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Playing for the King

The tournament room is silent. Surrounded by the intense gazes of the watching crowd—and those of chess greats past and present staring down from photos on the walls—Wesley So, 24, prepares to defend his title of U.S. chess champion at the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center in April. Eleven other top-rated players are there to try to take it from him.

Game 1 of the 12-round, round-robin tournament pits So, the third-ranked male player in the United States and the seventh-ranked in the world, against Yaroslav Zherebukh, 23, a Ukrainian-born grandmaster now playing for the United States. Zherebukh, playing white, comes out strong, but So’s black pieces soon push back, eventually driving Zherebukh into an untenable corner position that seals a victory for So and puts him in first place.

So, who grew up in the Philippines but now lives in Minnesota, is unusual in the rarefied atmosphere of international chess: a professing Christian who is open about his faith. He grew up in a country where few care about chess—“on the whole, people prefer basketball”—and many believe in God “but are unwilling to claim much more than that.” His road to becoming both a world-class chess player and a follower of Jesus Christ was long and sometimes bumpy.

So began playing chess at age 6 or 7 with a plastic set he got for Christmas. Inspired by study of the games of Bobby Fischer, he was soon “dabbling” in tournaments. Over the next few years, he progressed rapidly to International Master (at age 12) and Grandmaster (at age 14) status, becoming the youngest Filipino to hit both of those goals. He also won two Philippine Chess Championships.

Minimal funding and limited access to professional coaching made it difficult for him to get advanced training. In 2012, he came to the United States on a chess scholarship and began playing for Webster University in St. Louis. He hoped that, if his chess dreams did not pan out, at least he’d be able to earn a degree and get a decent job.

Read more at World Mag. 

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