I’m heading up to Okoboji, Iowa later this week to direct the super strong Okoboji Open for my friend Jodene Kruse. I’m looking forward to having a great time. This will be the eighth year I’ve directed this tournament. I’ve never had a perfect performance as a director but there were only two controversies of any note. In 2009 an 80+ year old player was sitting at GM Alex Yermolinsky’s board with a loud ticking clock in his bag (You can read about it here). When I tried to ask him to turn the clock off he yelled at me as if I was trying to steal his bag which wasn't optimal for concentration of the players nearby. In 2013 I had a problem with a clock that wasn’t set right. When I made a decision not to forfeit the player who set the clock wrong his opponent goet pretty upset and was ripping me to anyone within earshot. All things considered I'm fortunate to have had only those two controversies. The tournament director of the recently concluded US Championship was not so lucky.
This year’s US Championship was one of the more compelling in recent years. Top 10 ranked grandmaster Wesley So recently changed federations (but not citizenship) from the Philippines to the US and was competing in this event for the first time ever. Native US Grandmaster and world #3 Hikaru Nakamura was also scheduled to compete in the championship for the first time since 2012. This was the first time two top 10 players would be competing for the US championship.
Both Nakamura and So won their first two games but then So lost his third round game while Nakamura drew. The pair battled to a draw in round 4 and each won their 5th round game leaving Nakamura a half point ahead. Then So hit some major bumps in the road as he threw away a promising position in round six and then lost for the third time in the tournament in round eight to fall to third place a point and a half behind Nakamura and with no hopes for winning the championship.
On Friday, So had the white pieces against grandmaster Varuzhan Akobian and wrote a note on a piece of paper to remind him to check his variations and use his time. After So made his sixth move, Akobian went to chief arbiter Tony Rich and informed him that So was writing notes. Rich then went to the board, verified that So was writing notes and forfeited him, leaving Akobian as the winner.
Commentators Yasser Seirawan and Alejandro Ramirez were stunned at the forfeiture. Maurice Ashley interviewed Tony Rich, who let it be known that So had been warned twice already about writing notes and told he would be forfeited if it happened again. I believe Rich was obligated to carry out the forfeiture after having threatened it but I believe threatening the forfeiture was extreme. If So was threatened with losing some time off his clock the game could have continued and the story would have some interest but the forfeiture has gone viral in the chess world with stories on chess.com, chessbase.com, and chess24.com and mainstream news outlets. Now the story of the 2015 US Chess Championship isn’t Ray Robson’s great performance or Sam Sevian being the youngest player ever to beat a top ten player or Nakamura’s triumph – it is all about Wesley So being forfeited in round 9 and I’m sure that this is not what Rich had in mind when he forfeited So.
Commentator Ramirez claimed that So was also writing notes during their game in last year’s Millionaire Chess Open. This wasn't mentioned in his review of the tournament for chessbase.com. Other players claimed that they had told So that he shouldn’t be writing down notes. Akobian was interviewed by Ashley and said that he likes So and they are friends and teammates and he was ready to fight at the board and he was as stunned as anyone by the forfeit. It made me wonder if Akobian wasn’t protesting too much and feared being made the fall guy for the forfeit. The chess.com article quoted So’s chess coach at Webster University, Paul Truong saying "This is exactly what we told Wesley three years ago…He always writes notes to himself. We told him this is against FIDE rules...We discussed this issue at least a dozen times. He had a smile and thought nobody's going to complain about it.”
I’m surprised this habit of So’s never made it to the press before. So was in the widely covered Millionaire Chess Open (which he won) and the TATA Steel tournaments (where he tied for second) within the last six months. There was no mention of this supposedly annoying habit of writing himself notes in any broadcasts or write-ups. Webster University won collegiate championships with So as its best player and also there is no mention of So writing notes during his games.
Since there was never any mention of this behavior before the US Championships and no mention of this behavior during the US Championships but now this behavior is being mentioned everywhere I look I think this is a matter of kicking a person when they are down. So had lost three of eight games and was not going to provide any drama by even threatening to win the championship. I believe if he was tied for first or within striking distance there is no way he would have been forfeited and everyone else would have kept silent about this note taking just as they have for the last three or four years.
The chess24.com article did more than talk about chess. It grabbed material from an article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that delved into So’s private life. The article mentioned that So had strained relations with his mother over the last few years and lives with a family in Minnetonka, MN. The matriarch of the family So lives with is Lotis Key, who told the Star-Tribune that So’s mother came to St. Louis and confronted him outside the championship site to threaten him into returning to college. Key also claimed that So’s mother told her that Webster chess coach Paul Truong helped her get to St. Louis.
This soap opera didn’t need any more drama but then Paul Truong chimed in with a facebook post that revealed that Wesley So didn’t quit Webster in order to become a chess professional but that his chess scholarship was revoked in October for ‘multiple team rules’ violations. Truong also claimed that Key was promoting a false narrative to blame Truong and So’s mother for his current troubles in the tournament and even included a picture of So with his mother and sister in the blog post.
Two months ago, So was written about as a great kid with a bright chess future (like in this feature chessbase article). Now So is portrayed as a weird chess player with a note writing habit who has a fractured family life that was thrown out of college and the latest chessbase article on him is titled 'What is wrong with Wesley So?' What is the truth in all this? I don’t know and I don’t care either. So is a great chess player who proved at Tata Steel that he can compete with the best in the world. His personal life doesn’t concern me and I don’t really care if he’s writing notes to himself. All this looks like to me is a bunch of people piling on a celebrity (or as close to celebrity as one can be in the chess world) when they hit a bump in the road. Tiger Woods was hiring ‘traveling companions’ for years but only when he stopped winning majors was it written about. Not one word of So’s note taking or having his scholarship revoked or his family situation saw the light of day until he lost a couple of games and if he was leading the US Championships I bet it would all be under wraps still. So all I can say is welcome to America, Wesley So – the land of fame and adulation as long as you’re a winner.