ST. LOUIS — From the World Chess Hall of Fame to Webster University's luring of the country's top collegiate squad, St. Louis has steadily staked its claim as the U.S. center of competitive chess. This week, the focus shifts to the international game with a $170,000 world-class invitational tournament bankrolled by prominent political donor Rex Sinquefield.
The four-player field of grandmasters includes world No. 1 Magnus Carlsen of Norway — a 22-year-old phenom, and top U.S. player Hikaru Nakamura, who moved to St. Louis several years ago to take advantage of its growing chess prominence.
The city has hosted the past five U.S. championship tournaments, and Webster stunned the chess world in 2012 by recruiting the entire national championship team — coach and team members included — from Texas Tech University.
The tournament began Monday afternoon at the Chess Club & Scholastic Center of St. Louis in the city's Central West End and concludes on Sunday. The winner receives $70,000.
"It would be like combining the World Series, the Stanley Cup (hockey playoffs) and the Super Bowl into one event," Tony Rich, chess club director, said.
Sinquefield, a billionaire, is a retired investment firm executive best known for his efforts to promote charter schools and school choice as well as a current campaign in the Missouri legislature to override Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of a state income tax cut for which he has spent more than $2 million. The tournament at the chess center he built is called the Sinquefield Cup.
For Sinquefield, chess represents a respite from the high-stakes political battles he regularly wades in.
"When I compete in chess, there are no outside distractions," he said in an interview.
The winner receives a 2-foot tall engraved trophy shaped like the king piece on a chess board and adorned with a fleur di lis to signify the three-petal flower named for the city's patron saint.
Two days before lawmakers are scheduled to return to Jefferson City for the veto session, Sinquefield was ensconced Monday watching Carlsen take on U.S. No. 2 grandmaster Gata Kamsky while Nakamura battled world No. 2 Levon Aronian of Armenia at an adjacent table. Each player will face his three opponents twice over the next week, with a break from play on Thursday.
The tournament marks the first U.S. appearance for Carlsen, a photogenic prodigy who has modeled for G-Star Raw Denim, a popular European clothier. Aronian last competed in this country more than a decade ago, Rich said.
"Elite tournaments like this just don't happen in the U.S." said grandmaster Maurice Ashley, one of several players providing live commentary for audiences on site as well as those following online.
The marquee matchups between Carlsen and Nakamura take place on Wednesday and Saturday. The American has yet to beat his Norwegian rival, losing seven times along with multiple draws.
"Every top player, he's more or less got the measure on," said Ian Rogers, a retired Australian grandmaster providing commentary this week to tournament spectators. "But somehow, Carlsen's got the wood on him. At some point he's got to fight back. ... This could be a career-long voodoo if he's not careful."
Chess novice David Harper, a 61-year-old recent retiree who wants to again play the game he learned from his father as a child, attended the tournament's first day to watch the world's best in action. Harper recently returned to St. Louis after nearly 20 years as a northern California business owner.
"It's kind of intimidating to come back and play when you haven't for a while," he said. "This club may be a way for me to reorient myself to the game."