So’s forfeit rocks U.S. Championship!

The tournament has gone from bad to worse for Wesley So. Photo by Lennart Ootes.

Everyone who follows international chess will have heard the controversy surrounding Wesley So’s forfeiture in the ninth round of the 2015 U.S. Championships. One of the pre-tournament favorites, this tournament has turned into quite a nightmare for the Filipino star and has put a damper on the entire tournament.

After changing his federation, he was making his debut in competing for the U.S. title and there was a lot of excitement about the pending battle with Hikaru Nakamura. This all turned sour on Friday after the So disqualification. Here is what happened:

During the ninth round of the U.S. Championship, Wesley So was paired with Varuzhan Akobian. Akobian was having a poor tournament losing a couple of tough games. So’s tournament was going south as well having already lost three games and valuable ELO points. According to Tony Rich, Wesley So had been warned twice previously for “note taking” on his scoresheet.

At or around the sixth move of the game, Akobian had informed the Chief Arbiter that So’s note-taking was “distracting”. Chess.com also verified that So had repeated this practice in the first three rounds. This included a complaint by Sam Shankland in round two. The notes were not chess-related. Following is an explanation by Tony Rich, Chief Arbiter.

Video by CCSCSL.

How is this behavior warrant a forfeiture? The rule is cited by FIDE states:

11.3 During play the players are forbidden to use any notes, sources of information or advice, or analyse any game on another chessboard. (…) The rules of a competition may specify a different, less severe, penalty.

11.5 It is forbidden to distract or annoy the opponent in any manner whatsoever.

11.7 Persistent refusal by a player to comply with the Laws of Chess shall be penalised by loss of the game.

It was the contention that after So was warned he felt that such a rule did not preclude him from taking notes on a separate sheet of paper. It turns out that Alejandro Ramirez saw So’s idiosyncrasy of writing notes on his scoresheet at the Millionaire Chess Open (which So won). Before making the decision, Rich contacted International Arbiter Francisco Guadalupe for verification of the rules.

In the background Tony Rich is seen explaining his ruling to the players. GM Timur Gareev is trying to figure out what has happened. Truly epic! Photo by Lennart Ootes.

It was quite a shock that has rocked the chess world and has ignited a debate on this particular rule. What was discovered during the debate was that many strong players did not know of the “note-taking” rule. It should not be assumed that even the strongest players know all of the FIDE tournament rules. There was even a famous case of Yury Averbakh being unaware that while a king cannot cross an attacked square while castling, the rook can.

So posted the following message on Facebook:

I have been having trouble concentrating so I wrote a note to myself on a piece of paper (not my score sheet) …it said: double check triple check use your time. Akobian saw it and complained to the arbiter and a forfeit was declared. I’m sorry I did not know it was against the rules.

Posted by Wesley So on Friday, April 10, 2015

So has actually launched an appeal. This appeal will not be on the decision to forfeit, but for the loss of rating points. There would be a question of whether a forfeit or adjudication by the Arbiter would simply nullify the game while recording the result.

There seems to be other issues surrounding the controversy. According to an article run in the Star Tribune (Minnesota), the family that So has been living with since leaving Webster University has been embroiled in a dispute with So’s biological family.

“There are personal problems in my family,” So said after the forfeit. “Trying to fix them during this tournament caused a lot of stress and tension. It diverted a lot of energy from the board when I should be focusing on my game.”

~GM Wesley So

Loftis Key, Wesley So’s host mother became embroiled in a related controversy. This picture was taken on the day before the controversy. Photo by Lennart Ootes.

The crux of the drama has to do with Wesley So leaving Webster to pursue a professional career in chess. This angered his family and according to the article, So’s mother (Elenanor So) and aunt came to the site of the U.S. Championships to demand that he return to school or lose contact with the family. There was commotion outside the club after his game which included yelling. So apologized to the club for the commotion. Loftis Key, So’s host mother, accused Webster coach Paul Truong for orchestrating the visit. Truong has acknowledged contact with the mother, but denied any involvement in her trip.

So will be able to play his last two games without any penalties. However, the rules stand against note-taking and apply to all players. This is a very unfortunate incident and while the pain was subside over time, it has put a damper on what was to be his inauguration as a national player for the U.S.

So is optimistic about his future and has no intention on leaving his new federation. “Nothing is going right for me in this tournament,” he said. “I’ll be glad when it’s over. There’ll be other U.S. championships. My goal for next year will be to win it.”

Official Site: https://www.uschesschamps.com/
Livestream: https://new.livestream.com/ccscsl/USChessChampionships
Chess24.com: https://chess24.com/en/watch/live-tournaments/us-championship-2015#live
Drum Coverage! https://www.thechessdrum.net/

Daaim Shabazz

Dr. Daaim Shabazz is the creator and webmaster of The Chess Drum. He serves as a tenured faculty member of Global Business & Marketing at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, USA. He holds an MBA in Marketing and a doctorate in International Affairs & Development. He has served the journalist community for more than 30 years and still competes in tournaments occasionally.

