I'm a Rare Breed: An Elite Chess Player Who’s Open About His Faith

Why I follow Jesus publicly, even when people warn that my career will suffer.
I'm a Rare Breed: An Elite Chess Player Who’s Open About His Faith
Image: Richard Fleischman

On the small planet where elite chess players dwell, very few people worship Jesus Christ. If anyone discovers that you’re one of those “superstitious,” “narrow-minded idiots,” you’re likely to see nasty comments accumulate on your Facebook fan page. On a regular basis, I receive emails from strangers lecturing me about the dangers of following Jesus. Out of pity or disgust, they wonder how I, the world’s second-ranked chess player, can be so “weak-minded.”

I have been assured that identifying openly as a Christian will interfere with sponsorship, support, and invitations to events. I have been told that spending time reading my Bible, praying, and going to church will inevitably weaken my performance. People plead with me to at least keep quiet. They say thanking God publicly makes me look ridiculous.

So why did I make such a risky move?

Playing it Safe

The Philippines, where I grew up, is a country of God-seekers. People mention God all the time, in just about every context. Everyone believes he exists, even if they’re unwilling to claim much more than that.

As a child, I was informed that you needed to be a good person so that God would give you certain blessings, like food and jobs—which are very important in such a poor country. But this confused me, because it seemed like the bad people received more than the good people. I knew of many famous crooks who went to church, wore religious symbols, and got tattoos of Jesus or a crucifix—and they were pretty rich.

Clearly, many popular beliefs and practices were less a matter of worshiping God than of appeasing the god of luck. One legend had it that if you rubbed a particular part of a particular statue, you would be blessed. If you committed a heinous crime, you could make a large donation to some saint or crawl on your knees to the altar, begging for forgiveness.

As a child, I decided to play it safe; I would recite the right words, and I would make the sign of the cross at the right time. But I never felt connected to God in any meaningful way. In fact, I was mostly afraid he would send me to hell. Deep down, the whole thing made no sense.

My New Family

I have played chess since age six or seven. At first, it was just a fun game I could win. As I grew up, I kept on winning. But the Philippines offers little support for chess players. (On the whole, the people prefer basketball.) There are many excellent chess players in the Philippines, but chess is regarded as a poor man’s game. Powerful, wealthy people who could help chess players advance in society just ignore them.

Despite these disadvantages, I kept on playing, representing my country in regional tournaments and trying to make some money here and there. But to become an elite chess player, you need to invest in your development, and I could never afford to hire a coach or secure serious training. I used to study from newspaper clippings because my family could not afford real books.

At around age 16, I sank into depression. Even though I recognized my special talent for playing chess, there seemed to be no point in developing it. Whether I worked hard or not, no one would care. It felt like there was no realistic hope of pursuing a career as a chess professional. Out of frustration, I stopped studying, and my player rating began to slide.

One day, I got the sudden urge to leave. I was 18 years old, and I had lived on my own for two years. At that point, I had received an offer to play on the chess team of a small American university, and I decided I should take the offer and, at the very least, get a degree to prepare me for the future.

Then I met the people who would became my foster family. They were Christians, and in 2013, we got together for a small private dinner. After that, I began flying to Minnesota every few weeks for additional visits. Lotis, my foster mother, could sense my unhappiness. After a while, she asked me what I wanted to do in life, and I replied that I loved playing chess but didn’t think I was talented enough to translate that into a full-time career.

“How do you know?” she asked. “You’ve never had the luxury of devoting yourself to chess full time. You’ve always had to worry about making money, finding your next meal, even figuring out where to live.” Lotis told me to focus on chess alone for the next two years—the family would support me any way it could. And if I didn’t show improvement, she said, I could always return to school.

By the end of 2014, I had quit college, moved in with my foster family, and launched a professional chess career. Most importantly, I had also entered into a relationship with Jesus Christ. It all happened so fast that we still look back at those early days in disbelief.

Since my foster parents were mature Christians, it must have been obvious when I first moved in that my faith wasn’t as sophisticated as theirs. They never condemned me for this, but they did insist that living as a member of the family meant abiding by certain house rules and customs. I would need to read my Bible every night and faithfully accompany them to church on the weekend. Over the first few months, I would fall asleep during every sermon—not because they were boring, but because all the changes in my life were so stressful and overwhelming.

I never minded going to church, and somehow I managed to absorb real wisdom from those sermon fragments. I also got very interested in reading the little Bible I was given. Whenever I had questions I would ask my foster parents, and their answers were always simple and made good sense. They taught me how to find answers in the Bible myself and use it to check what others said. The Bible was the final authority, deeper and wiser than the internet and more truthful than any of my friends.

Before long, I was practicing my faith in a more intense way. My new family calls Christianity the “thinking man’s religion.” They encouraged me to ask questions, search for answers, and really wrestle with what I discovered. All the while, I would observe how they lived their lives, taking note of how they spent their time and money. They worked hard, they always went the extra mile to help others, and they made every effort to resist immorality. I knew I wanted the kind of simple, contented, God-fearing life they enjoyed.

The God of Everything

People in the chess world sometimes want to know whether I think God makes me win matches. Yes. And sometimes he makes me lose them too. He is the God of chess and, more importantly, the God of everything. Win or lose, I give him the glory. Of course, it’s hard when I don’t get what I want, the way it is for any child whose father says no. But even when I don’t understand God’s ways, I’m confident that his vision is much bigger than my own.

Instead of worrying about the future, I try to focus on the work God has put before me. Right now it’s chess, so I study it diligently and play it as well as possible. Will I rise to become the world champion one day? Only God knows for sure. In the meantime, I know that he is a generous and loving father, always showering me with more blessings than I could possibly deserve. I content myself with playing one match at a time and practicing gratitude for my daily bread.

Wesley So is a Filipino and American chess grandmaster. He is the current United States chess champion.

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