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On Chess: World Contender Must Wait To Play For U.S. Team

Wesley So
Courtesy of Susan Polgar

They say good things come to those who wait. Unfortunately, that’s shaping up to be true.

Wesley So, the 15th highest-rated chess player in the world with a FIDE rating of 2744, recently announced his intentions to switch to the U.S. Chess Federation (from the Philippines’ federation) for reasons rather obvious: He’s already here -- and he seems to like it.

So is the 20-year-old Filipino phenom who led Webster University’s world-class chess team to back-to-back national titles in his first two years here in St. Louis. He is the eighth-youngest grandmaster in history, as well as one of the fastest-ever to reach the 2600-rating plateau. And since his arrival in the U.S., So has kicked his game up to another gear appropriate to the next-level of chess he has recently entered.

So will make a huge impact representing the U.S. on the international scene -- as the addition of any top-20 world player would -- dramatically increasing American chances to medal in Chess Olympiads and World Team Chess Championships.

His presence also will make tidal waves here at home, another fresh face in a U.S. Championship field that has been transitioning through a youth movement in recent years -- possibly even rekindling the attention of American No. 1 Hikaru Nakamura back into the national title fold. Nakamura, currently rated fifth in the world, has passed on the last two invites to the U.S. Championships to instead focus on his quest for international domination, and So will add a second set of stars and stripes to that world table.

The problem is: All of this might have to wait.

So has not received consent from his former home, the National Chess Federation of the Philippines (NCFP), which leaves the request open to the World Chess Federation (FIDE). According to its rules, if So does not have consent from the organization he is leaving, he must sit out all FIDE events for two years, dating back to the last time he represented the NCFP. That was last August, in the 2013 World Cup.

The situation came to a head last week, when the NCFP added So to its roster for the upcoming Chess Olympiad in Tromso, Norway, in August, at which point So publicly revealed that he had asked to switch federations last year. He also revealed that he had offered to play for the NCFP one last time in Norway if it would consent to his release afterward, though the non-response served as good as a denial. The two-year wait has begun.

The current matter carries much confusion and certainly an air of disappointment -- although perhaps such reasons are rather obvious, as well: I wouldn’t want to let him go, either.

What should be comforting, at least to the NCFP, is that his decision to switch federations is sound, even necessary, if So is to continue progress toward the absolute top of the world. Within the U.S., he is immersed in an environment that surrounds him with stronger coaching, stronger opponents and stronger tournaments than the Philippines can offer, and the proof is in the pudding. His short time spent here at Webster University under Susan Polgar -- a former women’s world champion who has taken him from the top 100 to the top15 in the world in two years -- leaves little to the imagination on where his road is headed.

Also, So’s addition to the USCF will elevate it to a serious contender in world events, regularly pitting him against the best-of-the-best in a constant push to his development. Up to now, So on the Philippine team has suffered the same affliction as World Champion Magnus Carlsen representing Norway: A superstar unsupported by a non-chess-rich country’s roster that leaves the overall team fighting for the basement.

“You don’t typically see very strong chess players come out of non-chess countries, as opposed to countries that regularly produce like Russia and the Ukraine,” said Tony Rich, executive director of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, which annually hosts the U.S. Championships. Recently, the national title events have seen an influx of new players appear at the top after switching federations. “Usually one of two things happen: They either transfer federations to play somewhere more conducive for chess, or they become superstars in their own countries and never leave.”

Even within Webster, So has seen both sides of the coin. His teammate Fidel Corrales-Jimenez recently switched to the USCF from Cuba, while Quang Liem Le, ranked 41st in the world, continues to be a celebrity for Vietnam -- which provides significant backing to him and his family in support of his development. So’s decision, agonizing as it was, came after his gold medal at the 2013 World University Championships -- the first gold medal for the Philippines in the history of the tournament -- went unrecognized by his country.

“I remember the (NCFP) saying they would fight to keep me,” So said. “It was odd because I rarely play for them anyway. I don’t see the point of them preventing me from changing … It’s not really about nationality -- I will always be proud to be a Filipino. I have been representing the Philippines for a decade, and I will always be grateful for what they have done. But now I just think this is the best option for me and my career to try and reach the top.”

There is still hope that the NCFP will consent, a submission that could come at any point. But until then, two years is an exceptionally long time to sit out of world-class play, in the midst of such an extremely important stretch of So’s still-developing career. And the waiting period comes at an equally disappointing time for the USCF: Rumors are swirling that our national champion Gata Kamsky, who just turned 40 last week, is pondering a well-deserved retirement from the international stage after this year’s Olympiad -- which means he may not still be around when So is finally ready to run.

So, wearing an American flag in Norway this August, would have sat behind Nakamura, and relegated Kamsky -- 36th in the world -- to the third board, giving the U.S. one of its most-stacked teams in history.

But not everyone can wait.

Brian Jerauld is a chess instructor to area students, including his own children, and a student of the game himself through the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. He is also a Mizzou journalist with a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other odds and ends. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.