Wesley So: A Filipino-Born Chess Master, Becomes an American

Grandmaster Wesley So waits before a game at the Ninth Grand Slam Masters Final in Bilbao, Spain, July 21, 2016. (Vincent West / Reuters)

My Impromptus today begins with a little note on “American exceptionalism.” What is it? When people use the phrase, what do they mean? I find that many of the people who talk the loudest about American exceptionalism are not especially friendly to the things that make America exceptional. Anyway, an argument.

I also have items on patriotism, Russia, Burma, baseball, language, and more.

After I wrote my column — my head filled with ideas of the American “difference” — I happened upon a story out of the Philippines. It is about Wesley So, one of the best chess players in the world (No. 9). He was born in the Philippines in 1993. Before I get to So, let me recount a story I have told in these pages before. In fact, Google tells me I recounted it as recently as January. Let me paste. The scene is Rajasthan, India, about 15 years ago:

A group of young men told me that they had no real opportunity to get ahead. They could take standardized tests, and do well on them. But it wouldn’t matter. They could apply for university places, or for jobs — but it wouldn’t matter. Everything was wired. Everything was controlled by nepotism and the like.

It was clear to me they would have flourished in a different type of society. I burned for them, and with them.

All right, Wesley So — who has just become a U.S citizen. The news organization Rappler (always under siege by the Duterte government) reports, “The faint hope of luring Filipino chess prodigy Wesley So back to the Philippines has just been snuffed out.” Rappler then quotes So, at length, and so will I:

“I love that anyone can strive to succeed in the U.S. You are not held back by your color, lack of connections, or the amount of money you have. If you work hard, you have a better chance of making it here than anywhere else in the world. I came here ready to work hard, and it turned out just as I dreamed.”

More (and think of those young men in India):

“That does not mean I don’t love the Philippines. I have good memories from there. But I did not have the connections needed to succeed in that culture. I was from the province, not a city boy. Had no money, etc. I wanted to go further, and there was only one country where a nobody could make it. The USA!”


“I want to give back to a country that has been so good to me. From the moment I landed here, I was encouraged and enabled to become better than I was. I like this attitude and the tremendous generosity of American culture. Most people here have no idea what it is like anywhere else in the world, and they don’t appreciate the amazing spirit of this country.”


“I am now a part of the American dream. I am part of the most successful country on earth, ready to make my own contribution and have my own legacy here.”

By God, may America always be such a land, and not just for chess champions.

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