The United States is stocking up on nerds.
That’s the humorous spin “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart put on a recent report that one of the world’s top chess players was being offered a substantial amount of money to play for the U.S.
Now, it turns out to be true.
Grandmaster Fabiano Caruana, the world’s No. 3 player, announced Tuesday that he was switching allegiance to the U.S. Chess Federation, from the Italian federation.
The details remain murky, but it’s almost certain that a wealthy St. Louis retired investor is behind the deal, and may have offered Caruana more than $100,000 to make the move.
With Caruana’s decision, the U.S. has added two of the world’s top seven grandmasters to its team since October. The other new player is Wesley So, a Filipino who moved to Minnetonka last fall and currently is the seventh highest rated player in the world.
The attempt to lure the 22-year-old Caruana to the U.S. team first bubbled up to the surface in March, prompting “The Daily Show” to have some fun with the report under the heading of “Chess News Roundup.” On Tuesday, after Caruana and U.S. chess officials confirmed the news was true, it led World Champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway to tweet:
“So they are indeed buying nerds!”
This is the first time the U.S. has had three such high-level chess players, and all of them are under 28 years of age. Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, ranked No. 4 in the world, is the other top U.S. player.
Caruana’s move directly impacts Wesley So, who now would have to defeat two higher-ranked players to achieve his goal of becoming U.S. champion.
But So welcomed his rival, calling Caruana "a great guy and a great chess player....Glad to have you aboard!"
Caurana now gives the U.S. a triple threat to regain the world championship, with three of the world’s top 7 grandmasters now playing with the U.S. flag on their side of the board.
Small, slender and bespectacled, Caruana looks very much the part of a nerd, but he’s a killer at the chess board. At a top-level tournament last year, Caruana ran off an impressive streak of seven consecutive wins against the best in the world on his way to the tournament victory.
If Caruana is able to become world champion, it would literally bring the title full circle back to Brooklyn, New York. Caruana was born in Miami but – like the late world champion Bobby Fischer – he was raised in Brooklyn. When Caruana was about 13, his family moved to Europe to provide him with more opportunities to develop his chess talent.
With an Italian mother and his father of Italian ancestry, Caruana joined Italy’s chess federation and is a four-time Italian champion. He holds dual American and Italian citizenship.
Caruana’s move is widely believed to have been financed by Rex Sinquefield, a reported billionaire in St. Louis who is an amateur chess player and the leading chess patron in the U.S. He has poured money into the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, which hosts big-prize tournaments that attract the world’s top players.
In March, the New York Times reported that an effort to recruit Caruana had “the whiff of a Cold War-era plot” and included an offer of tens of thousands of dollars. An Italian chess official told a newspaper at the time that the Americans offered Caruana 100,000 euros (about $113,000), and that Azerbaijan offered four times that amount.
Sinquefield hasn’t confirmed his role, but in the announcement Tuesday, Caruana made a point to say that he was “absolutely thrilled to be representing the United States again and working with the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.”
And in his reaction to the news, Wesley So commented: "Thank you to Rex for making the [U.S.] team stronger than ever."
When So switched from the Philippine federation to the U.S., he said, he did so without outside financial support. He paid a transfer fee of about $5,000 out of his own pocket, he said.
In addition to Sinquefield's efforts, the U.S. Chess Federation is trying to raise money to help other foreign players transfer to the U.S.
Aside from increasing the chances that a U.S. player could become world champion, Caruana’s return boosts the U.S. team’s hunt for gold. When the Chess Olympiad team competition is held next year, the U.S. team will be one of the top favorites, along with Russia, China and Ukraine.
The news of Caruana’s decision was described as a “bombshell announcement” on one chess website, and Mig Greengard, a New York City associate of former world champion Garry Kasparov celebrated with this tweet:
“Holy heck, Brooklyn is coming home!”