How St Louis became America’s chess capital
A declining city finds an unlikely speciality
St Louis is a troubled, shrinking city in the American Midwest. Its population peaked at 850,000 in the 1950s. Decades of middle-class flight have left it with only 315,000 residents, of which almost one-third live at or below the federal poverty level. It has America’s highest per-capita murder rate and remains one of its most segregated cities. In 2014 riots erupted in Ferguson, a suburb, after a white police officer fatally shot a black teenager. It therefore seems an unlikely candidate to become a mecca for chess. Yet in May 2013, the United States Congress declared St Louis the chess capital of the country. How did this happen?
The rise of St Louis as a centre for chess dates to 2008, when Rex Sinquefield chose the promotion of chess in his home town as a retirement project after making a fortune pioneering stock-market index funds. (Mr Sinquefield is also politically active as a campaigner for the abolition of income tax and a sponsor of right-wing think-tanks.) In 2008 he founded the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St Louis, which, in recent years, has become the headquarters of American chess. The 6,000-sq-ft centre includes a hall for tournaments, classrooms, a library and play areas. Some 1,000 members of all skill levels attend classes such as “Pure Beginners Ladies’ Knight”. In 2011 he helped bring the “World Chess Hall of Fame” (pictured) to St Louis. Its was set up, according to its website, “to educate visitors, fans, players and scholars by collecting, preserving, exhibiting and interpreting the game of chess and its continuing cultural and artistic significance”.
Mr Sinquefield’s perseverance paid off. The club began hosting the American championship, the nation’s top tournament, in 2009, bringing grandmasters galore to the city. (Before that it was held in different cities.) The Sinquefield tournament, set up by its namesake, started in 2013 with a prize fund of $170,000. It attracts the world’s top players and by last year was watched by some 1.5m online viewers. Several universities in the St Louis area now offer chess scholarships. (Wesley So, the world number two, attended the city’s Webster University on one such scholarship.) Local high schools, including in and around Ferguson, promote after-school classes. This year Webster University won the national championship at the President’s Cup collegiate chess tournament in New York for the fifth time in a row. St Louis University finished third.
The revival of chess in St Louis has helped make America one of the world’s top chess nations again. In 2008 no American was in the top ten players, according to the World Chess Federation (The first American on the list appeared at in 17th place.) Today, three of the top ten players in the world (numbers two, four and seven) are American. Indeed, one of them, Fabiano Caruana, moved to St Louis in 2015.
Source: The Economist