London Chess Classic champion Wesley So: I never celebrate until I get home with the trophies
'Every loss or draw is a setback. You can only take it one game at a time. Two steps forward, one step backwards seems to be the normal pace,' says Wesley So.
If the chess world had to decide one player who did exceedingly well in the year 2016, it definitely had to be the Filipino-American grandmaster Wesley So. The 23-year-old won two super tournaments – the Sinquefield Cup and London Chess Classic. He helped the US win an Olympiad gold and also won the Grand Chess Tour ahead of legends like Viswanathan Anand, Vladimir Kramnik, Veselin Topalov and others. We got in touch with the genial Wesley So to talk about not only the London Chess Classic, but also his career and plans for 2017.
Wesley, 2016 has brought you some amazing results: Sinquefield Cup win, team and individual gold at the Olympiad, and victories at London Chess Classic and Grand Chess Tour. Which one is the closest to your heart?
Wesley So: That is a very hard question! I was determined not to be last this year in the Sinquefield Cup. It was an awful feeling in 2015. That put some pressure on me, of course. So, it was an incredible joy when I finished first. It was a big tournament for me.
In Baku, the US gold medal and my own gold for board three were true miracles. I caught a bad cold and for several games was fighting to focus. The fact that it was an Olympiad made everyone play extra hard and the competition was very sharp. That it came down to such a narrow victory over Ukraine and Russia left most of us breathless. In the stadium later for the closing ceremonies, Lotis (his foster mother) and I were in tears when they played the Star Spangled Banner. You know you hope... you hope and hope and hope and then when it happens you can hardly believe it.
Being the GCT (Grand Chess Tour) champion was the icing on the cake. Holding both those huge crystal trophies in my arms and thinking, okay I ended the year well.
It takes time to absorb such wonderful experiences. When you win, there is a whirlwind of activity and then suddenly you are dragging your bags through an airport at dawn the next morning, headed for home totally exhausted. Usually, we feel the win about four days later when we're eating in the kitchen with the family. That's when suddenly we realise it.
After the Sinquefield Cup, everyone started saying that Wesley is the real deal. Did this and the fact that you were leading the Grand Chess Tour put any pressure on you going into the London Chess Classic?
Wesley So: I don't know what that means - the real deal. I think all of us in the top ten are really strong players. Is anyone here (who is) not a real chess player? I do not surf the internet or have any social media outside my FaceBook fan page. So I am pretty much unaware of what people are saying. Our family feels that is for the best for us, since there are people who don't say very encouraging things. I usually get to know something weeks later when someone tells me in a conversation. We are a very busy family with my chess career and all the other stuff we do. It's crazy how every day is go, go, go. There is no time for reading internet posts.
Going into London, I felt the usual excitement to play chess. And I had never been to London before. So that was exciting too.
You are only the 12th player in the history of the game to cross 2,800 (Elo ratings). You now have a live rating of 2,808! When the year began your Elo was 2,773. Everyone knows how difficult these 35 points are to gain at the level that you are. Were you personally expecting to break into the 2,800-plus bracket by the year-end?
Wesley So: Well, I was only six points shy when we started the London Classic. So, at that point, I was thinking I could at least make seven points. In the months before that, of course, you have dreams but who knows if they will happen. Every loss or draw is a setback. You can only take it one game at a time. Two steps forward, one step backwards seems to be the normal pace.
Anish Giri (Dutch grandmaster) says, "I only wonder how Wesley So will create chances if his opponents also play in the same risk-free fashion as him." What would you say about it?
Giri on So's "risk-free" play: "I only wonder how he will create chances if the opponents also play the same way as him"#LondonChess
— chess24.com (@chess24com) December 18, 2016
Wesley So: Well, I guess I will have to deal with that when it happens. I respect Anish Giri and take his point seriously. I will work on that problem.
In the Sinquefield Cup you had floored Anand with some excellent opening preparation. It was Vishy's turn at the London Classic. Can you tell us what went through your head when he unleashed the new move by taking the pawn on a3 and what you were thinking in the next 30 minutes?
Wesley So: I prepared for a long time in the morning before the game in the executive lounge of our hotel. Vishy would also have his breakfast there with his second Polish GM Grzegorz Gajewski. So I waved to greet them while letting my computer analyse this QGD 4.Nbd7, which is Vishy's pet line. Anyway, I thought I made deep preparation and was ready to check out what he had in store for me. Unfortunately, he out-prepared me as I had never seen this 10.Bxa3! idea before.
I saw that I could get a risk-free position with 11.Qxc3, but at the same time I wanted to try a little bit with white. I thought for a long time trying to get a position where I could play and get chances, but in the end, I didn't see anything promising.
By the end of the eighth round, you had already won the Grand Chess Tour. Did you celebrate a bit or was it only after the end of the last round?
Wesley So: No. I never celebrate until I get home with the trophies! Anyway, there was no time to do anything but prepare for the next round. Plus what if they (predictions) were wrong? What is there was a miscalculation somewhere? It would be painful to have already celebrated.
Your sister Abbey writes on Facebook, "Congratulations, Wesley. I've seen how hard you've worked." It's true that such results are impossible without hard work. Can you tell us how you keep yourself motivated to work hard each and every day?
Wesley So: Well, I work for many hours but I really like to work so it is not a burden. When I put in a good day of chess work, I normally end the day with a swim and then if there is time, we watch a movie. I have my house chores and responsibilities which I get done when I need to stretch out or rest my eyes. Our life is full of activity because everyone in this family has lots of friends and commitments. We volunteer our services regularly to help others, attend church, meet friends and have outdoor activities. Minnesota is a place where everyone does outdoor stuff because it is clean and beautiful.
As a professional chess player, one of the major expenses of players is training and coaching. You have won $2,95,000 thanks to the Grand Chess Tour, plus you have $42,000 of the Samford scholarship. Would you think of hiring a chess coach now?
Wesley So: Lotis makes sure I save my money. She does not approve of careless spending. After I pay my taxes and my other bills, I put the rest into savings. And yes, I do plan to have a coach now.
An Elo rating of 2,808, world number four ranking, Grand Chess Tour winner ahead of all the legends. Is it all going too fast for you?
Wesley So: I don't think so. I seem to have been playing chess for a long time, not professionally (I only started that in January 2015), but on and off since I was eight-years-old. Naturally, I need to know if I can make a solid career out of this and whether I will continue to improve. These wins along the way help to show me where I am going and encourage me. Without them I might get a bit sad and wonder if I should try something else.
And lastly, what are your plans for 2017 now?
Wesley So: To improve my chess game. To become wiser and more stable in my life. To grow as a man of God and honor Him with my efforts.
Thanks a lot Wesley for your time and answers. We wish you a wonderful new year ahead.
Sagar Shah is an International Master and co-founder of ChessBase India.
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