Apparently this is old news: Wesley So, the eighth strongest chess player on Planet Earth, abandoned his scholarship at Webster University to become a full-time professional chess player. He switched to the U.S. Chess Federation and dropped out in December; I just heard about it last week when I read the latest issue of Chess Life. Interview with his old coach Susan Polgar here. Interview with his mom over here. His Asian mom is not happy about his decision:
Q: So did you talk to Wesley about becoming a full time professional chess player?
LS: Yes, but only after he graduates from Webster University. We had hoped it did not mean that he would give up his education. No matter how good he is as a chess professional, it cannot replace education and a university degree. All of us encouraged him to stay in school. He still has so much to learn.
Unfortunately, there were poor advices given to Wesley which is not to our liking. I have a negative feeling as a mother that this is a very huge mistake on Wesley. It hurts me terribly.
I tend to agree with Wesley’s mom. According to one article, he had already completed 2.5 years of school. He’s attending college for free because of his chess scholarship. Why not just finish it?
It’s a hard question to answer, and to be fair, many professional chess players don’t have degrees. Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana, and Hikaru Nakamura are the top three players in the world, and none of them has a college degree. Bobby Fischer didn’t have one, nor did Garry Kasparov. If you work your way down the top ten players in the current top 100 FIDE list, Vishy Anand and Levon Aronian have degrees, but most of the others don’t. There’s a stereotype that top chess players are mental geniuses, but it would seem that most are specialized in one thing only: chess. Most don’t do anything else.
If Wesley wants to become World Champion, I guess one could argue that he should do what other World Champions have done: forget about college and just go for it. But I wonder if studying for another year and a half would’ve done anything to hurt his career. There is a lot more he could’ve learned, and best of all, it would have been free. Susan Polgar took him from #99 in the world and brought him up to #8 within 2.5 years, so he was clearly making good progress under her tutelage. Anand, Ivanchuk, and Topalov are older players who still compete at the top level while well into middle-age; I can’t see how Wesley wouldn’t still be competitive at 23 vs. 21.
I have no doubt that Wesley is going to go far in chess, and I’m cheering for him to do well. I just wonder if he made the right decision here.