Full name: Wesley Barbasa So
Title: United States Chess Champion, World Fischer Random Chess Champion
Place of birth: Bacoor, Cavite, Philippines
World Ranking: 6 (as of April 2022)
Classical (Std): 2778
Wesley So is a Super Grandmaster, one of the few players on the list of Super Grandmasters in the history of Chess and has been one of the best American Chess players for many years.
Born on October 9th, 1993, Wesley Barabasa So is the current US Chess Champion and also the reigning World Fischer Random Chess Champion. He was born in Cavite – a province located just south of Manila – in the Philippines.
A chess prodigy whose talents were recognized from an early age, So started joining chess tourneys when he was just nine years old, rising up the ranks throughout the years, and then representing his country of birth in tournaments abroad. However, after disagreements between him and the Philippines’ chess federation begun to worsen (the Federation lacked support for their talents and they also refused to recognize So’s gold medal win in the 2013 Summer Universiade), Wesley finally made the decision to defect to the United States Chess Federation in 2013. The move was confirmed in 2014 when So emigrated to the United States, and then pursued playing chess professionally after a few months.
So’s parents are William and Eleanor So, both Filipino-Chinese accountants. He has two sisters, Wendelle and Wilma So. After his move to the United States, So has been living with the family of Lotis Key – formerly a Philippine actress now based in the United States- who also acts as his foster parent and manager.
So’s neighborhood in the Cavite province has a rich chess culture. Chess was a popular poor man’s game, So narrated in an interview with Chess.com in 2019. Unlike golf or tennis, chess doesn’t require uniforms or expensive equipment. A board can be cobbled together using recycled materials. As a boy, So went around his neighborhood with a makeshift chessboard of his own, offering to challenge anyone who knew how to play the game. In a country wherein a chessbook would be considered a luxury (a book would cost about a few day’s wages), the young chess prodigy would often cut out clippings of popular grandmasters’ games out of newspapers and study them.
So started playing in junior tournaments when he was nine years old. It did not take too long for him to rise through the ranks. In 2006, he became the Philippines’ youngest International Master when he became one at the age of 12 years old. During the same year, he also became the youngest Philippine chess team member that represented the country in the Olympiad held in Turin, Italy. So earned a 2610 Elo rating of 2610 in 2008 at the age of 14, thus finally making him a Grandmaster (also the Philippines’ ninth youngest GM).
Unfortunately, So found that playing chess professionally in the Philippines would be a hard venture. His family emigrated to Canada when he was just in his teens, but he opted to stay to further his career. He lived alone in a ramshackle apartment provided by the country’s chess Federation, often suffering through power outages and lack of financial support on his own.
After becoming disenchanted with the Federation due to their lack of support for him (as well as withholding from him a promised one million pesos cash prize), So was given the opportunity to move to the US in 2012. He was offered a chess scholarship to Webster University in Missouri on the invitation of former women’s world Champion Susan Polgar. However, he dropped out of the scholarship program to pursue his dreams of playing chess on a professional level.
So won the Millionaire Chess Tournament in Las Vegas in 2014, the first tournament that he won after dropping out of his chess scholarship in Webster. This tournament also marked his entry into the world of professional chess in the United States. So won against Magnus Carlsen in the 2017 Tata Steel Masters, winning against him by a full point, and thus raising him to the number three spot in the FIDE rankings list. 2017 too marked the first year that So would be hailed as a US Chess Champion, defeating Alexander Onischuk for the title. He also became US Chess Champion in 2019 and 2020.
If you liked learning about Wesley, you may also be interested in reading about other top players like Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura.