The top 24 chess players in the country begin competing this hour in the 2009 U.S. Championship. Also known as "The Super Bowl of Chess" (it's the same as the gridiron version, but without the cheerleaders, testosterone, or multimillion dollar commercial breaks) the competition will be held at The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis in the Central West End.
Favorites to take home the $200,000 top prize include the defending champion, grandmaster Yury Shulman, and the "Big Three of American Chess" grandmasters Gata Kamsky, Hikaru Nakamura, and Alexander Onischuk.
Also competing is St. Louis native Charles Lawton. A certified chess master, Lawton is a two-time winner of both the St. Louis District Championship and the Missouri State Championship. The 56 year-old Wash U alum is also the only African-American in the field.
With a rating of 2358 (compared to Kamsky's 2800), Lawton was a "wildcard" invite to the competition. In other words, he's no Bobby Fischer but he's still pretty damn good.
He's highly regarded for his skill at "blitz," the ten-minute speed version of the game and you can tell just from talking to him that he has a brilliant mind. He currently works as an electrical engineer at a local company that "builds equipment to detect and diagnose bacterial infections." After graduating from SLU High School, he joined the navy, where it was his job to run a submarine's nuclear reactor. He starts stories with lines like, "The first time I beat a grandmaster..."
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I, on the other hand, blog for a living. As a kid I owned a copy of the animated computer game Battle Chess. My high school didn't have an official chess team, but whenever us nerds and overachievers got together to wage battle, I was one of the better players. Now I hardly ever set up a board. That's pretty much the extent of my chess resume.
So was I daunted when I threw down the gauntlet and challenged Lawton to an impromptu match? Let's just say the king and queen probably could have been in better hands.
Of course, Lawton won easily. And he had fun doing it. I took solace in the fact that I captured about six of his pieces. He didn't seem to mind.
I'd like to think I'd have done better if I didn't have to focus on keeping the camera on Lawton and the board but that's probably wishful thinking.
Lawton plays his first match of the tournament today at 2 p.m. Check it out and wish him luck. He'll need it: in the U.S. Chess Federation's preview of the tournament, Lawton was given a two percent chance of winning the whole thing.