Chess grandmaster Wesley So wins major tournament as a US player. But what does this mean for Philippine sports?

November 4, 2019 - 6:29 PM
World Fischer Random Chess Championship 2019
Norway's Magnus Carlsen and Wesley So of the U.S. play final games during the World Fischer Random Chess Championship 2019 at Henie Onstad Art Center in Baerum, Norway, October 31, 2019. (NTB Scanpix/Berit Roald via Reuters)

Wesley So’s achievement at the World Fischer Random Chess Championship on behalf of the United States brought to light the consequences of the Philippine government’s lack of support to its athletes.

So, at 26, is now a chess super-grandmaster or GM after defeating former titleholder Magnus Carlsen with a record of four victories and two draws at the international chess competition that took place in Hovikodden, Norway last November 3.

This also put So at the top of the chess world rankings.

In the tournament’s website, the Filipino-American athlete expressed delight with the remarkable win.

“I’m very happy. It’s my favorite type of chess, and it hasn’t been popular until the last couple of years. I usually win tournaments the first time and never again. Magnus had a bad couple of days. If it was regular chess, he would probably have beaten me easily,” So said.

So did not represent the Philippines for this sports event. Rather, he played for the United States Chess Federation, which he transferred to in 2014.

This was evident in the International Chess Federation’s congratulatory tweet wherein the flag of the United States was featured.

Some Filipinos noticed this and cited the government’s perceived indifference to Filipino athletes as reasons for So’s transferring of federations.

Pilo Hilbay, former senatorial candidate, described this on Twitter as a tragedy on the part of the Philippines.

“The story of why he doesn’t carry the Philippine flag is the tragedy that is Philippine sports, corrupted by politics,” Hilbay tweeted.

The previous world championships of Nesthy Petecio in boxing and Carlos Yulo in gymnastics also sparked calls on the government and other Filipinos to support all athletes regardless of seizing an award or not.

Both Filipino athletes won in their respective sports fields in a span of 24 hours last October.

While it was Petecio and Yulo’s fans who expressed such views on Philippine sports online, other Filipino players were more vocal with their financial needs.

Champion weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz made a bold move to request for sponsorship from private companies to finance her bout in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.

Conflict with sports bodies

So, a Cavite native, had been playing in and winning local chess competitions since he was nine years old.

He was also once backed up by the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC), the National Chess Federation of the Philippines (NCFP) and other chess patrons such as businessman Reginald Tee.

In 2006, So became the youngest member of the Philippine chess team. The team competed in the Olympiad in Italy that year.

The next year, he came the ninth youngest chess grandmaster at 14.

Because of his impressive plays, he also received a scholarship for college from former world women’s champion Susan Polgar from Texas Tech in 2012 and then Webster University in 2012.

In 2013, he was denied of a P1-million incentive from the PSC and the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) he was supposedly to receive because of his gold medal at the World Universiade Games in Kazan, Russia.

Lotis Key, his adoptive mother in the United States, told that So nearly quit the sport because of such incident.

So added that it eventually prompted him to consider switching sides.

“Because of a quarrel between the kings of the sports bodies, not only did the country refuse to acknowledge my efforts, they refused to give me the P1 million promised to athletes who bring home a gold medal,” he said.

While he was still Filipino by heart, So stressed that he would no longer sought to represent the Philippines again.

“I am a true Filipino who cares about the future of Filipino children growing up in an endless cycle of corruption and zero opportunity. My heart aches for talented people there who because of poverty haven’t any hope for their futures,” he said.