So’s gambit declined
Zugzwang.That’s the term for a situation in a chess game where a player is forced to make a move that will only worsen his position. That’s close to the situation in which the Philippines’ top chess player, Wesley So, finds himself as he approaches the middle game of what has so far been a very promising career.
Caught in a tug-of-war between the politicians who control chess in the country and handlers who promise him a brighter future in the United States, the prodigy has refused to play under the Philippine flag in the World Chess Olympiad next week unless Philippine chess authorities allow him to play under the Stars and Stripes after that. When the National Chess Federation of the Philippines, which has nurtured his prodigious talent since he was barely 10, declined the gambit, he made his move—a courageous one for one so young. He will no longer play for his country and will wait it out until the rules allow him to play under the US flag.
But who is Wesley So and why is the chess scene on both sides of the Pacific so excited about him?
Before he was 10, he showed great promise as the Philippines’ best prospect for a world championship since Eugene Torre. He has lived up to that promise, chalking up triumph after triumph in tournaments here and abroad. At 12, he was a chess Olympian for the Philippines. At 14, he became the youngest player to achieve the title grandmaster, a milestone not even the prolific Torre achieved in his teens. Playing Board 1, he is unbeaten in the past three Chess Olympiads. Two years ago, he accepted a scholarship from Webster University in
St. Louis, Missouri, joining a powerhouse team of young foreign-born grandmasters that catapulted the school to the US collegiate chess championship.
Now 20, So has a live Elo rating of 2755 and is ranked No. 12 in the world. Having achieved the lofty status as super grandmaster, he is now knocking at the door of the world championship, a circle dominated by young phenoms like him. His dream of a world championship is within his grasp.
Ironically, it was after one of his biggest personal triumphs last year that things turned sour for So. Defying the directive of sports leaders to compete elsewhere, he decided to play unsanctioned at the World University Games in Russia where he beat a formidable field to win the gold medal. But he got neither official recognition nor reward for the feat. (The Philippine Sports Commission said that, under the law, the Universiade was not on the list of events where incentives were given for medal winners.) “No player should be treated this way, especially when I worked so hard to bring pride to my country,” he lamented in an interview.
Deprived of what he thought he deserved, So wrote the NCFP seeking his release after next week’s World Chess Olympiad in Norway, so he could play under the US Chess Federation. In chess notation, it is a move annotated with lots of exclamation points and question marks, meaning it could be a bold, intriguing, dubious, or potentially winning or losing move. But then again, So did not get to be a super grandmaster by being timid.
At this writing, no release is forthcoming. Under the rules of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), a player needs the old federation’s consent or a payment of 50,000 euros before he can transfer. Having neither, So must wait two years to make the switch. This is to discourage piracy of talents, for which America is notorious.
In the past 10 years, So has been the most pampered chess player in the Philippines, receiving P40,000 a month from the PSC and getting extra from several sources, including the personal funds of the NCFP’s controversial head, former congressman Prospero Pichay. Not even Torre enjoyed such support.
But Torre is sympathetic to So, whom critics have accused of being unpatriotic. Torre says So should not be judged by the tough decision he has made.
Pichay contends that the NCFP cannot just let go of So given the government funds that have been spent for him. Hardly the paragon of virtue in terms of handling taxpayer money, Pichay has thrown the problem to the PSC, which, in turn, has thrown it back to him.
The Philippine team goes to the World Chess Olympiad in Norway next week without its biggest star, there’s the pity. But shining still is Eugene Torre, who will be playing in his 22nd Olympiad, a record unmatched by any player, dead or alive.
And So will be watching from limbo, a victim of his dreams—or his ambition.