24 Comments

  1. The current saga with Wesley So is very very sad. I wish that he can resolve it quietly and peacefully with his family.
    Unfortunately, I am now being used as an escape goat. I am being attacked in the media by Mrs. Lotis Key (the woman who Wesley is living with right now in Minnesota) with full of false information for months. I have held my tongue until now because I did not want Wesley to get hurt. But unfortunately, the truth has to come out when I am now being directly attacked and mentioned in the media.
    It is a blatantly false narrative that was purposely presented to the media by Mrs. Lotis Key that Wesley So decided to quit school and left Webster. She also claimed that because of this, I decided to sabotage his chess career out of revenge. It would make a good Hollywood story but this is 100% false. The idea about his Mother and Aunt were trying to get him to come back to Webster last week is also 100% not true because they knew the real reason. Wesley could not come back even if he wanted to. The reason is simple.
    Wesley So did not quit school after winning Millionaire Chess to turn professional. Wesley So’s SPICE chess scholarship was fully revoked on October 28, 2014 at 12:02 am for multiple team rule violations. He was informed and his biological family was copied on the email.
    I also had to inform all his teammates that this occurred and that Wesley cannot represent Webster at the PanAm and Final Four.
    Every student who receives a chess scholarship must sign a letter of understanding with the following:
    If awarded a SPICE scholarship, I will:
    “• play in local, regional, state, and/or national-level tournaments as determined by the SPICE scholarship committee (1)
    • volunteer in local scholastic chess community service, such as teaching and/or assisting at tournaments (2)
    • maintain good academic standing as determined by Webster University (3)
    • allow the SPICE scholarship committee to review current grades and academic performance for scholarship renewal applications and enrollment requirements for students
    • follow the policies and directions given by the SPICE leadership connected to training schedules and other chess-related issues (4)
    The SPICE scholarship committee will review your participation each semester, and reserves the right to terminate your chess scholarship.”
    The false narrative started in the first ChessBase article written by Mr. Eliseo. I did inform him that there was serious misinformation in the article. But I did not demand a retraction because I did not want to embarrass Wesley.
    If I wanted to sabotage his career, why now? Why after Webster dominated the PanAm and Final Four without Wesley. And why not all these previous months? He played Las Vegas North American Open, Wijk aan Zee, and Bunratty, etc. without any incident.
    Wesley was completely winning against Sevian and Robson. But in sharp positions, and especially in time pressure, mistakes are bound to happen. He offered a draw to Sevian but Sevian refused and played on to win. In the game against Holt, he was caught in an opening line which Holt previously prepared for the PanAm. And for his forfeit against Akobian, he was specifically told by us and his former Webster teammates at least a dozen times not to do it again. He ignored what we told him. The last time I saw him do this was during Millionaire Chess in October 2014. I immediately told him to stop it. GM Ramirez also saw him do it and commented on it yesterday. He was warned by Chief Arbiter Tony Rich twice during this US Championship. He also ignored those warnings. He knew full well that the 3rd time would result in a forfeit. I was not even at the venue. How am I responsible for this?
    I also stated the following a few days ago after Mr. Eliseo posted a false accusation from Mrs. Lotis Key:
    …let me make it abundantly clear. As I told Eliseo Tumbaga in private messages, I DID NOT book any hotel room for anyone, especially Wesley’s relatives. I DID NOT pay for for any hotel room in cash or credit card. I DID NOT buy any airline tickets for anyone. I DID NOT arrange any trip for anyone. Neither did Webster or anyone I know. I DID NOT go to the St Louis Chess Club. In fact, I have not been to the St Louis Chess Club since March 2012. Whoever said that I paid for these things to purposely harm Wesley is is either a liar or delusional. This is an issue between Wesley and his relatives, not mine. Leave me out of it. I want to have nothing to do with it. I went to work at Webster U every single day and all of us have more than our hands full preparing our 3 students competing at the US Championships. I do not have time for someone else’s drama. All of the chess students and coaching staff at Webster U are sick and tired of all the drama. Enough already. Leave all of us alone.
    I have no ill will toward Wesley, even today. We always treated him like family and we have gone out of our ways to help him on and off the chess board for 2.5 years. All of us feel sad and sorry for what he is going through right now and we all wish him the best.

    1. Paul,

      Thanks for shedding light on the situation. It clarifies some issues and raises other questions.

      I was personally saddened at the incident, but of course we are finding that the situation is much more complicated than what happened at the tournament and may go all the way back to his teen years in the Philippines.

      All we can do is hope for the best.

