ST. LOUIS – For decades after World War II, the Soviet Union dominated international chess competitions. Now the center of the chess world has shifted to the United States.
Specifically, from Moscow to St. Louis.
Thanks to a chess-playing philanthropist, this Midwestern city boasts a luxurious club that lures the world’s top grandmasters to competitions with lucrative prize funds and reaches a global audience with TV-quality internet broadcasts.
The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis has relegated legendary chess clubs on the East and West coasts to second-tier status, and has become a magnet for grandmasters in the United States and abroad.
“I don’t think anyone could have expected a chess capital to arise in the center of the U.S.,” said Graham Burgess, a Woodbury resident who is a founder and co-owner of Gambit Publications, a London-based chess publishing house.
The club was started by Rex Sinquefield, who was raised in a St. Louis orphanage and made a fortune as a pioneer of stock market index funds. When he retired 12 years ago, he decided to indulge his passion for chess.
“I’d been saying it would be nice to have a decent chess club for people to play in,” he said, although even he admits the club ended up delivering far more than that. “It has exceeded my dreams by a factor of a million,” he said.
Whereas most U.S. chess clubs meet in low-rent or donated spaces, such as school cafeterias or church basements, the St. Louis club is situated in the fashionable Central West End neighborhood. The 6,000-square-foot facility occupies three floors in a renovated commercial space, decorated in a striking black and white motif.
It holds tournaments, offers private lessons and group lectures, conducts Ladies’ Knights (beginner classes for women) and — as its name emphasizes — runs programs in more than 130 schools to spread the cognitive and behavioral benefits of chess.
It has also started teaching the game to St. Louis cops so they can, in turn, teach it to kids in the neighborhood, hopefully bridging a deep divide.
Soon after the club opened in July 2008, Sinquefield’s ambition expanded. He helped relocate the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame into a building across the street from his club. In 2009, the club began annually hosting the U.S. Championship and the U.S. Women’s Championship, events that “had fallen on hard times financially” and were no longer attracting the nation’s top players, said Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan, a four-time U.S. champion.
“They raised the prize funds significantly, rescuing both events from obscurity,” he said.
Then Sinquefield really started pouring money in — by the tens of millions. He created the Sinquefield Cup tournament and other special invitational events that offered hundreds of thousands of dollars each in prize funds to the world’s elite players.
“We really take care of them,” Sinquefield said. “Everybody goes away making money. … I wanted everyone to always have an incentive to come here.”
Indeed, the world’s elite players, including the current world champion and several former champions, keep coming back. And for a mere $10 ticket, spectators can stand within an arm’s length of the players as they compete, an intimacy rare at most world-class events.
Burgess said other patrons have spent large sums to promote chess, but Sinquefield has done it smartly — establishing a permanent home, offering big paydays and live-streaming the events for free to a global internet audience.
Sinquefield’s largesse not only put St. Louis on the chess world’s map, but it was a factor in the United States becoming the world’s top chess country.
Sinquefield even helped persuade Grandmaster Fabiano Caruana, born in Miami and raised in New York City, to return to the United States from Europe, where he had moved to further his chess career. Caruana, ranked No. 3 in the world, decided to settle in St. Louis, and lives just blocks from the club.
With Caruana as the leader, the U.S. team won gold at the Chess Olympiad in Azerbaijan last September for the first time in 40 years, while Russia could muster only a bronze medal.
Now that Caruana is back, the United States is home to the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 6 players in the world. No. 2 is Wesley So, the Minnetonka grandmaster and newly crowned U.S. champion, who came to the United States from the Philippines. Although Sinquefield had nothing to do with So’s move, St. Louis did.
So arrived in 2012 on a chess scholarship at Webster University, one of several St. Louis area universities that recruit promising young grandmasters to bulk up for national collegiate competitions.
As if St. Louis didn’t already have enough grandmasters roaming its streets.