a busy schedule this year. He said he’s played in around seven events thus far, winning a few like the U.S. championship in April, which comes with a monetary prize.

So is currently ranked as the number-one player by the U.S. Chess Federation.

“Chess is all about regular practice and regular learning, so playing in tournaments I hope to get a lot of experience and just to be more tough for the upcoming world cycle,” he said.

So said he typically sleeps eight to 10 hours a night during and after tournaments.

“The most important thing is to have a very strong mental ability to keep the mind working,” he explained. “But also it’s important to have a very good conditioning, just because the chess game requires so much energy and each game is really long and tiring.”

There’s also the sleepiness that accompanies frequent flights across time zones, a fatigue that So and Key ward off by taking melatonin to combat jet lag, according to So.

For practice, So said he studies the games of his colleagues and competitors and tries to get used to their style.

“And I try to improve my style, learn more about the opening, the middle games, and the end games,” he added.

Having discipline and a strict regimen, So explained, is key considering they are traveling half the year.

“I don’t really have any vices,” So said. “I don’t really like the taste of beer or alcohol, for that matter, and smoking is just bad for your health.”

As the summer wears on, So remains focused on becoming the next world champion.

He has different paths to achieving that goal, according to Key. If he wins the World Chess Cup in September, he’ll move on to the eight-player Candidates Tournament next year, she said. But even if he doesn’t win, the top-two players below Carlsen, the current world champion, are automatically given spots in that tournament, Key said. The winner of the Candidates gets to play Carlsen.

As of July, So ranked number three in the world among active players.

So faced Carlsen in June in matches in Paris and Belgium, beating him once, he said.

“He’s very competitive and very talented,” So said. “So I would need to get better and become stronger if I want to beat him.”

“But first,” he added, “I have to qualify.”

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