"You think to yourself, that if I had all the opportunities in the world to run a club like I wanted to and focus on both the scholastics and treating the players well, what would I do?," says Aviv Friedman, a FIDE master who visited the club during the Junior Closed Championship in June. "Then you get here, and you're like, 'Oh, somebody has already done it.'"

In its three-year history, the club has expanded at an unprecedented rate, taken hold of the most important tournaments in North America, worked with more than 1,000 children in its scholastic programs and attracted more than 700 current members, making it the largest active club in the country. All of this was achieved with minimal advertisement: Sinquefield built it, and they came.

St. Louis had previously established itself as something of a chess city, though that history is in the distant past. Prior to 2009, St. Louis hadn't hosted a national championship since 1904. Sinquefield's goals include attracting a world-championship match to the city by 2016 — for the first time since 1886, when St. Louis hosted the first official world chess championship.

Earlier this month, SportsIllustrated.com named Nakamura's Twitter handle (@GMHikaru) one of the top 100 sports accounts to follow.
Betsy Dynako
Earlier this month, SportsIllustrated.com named Nakamura's Twitter handle (@GMHikaru) one of the top 100 sports accounts to follow.
Hikaru Nakamura (right) takes on Russian grandmaster Peter Svidler in a November 2009 match in Norway.
AFP Photo / Scanpix / Erlend Aas
Hikaru Nakamura (right) takes on Russian grandmaster Peter Svidler in a November 2009 match in Norway.

The city's status in the chess world will rise even higher with the September 9 opening of the World Chess Hall of Fame, which is moving from Miami, Florida, to the similarly stunning building across the street from the chess club. The 15,900-square-foot space plays host to many of the organization's chess relics, which number more than 2,000, among them pieces from Fischer and the game's most famous collectors.

Every aspect of American chess is now tied, somehow, to a single block in the Central West End.

"Think of it like two sisters," says Susan Barrett, the hall of fame's chief executive officer. Her curly hair rests on a T-shirt fronted by the slogan "Real Women Play Chess." "The older sister who's serious and studies a lot and plays lots of competitive chess is the chess club. The chess hall of fame is the younger sister, who's maybe pursuing an art degree and is sillier and has a broader experience of chess. They're going to work together and be complementary to make their parents proud."


Nakamura's decision to move to St. Louis was a quick one. In 2005, at age seventeen, Nakamura won the U.S. championship, making him the youngest to hold that title since Fischer. He repeated the win in 2009 at the competition's first trip to St. Louis. It was during that tournament that he decided to make St. Louis his home — as much as someone who travels more than half the year can call a place home.

In April 2010, he competed in the championship's second run in the city with moving boxes still in his car. St. Louis is his first permanent home since he moved away from his parents. "We were at Coffee Cartel at one in the morning one day, and [Hikaru] was like, 'Ben, I want to move here,'" Finegold says. "I thought when I moved here we'd try to get the top players, but Hikaru? He's the best."

The most immediately recognizable aspect of the chess club is the way it connects those who care about the game. To win at chess, you must ruthlessly exploit your opponents' weaknesses — but you only learn to win if someone is generous enough to share what they know.

Sinquefield learned from his uncle, whom he beat with their second game. When he was five, Finegold learned from his father, who once played Fischer. Finegold later taught his own son, Spencer, who gives chess lessons in St. Louis. Rich, who might have the best story, began playing only because his mother was unable to pick him up when school let out. While wandering the halls after class, he happened upon a room where people were playing. He never really left it.

Aside perhaps from Finegold, everyone at the club wishes they had started earlier, an opinion that has noticeably contributed to the club's focus on scholastic chess. The general idea, one shared by Nakamura, is that in order to make chess popular again in the United States, it must mean something to the country's youth. And in order to make them care about it, the club must make chess cool.

This is the era, its leaders vow, that the stereotype dies.

"Middle school is when they start to think it's not cool, so we teach them young so they don't develop that stereotype," Rich says.

The club's scholastic outreach programs focus on both public- and private-school students. Instructors visit campuses, and the staff organizes field trips and matches at the club to increase the students' comfort with competition. "We want to see a lot more of that," Sinquefield says.

The fact that the best player in the country can be found at the club on the days he's not playing internationally goes a long way in raising both the club's cool factor and its prestige. Nakamura's decision to ally himself with St. Louis has since created several similar offers for the club from other strong players. It's also drawn enthusiasts like Laura Smith, whose family moved to St. Louis from Lamar, Missouri, in April for better access to the club. Before that, the opportunity for Smith's son, James, to play here meant a six-hour drive.

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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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