High-tech Missouri chess center prepares for match

Tuesday, April 28, 2009 | 11:50 a.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — A state-of-the-art, high-tech chess center is awaiting two dozen of the nation's finest players, who are scheduled to descend on St. Louis next month for the country's most prestigious chess tournament.

The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis is scheduled to host the U.S. Chess Championship on May 7-17, less than a year after the center opened in a 112-year-old building in the city's Central West End.

Competitors are to include the "Big Three" of chess in America — Gata Kamsky, Hikaru Nakamura and Alexander Onischuk, along with current U.S. champion Yury Shulman. The female medalists in the Chess Olympiad, Irina Krush and Anna Zatonskih, also are competing.

The Crossville, Tenn.-based U.S. Chess Federation selected the St. Louis club for the championship, citing the new venue, which opened in July.

"I think St. Louis will start a new tradition," said Shulman, 34, of Barrington, Ill. "I think it's a wonderful opportunity in chess history."

Founder Rex Sinquefield, 64, and his wife, Jeanne, spent more than $1 million on the space.

The building features 150 chess boards — some wired so that when a player moves a piece, it shows up on an overhead screen. Flat-screen TVs abound with nine 46” plasma TVs and one 52” plasma TV.  Framed pictures of chess greats are arranged along a wall. Technology allows groups — even those walking by on the street — to watch a game in progress. For the national tournament, play can be watched on the Internet.

The basement includes a chess library and classroom space. At the championship, live commentary will be provided on the lower level by grandmasters Jennifer Shahade and Emil Sutovsky.

The upstairs rooms where the games will be played will hold small groups of spectators who must remain quiet in roped-off areas, club director Tony Rich said. He expects 350 to 500 people to visit the club each day of the championship. Members of the public who want to attend can buy a one-month membership for $12.

A $35,000 first-place prize is part of the $135,000 total purse, but there's a potential $64,000 bonus known as the Fischer Memorial Prize for any player who sweeps the competition 9-0. The prize is named for former world and U.S. champion Bobby Fischer, who died last year. Fischer's 11-0 run in the 1963-64 U.S. championship is the only perfect score in the event's history.

Top players are gearing up, both mentally and physically. Shulman said exercise is helpful before or after play. He also regularly teaches chess, works with a chess database that stores millions of games, and reads chess books.

"You enjoy the game, and you try to play your best," he said.

Sinquefield, co-founder of the investment management firm Dimensional Fund Advisors, wanted a center where young people could take up the game for its mental stimulation. He also wanted to make the center financially accessible. An annual family membership is $120. The annual student fee is $30.

He hopes the championship will help others take an interest in the game he loves.

"The best way to raise the profile was to get a big event," he said.


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