We’re about to lose Wesley So, the country’s brightest hope for a world chess title, to the Americans. The 20-year-old grandmaster has announced his intent to leave the National Chess Federation of the Philippines (NCFP) and move to the United States Chess Federation.
Changing affiliations means Wesley will no longer represent the Philippines in international tournaments, and will play instead for the US.
He explains that his decision is motivated by his desire to improve his chances of moving up the world chess ladder. Going by his achievements, he is indeed destined for greater glory. Wesley is currently ranked 15th in the world, and is its No. 2 junior player. He was only 14 when he achieved an Elo rating of 2610, becoming the youngest player to smash the 2600 barrier, resetting the record set by the enfant terrible of chess, Magnus Carlsen.
Wesley’s star is still rising. His Elo has shot up to 2744 after he won the Capablanca Memorial in Havana, Cuba, and he is widely regarded as a serious contender for Carlsen’s crown.
Wesley wants to ride this wave of opportunity, and he feels that only by switching over to the US federation can he maintain the momentum.
The big tournaments are in America, he says. And he is a mainstay of Webster University, a collegiate chess superpower in the US.
His career could wither in the vine if he stays in the Philippines, because government funding is not enough to sustain the high-level campaign he needs to work his way up the rankings.
Now Wesley finds himself in a political chess game with NCFP President Prospero Pichay, who appears to be reluctant to let go of the young grandmaster without putting him through the wringer first.
Mr. Pichay insists that Wesley must go through the proper process if he wants to bail out. First, the US federation must forward his request for transfer to FIDE (Federation Internationale de Echecs), the governing body of world chess. FIDE then turns over the request to the NCFP.
If his request is turned down, Wesley could be in limbo for two years, barred from playing in FIDE-sanctioned games, while he waits out his release.
There is a short cut, Pichay says. Wesley could pay the 50,000 euro (almost P3 million) release fee. So, however, has said he cannot cough up that kind of amount.
The Pichay-So match seems to be locked in the middle game, with neither player giving up ground. Last week, Wesley announced he did not take part in the US National Open, where he had three titles to defend, because he was distracted by the issues surrounding his transfer. Pichay, meanwhile, tried to gain advantage by saying he had listed Wesley as a member of the Philippine team to the World Chess Olympiad in Tromso, Norway, in August. Wesley countered that yes, he was going to Tromso, but as one of the coaches of the US team.
In chess, there is such a situation as a zugzwang, in which any move a player makes leads to his defeat. That is the situation the Philippines is in. We want to keep Wesley from leaving, but at this point there seems to be no way we can convince him to stay.
Any way we move, we lose.
Unless it violates any law, Mr. Pichay should just let Wesley So go graciously. He can ask So to sign an IOU payable in 10 years. Insistence on the correct process only makes him, and us Filipinos, look mean and ugly. The world of chess knows So is Filipino. Every triumph he wins as a US player will somehow exalt his race and old country too.