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On Chess: Webster University Star Wins Millionaire Chess Tournament

Millionaire Chess Open organizers Amy Lee and GM Maurice Ashley award Webster University GM Wesley So with a $100,000 birthday present.
Billy Johnson | Millionaire Chess Open | 2014

Las Vegas will do just fine if it never sees Wesley So again. The brand-new adult celebrated his 21st birthday in the right city, but he did it in all the wrong ways.

He didn’t pull a single slot, didn’t throw a single die. And he never once relied on the hilarious notion of luck during a week-long visit in a town that banks off the very idea. He was not spotted out late, stumbling around the Strip any night -- and to the contrary: The work So put in each morning is circumstantial proof that he achieved bedtime at an hour likely outlawed in the City that Never Sleeps.

He made just a single bet -- on himself -- and took down a score 100 times that amount. And even worse for Sin City: The house took away no rake from his winnings, instead only watched every penny of it walk away.

Said Vegas: Don’t let the screen door hit you on the way out, Mr. So.

The Webster University Grandmaster was this week’s big winner in the Millionaire Chess Open, featuring both amateurs and professionals battling for a $1M prize fund that was far and away the largest ever seen in the history of open chess tournaments. The diamond-encrusted event was the long-hyped innovation of GM Maurice Ashley, finally reaching fruition over Columbus Day weekend by pulling in over 550 players from 44 different countries -- all of whom laid down a $1,000 entry fee to put their skills to the test.

So -- recently voted by the Riverfront Times as St. Louis’ Best College Athlete of 2014, albeit one who still maintains the rights to his own name as a professional (read: LOL NCAA) -- entered as the Millionaire’s top-seed and did not disappoint, staying undefeated all the way through the 139-player Open section to its $100,000 prize.

And though perhaps not one celebrated by late-night escapades featuring the standard degenerate binge of Vegas, the Millionaire will likely go down as one hell of a coming-out party for the young Grandmaster. Statements on So’s place in the chess world were made on several levels.

On the collegiate level, chess teams from around the nation received the news as a double-dose of sobriety: So, a junior at Webster majoring in (what else?) finance, has already led the university to back-to-back national titles and clearly shows no signs of slowing down, especially considering this latest result came during his “offseason.” He claimed to have decided on the Millionaire “at the last minute” and attended without preparation, though his current streak of 30-plus professional games without a loss seems to dull the magic from that particular statement.

Worse for collegiate hopefuls is So’s best friend, roommate and Webster teammate GM Ray Robson participation alongside him at the Millionaire, where they even had the chance to play each other -- in the finals.

Both So and Robson cruised through the four-day, seven round Open section of the event scoring 6/7 apiece, each earning a seat outright in the four-player “Millionaire Monday” playoff -- while four other players had to fight through a playoff-for-the-playoff’s final two seats on Sunday night.

Forget college. Ultimately, Millionaire Monday featured a Webster University-versus-China showdown, as the other seats were claimed by Yu Yangyi and Ziou Jianchao -- two players who led their country to Chess Olympic gold this past August. They both lost, however, and played each other for third place. Robson was the last to man to fall, but not before admitting his record versus So was not very good, and won $50k for second place.

So’s win also issues a statement on a much larger scale. Nationally, if the U.S. had not heard of the 8th-youngest Grandmaster in history to this point, it most certainly will take note now. So played in Vegas under the flag of his home country, the Philippines, though he is in the midstof a federation switch and  will soon be playing under the red, white and blue. Chess nerds all over the nation are already salivating at the chance to harbor two of the world’s best players on America’s Olympiad team.

And internationally, make that two of the world’s top-ten. Hikaru Nakamura has long been America’s next-best hope for a World Champion, but suddenly So has emerged. While Nakamura, the ninth-best player in the world, skipped the Millionaire to compete in the FIDE Grand Prix, So has not-so-quietly reached the highest point of his career.

After Vegas, the 21-year-old is at a best-ever 2762 rating, ranking him just five points behind Nakamura, tenth in the world.

Brian Jerauld is the 2014 Chess Journalist of the Year, and the communications specialist for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. He is a 2001 graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism and has more than a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other ways to relax. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.