    2. oh, Well i had Tricky Robson as my Darkhorse in this event , you can tell he did some work by the games in Mo’s event,SO um its not really surprisning. UM just in the Buffalo Public Librarywaiting on the game today beteween naka and Robson, looks like fun today Chessdrummers! I see the U.S. got many Representatives nowadays gettin high on the charts! lol

  2. Wow! sounds very unfortunate but necessary. I hope Wesley takes time to reflect on this and make some adjustments moving forward and quickly get back on track.

  3. Wesley So knew exactly what was going on. I wonder who is this worst enemy he is talking about?hmm, and considering someone a worst enemy is something there must be something that surely happened in the past. I will leave with you the rest for your analysis and strategy to figure it out. Wesley’s mother admitted something. It’s enough. Someone can brainwashed and outplay and fool the others but not all the people.

  4. Unfortunately Paul Truong, your past is way too checkered, and everything you say about Wesley has the intention of knocking him down….EVERYTHING. So no, I do not believe you. I feel you are trying to turn people against him, including Robson.

  5. Several comments here…

    (1) I don’t know what Paul Truong could be thinking, posting private academic information about Wesley So in this fashion. He (and, by extension, Webster) could have serious exposure as a result, regardless of whether what he’s written is true. There’s an old saw about “better to be silent…”. Someone should share this with Mr. Truong, stat.

    (2) Tony and Franc did indeed discuss this – several times, actually, in the days leading up to the Akobian incident. Franc’s in Columbus right now for the National High School, as am I. He is my source for the first sentence of this paragraph.

    (3) Wesley has already lost his appeal, as I understand it. The appeal had virtually zero chance of being upheld anyway. Loss of game as a result of a rules violation just about always results in a rating change, so long as the game satisfies all requirements for rating. (For USCF, that means one full move – two ply – played in the game.)

    1. What private academic information did Truong provide? Was his comment edited? There’s nothing above that would be considered private information. Students in college sports are often dismissed from teams and removed from school teams for rules violations, and it is usually addressed in the media, particularly for the big sports. I don’t see anything above out of the ordinary in that regard.

      1. This is not a typical college sports situation. College chess is not recognized nor covered by the NCAA or NAIA.

        Further, the accuracy of Mr.Truong’s claims is contradicted by the following. Wesley traveled with Webster to the 2014 Millionaire Chess Open. In fact, Wesley and Ray Robson were photographed together – by Susan Polgar, I believe – after the tournament. Wesley is wearing a Webster shirt. See this link: https://chessdailynews.com/be-a-part-of-millionaire-chess-the-richest-most-exciting-tournament-in-chess/. MCO 1 happened in November 2014. How could Wesley have been dismissed in October 2014?

        Also, take a look at Webster’s site: https://www.webster.edu/spice/chess-team/. Note that Wesley is listed as having turned pro after winning Millionaire Chess. So, is Webster lying, too? And if a school had revoked a student’s scholarship for cause, would that student still be listed as part of the team?

        1. Okay, those are good points about the timing, in their totality. It is possible to explain some of it, though. (I’m not going to do so as I wasn’t there – I’m just pointing out that some explanations are possible.)

          I still don’t think anything listed by Truong could be considered confidential information, though.

        2. MCO #1 was October 9-13 2014, right? Apparently, he was dismissed after that, but where are the details about the team violations? I’ll have to ask Paul about it.

          Maybe that’s what he can’t reveal.

        3. First, Daaim is correct about the dates of MCO 1. (Tournaments blend together in my head.) So, my point there is not valid. However, there’s still the matter of what Webster’s site itself says about Wesley’s turning pro. If a student is dismissed from a school, generally the school strips that student out of its publicity.

          Second, as I understand FERPA, what a school typically can or cannot say about a student is very similar to what an employer can or cannot say publicly about an employee. You’re allowed to say whether a student is still enrolled. You’re not allowed to discuss the circumstances around the enrollment status, especially in terms of grades and behavior, without prior written permission from the student. Athletes typically give schools permission to reveal some FERPA information as part of their letters of intent. Even then, though, what they can say is quite limited.

          Obviously, I’m speculating based on the idea that most schools with chess scholarships don’t have the same level of oversight detail as an athletic department that is monitored by NCAA compliance officials. It’s certainly possible that Webster does, but if I were a betting man, I’d wager that they don’t.

  6. Magandang Buhay! Good Life to all!
    We should always support GM Wesley So in his tough journey to World Championship… Please avoid being barriers to this goal. After reaching this goal in his life, then he can go on with his normal life. He should weigh the pros and cons as of now. The best move can be the optimization of these things. All resources are needed of course but peace of mind is essential to focus more on his games. Help him achieved these and Think positive always… a lost first game can lead to more winning games.
    Wishing you GM Wes more chess power and an indomitable spirit to win more games…Reach your goal,,,the World Championship…

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