Have you watched “The Queen’s Gambit” and “Searching for Bobby Fischer”? Both are about child prodigies who became chess grandmasters, eventually among the best in the world.
We had one of those; his name is Wesley So. Wesley reached the peak ranking of No. 2 in the world in 2017. Wesley is an American, having just been granted citizenship by the United States. But Wesley was a Filipino; however, the political animals in the Philippine Sports Commission couldn’t be bothered with him. I was asked for help back in 2010 when his brilliance first came to light, and was more than happy to oblige as I have huge admiration for games of the mind—where the soul, the real person that makes us what we are, resides. The body is just the vehicle to carry the brain. My dad was world doubles bridge champion with Frank Cayley as his partner, and my uncle was world chess champion. I’m immensely proud of them and, no doubt, they’re responsible for my respect for the mind.
Wesley was, back in those days, a budding teenager with obvious chess brilliance. Despite repeated pleas for assistance (Wesley comes from a charming middle-class family in Cavite with not much spare money), I couldn’t break the myopia of officialdom. The commission’s officials ignored him. In final desperation, Wesley bid me farewell and did the only thing he could — move to a country that would recognize and support his talent.
He had no choice but to go to where his genius would be recognized and supported, the US. Today, American Wesley So is a top-ranked chess grandmaster.
I wrote several columns about this matter then. Here, abbreviated, is what I said in January 2010:
“Manny Pacquiao is a public hero. Efren Peñaflorida is a national and international hero. But there’s another hero that doesn’t even get a mention: Wesley So. Wesley is a quiet, unassuming genius. He was a Chess Grandmaster at 14. And then, at 16, he reached Round Four in the 2009 Chess World Cup in Russia, unseating some of the world’s chess greats.
“There are only about 1,100 grandmasters in the world, and to get into that illustrious clan you have to be pretty damn good. Wesley is pretty damn good. But no one recognizes him or cares, except for some earlier support from Shell and now Coke. I’m going to start drinking Coke — if I can pull myself away from San Mig (I suspect that even with the best will in the world I can’t). This is something Wesley very much deserves because he’s an international credit to the Philippines. It’s like Bata Reyes in billiards who is known and respected throughout the billiard world, and beyond.”
Well, Wesley is equally held in high esteem in the chess world where development of the brain is what matters. That esteem rebounds to the good of the Philippines, yet his government gives little support or encouragement.
Sport is far too poorly supported here and far, far too heavily castrated by political intrigues and internecine fighting among the so-called officials responsible for sports development.
The Philippines should be proud of this young man. I’m certainly proud of him and what he’s done.
Five years later, in 2017, after Wesley had gone, I said: “Filipino Wesley So won the 2016 Grand Chess Tour, making the Philippines proud. But no, he didn’t make the Philippines proud; he made the United States proud.”
And then in November 2019, I pushed it further: “Chess is a wonderful game, one of the best stimulators of the brain. Unlike basketball, Filipinos can excel at it on the world stage. Wesley So, once a Filipino, is now adopted by America because short-sighted, inept members of the Sports Commission, or whatever inappropriate name they give it, rejected my previous entreaties to take this brilliant young man under their wing.”
How many other Filipinos who could be world champions have failed to become one, because all our sports officials do is play politics among themselves? At least I presume they still do; I don’t follow physical sports much locally. I just remember the ineffectual disaster of sports when it was under the capture of Peping Cojuangco. But are his replacements any better? I’d be interested to hear from them what they do. Not in flattering press releases, but in real facts. How do they identify up-and-coming champions? What do they do to support their careers? Does Congress give them enough money (although I wouldn’t consider this sufficient excuse)?
In the past 10 years, Australia, a land of 25 million people, has won 16 Olympic golds. The Philippines, none. I’m sure it’s not the Filipino — the capability is there. So I think the commission needs to explain this failure, and the steps being taken to correct it. I’d also like to hear from sportsmen: What’s their opinion of the Commission’s performance?
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