White Plains housed only a small number of home-schoolers at the time, which made it hard to form lasting friendships with other children or relate to other people. Today, most of Nakamura's friends are significantly older than he is. When asked what his son sacrificed to play chess, Nakamura's stepfather answers decisively: his childhood. Nakamura entered the adult sector of chess at age ten and has yet to successfully leave it.

He has, however, tried.

"Sometimes you question whether you did the right thing, but you can say that about anything," Sunil Weeramantry says. "Parents are funny because they like to have it both ways. They say, 'Yes, I'd like my child to excel and be the best of the best.' But at the same time they want him to be a perfectly balanced individual with varied interests. It's just not possible."


The framed faces of the game's historic giants and present hopefuls line the walls of the top floor of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center in the city's Central West End. Fischer, the heaviest presence, can be found in seven photos. Nakamura appears in one. His most threatening rival, twenty-year-old world No. 1 Magnus Carlsen, peers out of three.

The walls are full of arched brows, extended arms, hands on faces, chins on palms. They are full of black on white. And in the small span of roughly three years, they are somehow already full of history.

This club is the reason Nakamura moved to St. Louis. And today, it's where Rex Sinquefield is sitting while he explains the series of events that led to the club's almost accidental formation. Perched on a couch in the club's board room, Sinquefield, the club's 66-year-old founder, de facto president and ultimate financial sponsor, is without both shoes and inhibitions.

As he tells it, it started with a meeting. Sinquefield, a retired financier who has donated millions of dollars to both civic institutions and conservative causes, learned to play the game at thirteen, and he still studies it in his spare time. (Last night, he spoke to Kasparov on the phone.) But it wasn't until four years ago, during a business meeting, that the city's lack of a stable chess club struck him as fixable.

That thought didn't stay in the germ phase for long. Soon Sinquefield kicked in millions of dollars, purchased the three-story space in the Central West End and organized its staff. The current annual budget remains around $2 million.

"I didn't envision all the things that developed — I mean, only in an inchoate sort of way. I didn't realize how much it was going to cost," he jokes, "but I did say, 'Make it beautiful.'"

That idea — the sense of surprise at what actually resulted — is shared by almost all of the club's staff. Its executive director, Tony Rich, who took part in an earlier and much less glamorous St. Louis chess club called We're Just Pawns before agreeing to helm the start-up nonprofit, jokes that he expected the club's permanent venue to be in a strip mall. Space issues plagued past clubs in the city; they were forced to meet at places like St. Louis Bread Co., subject to availability. It's difficult to find a space where a large number of people and chessboards can meet on a regular basis, especially when you don't have much money.

Sinquefield changed that. Tucked to the right of Brennan's on Maryland Avenue, just off Euclid Avenue, the chess club appears from the street to occupy a surprisingly small space. Upon entering, though, the club's three floors, 6,000 square feet and proliferation of bay windows add both presence and pressure to the goings-on inside. It's an aggressively beautiful facility.

"We didn't have a good budgeting process, so it sort of got out of control, as you can tell by looking around you," Sinquefield says. With the hand not holding a Starbucks, he gestures to the luxury of the club. It's considerable. "Everybody was surprised by the speed at which everything took off."

Outside the room where Sinquefield sits is the open heart of the chess club. Draped, framed and decorated with the same black-and-white theme that separates the squares of a chess board, its elegant translation to the interior design takes both literal and figurative turns. The building holds around 80 chess sets with weighted pieces and graceful seating. The club's insignia appears everywhere not decorated by a chess piece of some sort: on the bottoms of the pieces, on the backs of chairs, on coasters and T-shirts.

It was important to the club's founders to create a large facility in an area easily accessible to public schools, the focus of the club's scholastic program. The club is predicated on the idea that everyone, not just snobs, should enter its embellished glass doorway.

After opening in 2008, the club quickly became the capital of the U.S. chess community. In less time than it took to create the club from scratch, it landed the 2009 U.S. Chess Championship and Women's Chess Championship, a task it has reprised in the two years since. Although it's tough to pinpoint how the club built its reputation so quickly, these championships were certainly a factor: In 2011, the two championships brought 60,000 unique visitors to the club's website from a total of 162 different countries.

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9 comments
Guest
Guest

As a former high school expert-level player who largely put away chess after entering college almost a decade ago, I really appreciated this in-depth profile of Hikaru and the state of US chess. Thanks.

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Xraylibra Crew
Xraylibra Crew

Great article! For me it is fascinating to read about the Chess Community and I cannot believe they are local #STL. @GMHikaru is the best!

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Sthinelk7
Sthinelk7

Sorry for the typos... 'Naka" (Smallville to those of us on ICC) and 'elite".

Sthinelk7
Sthinelk7

Naku is elit for sure, def top 10, and I don't mind his abrasive atitude because he plays such exciting chess. However, Magnus is the present and future of chess. My children are huge football (US) and MMA fans, but they know who Magnus Carlsen is and follow his games on their own like their favorite player/fighter. Again, Hikaru is awesome, a rare talent... but like he notes, in chess everyone should be considered equal. And that means nationality as well. With that in mind, please recognize that Magnus is the best player and the best hope for chess. Just watch his current games in Biel 2011.

 
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