A chess grandmaster from Minnetonka has gone from a rising star to an established one by winning his second consecutive super elite tournament and reaching a level of play that only 11 others in the history of the game have achieved.
Wesley So is now being touted as one of two players most likely to contend for the world chess championship in coming years.
"This year, he's played maybe the best chess in the world," said Russian grandmaster Vladimir Kramnik, a former world champion. "I really think he's going to be a serious challenger to [World Champion] Magnus Carlsen."
So, 23, won the London Chess Classic on Sunday, a tournament featuring eight of the top 10 players in the world, making it one of toughest events of the year. That victory came just months after winning one of the other top tournaments of the year, the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis.
So's undefeated performance in those two events, which Carlsen skipped, plus his strong showing in two other elite tournaments, made him the winner of the 2016 Grand Chess Tour, a circuit of four prestigious tournaments with a $100,000 grand prize going to the player who had the best results throughout the series.
All totaled, So won $295,000 in prize money in those four tournaments, on top of tens of thousands of dollars earned at other events during the year.
But the achievement that earned So a place in chess history is that his international chess rating has now surpassed 2800, a level that only 11 other players have ever reached.
Not even the legendary Bobby Fischer broke the 2800 barrier.
Ranked No. 4
So has now climbed to No. 4 in the world rankings.
"We just have to recognize what a great achievement [this is] for this young man," said U.S. grandmaster Yasser Seirawan.
Former world champion Garry Kasparov tweeted: "Congratulations to Wesley So for winning the #GrandChessTour! He showed great consistency [and], bad news for opponents, he's still improving."
Kasparov and several other grandmasters said that So and fellow American grandmaster Fabiano Caruana, 24, are the two players who pose the biggest threat to Carlsen's world champion title.
"He and Fabi — they look like the real deal," said British grandmaster Nigel Davies.
So said he was honored by the praise, but tried to downplay it.
"It's too early to compare me and Magnus. We'll take it one step at a time," he said after the match during an Internet broadcast.
Some of So's rivals, including Caruana, sounded irritated at all the accolades for So.
Caruana, the U.S. champion and No. 2 player in the world, complimented So for his solid play and his big improvement, but also said, "I don't see anything terrifying in his play, as well."
A banner year
So won a gold medal for his play at the Chess Olympiad held in Azerbaijan in September, a performance that helped the U.S. win the team gold medal for the first time in 40 years.
And a blitz game — 5 minutes for each player — that he played against Kasparov in April was so remarkable for its multiple intuitive and winning piece sacrifices that it has been dubbed "The Immortal Blitz Game."
"It's a wonderful feeling to have all the hard work and sacrifice by me and my family pay off," So said of his success.
So said his year "had been going just about normal until the Sinquefield Cup [in August], and somehow something clicked after that."
So has been playing against the world's best for two years now, since he broke into the world's top 10 and started receiving invitations to the highest level tournaments. That competition — which left him in last place in the Sinquefield Cup in 2015 — has taught him a lot and sharpened his play, he said.
"I'd also like to thank the Lord for letting me win such a prestigious event," he said over the weekend.
Next up for So is playing in another high-level tournament in the Netherlands in January, where the field will include world champ Carlsen.
Dennis J. McGrath • 612-673-4293