Chess in St. Louis

Chess in St. Louis

Senor Barrett '95

Believe it or not, events in St. Louis in the past 15 years have brought the game of chess to a prominence not before seen in its history. Chess began in India as a game called Chaturanga, eventually moving along the Silk Road to Arabia and into the Iberian Peninsula before eventually circulating throughout Europe. America was among the last regions of the world to learn the game. Still, in the 1840’s, a prodigy from New Orleans named Paul Morphy became the greatest practitioner of chess of his era. In 1886, the first World Chess Championship was played downtown at the St. Louis Chess, Checkers, and Whist Club. Since then though the Game of Kings was conspicuously absent here while it blossomed in such places as Germany and Russia. Greenwich Village’s Marshall Club boasts the only American World Champion Bobby Fischer, who was crowned in 1972. His ascent to the throne took the world stage during the Cold War, symbolic of the American versus Soviet conflict of the era in which it transpired. Only recently has the chess world’s attention turned back to the United States and specifically to St. Louis.

It took 120 years for chess to reappear in a major way in St. Louis, but it did so suddenly and dramatically in the shape of the unique Chess Club and Scholastic Center, financed by a benefactor fittingly named Rex [Sinquefield]. Since opening in 2008, the club has annually hosted the US Championship, an invitational event for a handful of the country’s top players. With an eye on creating the next Bobby Fischer and returning the World Championship to the United States, St. Louis has staunchly advocated the same unity of mind and effort that made Russia the center of chess practically throughout the 20th century.

In 2011, Rex moved the World Chess Hall of Fame and Museum here to create what has become referred to as the “chess campus.” His annual birthday party is celebrated with the Sinquefield Cup, a tournament that features between 4 and 10 of the world’s top-ranked players. Former Russian presidential candidate and longest-reigning World Champion Garry Kasparov is a regular guest of honor for these events. Next, the Saint Louis Chess Club spearheaded the “Grand Chess Tour” presenting the equivalent of Grand Slam tennis tournaments for chess in cities such as London, Paris, Bucharest, and Leuven. This string of events has been made possible by an unprecedented allocation of resources that has not gone unnoticed worldwide. Hence it should come as no surprise that the U.S. Chess Federation has recently announced its relocation to St. Louis, essentially acknowledging that anything chess in the United States now and for the foreseeable future will run through the Gateway City. Nearly the entire chess-playing world already saw Saint Louis as the must-see destination, but now that the national body that moderates tournaments, membership, and sales also resides here, that fact is indisputable.

In other words, it is probably worth the time to check out the chess campus in the Central West End. It’s remarkable that an entire block of town has become exclusively oriented towards promoting the game. Annually World Champion Magnus Carlsen and several of his predecessors visit the city for marquis events. Several of the top 10 now live here year-round, lured by the mystique and the opportunity that St. Louis has come to represent. None of this would be possible without the support of the founders of the Saint Louis Chess Club and it is unlikely to be seen again.