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Chess club makes bold move into West End quarters

Tony Rich at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. 2008. 300 pixels
Rachel Heidenry | St. Louis Beacon archive

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 15, 2008 - One good lesson Tony Rich learned at St. John Vianney School was patience. Although the lives of saints might have been part of his studies at Vianney, it was not the patience of someone such as St. Francis de Sales that taught the boy the value of patience. Both of Tony's parents worked, so between the time the final bell rang and their arrival he had three hours or so to kill. Many days those three hours were spent playing chess.

"Chess filled the void," he said.

Rich is 26 now. After studying computer science and working as a network engineer for a photographic services company and a big downtown law firm, he is now full-time, metaphorically anyway, in the business that taught him the value of keeping still.

Now, he's put his expertise in business and strategic moves to work as executive director of the new St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center in the city's Central West End.

The club is in a storefront in the Maryland Plaza neighborhood at 4657 Maryland Avenue, and it officially opens on Thursday (July 17). Some remember Maryland Plaza as the swankiest shopping district in St. Louis; others harken back to the day it was an example of urban redevelopment gone very, very silly. Nowadays, equilibrium has been achieved with a mix of restaurants, coffee houses, clothing stores, a candy shop and other emporia. And then there's that chess club.

What possible reason could there be for spending serious money – almost $1 million in fact – to establish a club for playing a game many regard as an anachronism, and along with that, to create a center for the teaching of chess as a scholastic activity?

Philanthropist Rex Sinquefield, who with his wife Jeanne has put up a lion's share of the money, has answers. But you need a little background first to understand generosity on this level.

Sinquefield spent a big part of his childhood in St. Vincent's Orphanage. As a young man, Sinquefield set out originally to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood, and in fact studied for three years at Cardinal Glennon in Shrewsbury. He decided to leave the seminary and, after a stint in the service, established himself in the business of finance. Eventually, he pioneered index funds, which is, he says, an investment policy that trusts the market rather than tries to outsmart it.

With his associate, David Booth, and with the assistance of his wife, Jeanne, this company – Dimensional Fund Advisors – was enormously successful.

One speculates throughout his life that patience was an acquired virtue for Sinquefield, along with plenty of hard work. He retired from DFA in 2005, and since has involved himself in a number of charitable, cultural, civic, political and educational activities.

Light and elegance are part of the appeal of the new chess club.

He has a genuine passion for chess. He studies with two-time American Women's Chess Champion Jennifer Shahade in Philadelphia. Shahade is a writer and games player, and was co-founder of an organization called 9 Queens. This organization's mission (published on its Website, www.9queens.org) and that of the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center are nearly identical. It is a "national educational organization that promotes and provides chess education to underserved and underrepresented populations, especially girls and at risk youth."

The St. Louis Chess Club developed independently of Sinquefield. Director Tony Rich said it was founded in 1995 as the "We're Just Pawns Chess Club." The founder was Lee Didrikson, who ran the club until 1999 when Rich took over.

Although the existing club had some structure, its organization and maintenance was rather casual. But in the absence of a better-established club in town, the Chess Club kept with it, and eventually a connection was made with Sinquefield. His patronage and interest, and the resources of the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation, took the Chess Club's organizational game to a higher level.

Sinquefield is well known for his interest in education – particularly education as a means of social and economic advancement for disadvantaged populations. "I and hundreds and thousands of others believe it -- chess -- is beneficial to getting children thinking and learning," he told the Beacon.

He is careful to note there is no rigorous scientific evidence to back him up, but he is interested in funding research to see if chess skills development can be tied empirically to cognitive development.

Rich said in one public school chess program, there was demonstrable improvement in character development and attendance at school. In another, test scores went up when the students were playing chess, and down when the program was cut, then up again when the program was restored. Besides learning patience and focus, chess is a way to learn to manage risks.

Besides, he said, it's fun.

Sinquefield says the location on Maryland Avenue was chosen carefully and strategically. "We were looking for a space of an adequate size and we wanted a spectacular facility. We want it to be the best in the country." But there was another reason: "We wanted close proximity to inner-city schools."

Late last year, Rich said, he found the space on Maryland and "it happened to be perfect" in size and in location. Besides the storefront level, there are two other floors in the facility, with about 7,000 square feet of usable floor space. There is seating for 150 people. In good weather, players can play outside and bring their dogs if they want.

Arcturis, the architecture firm, designed the club, which is airy and bright and spacious. The general contractor is R. G. Ross Construction Co. Inc.

Chess games won't be confined to the club, however. Rich and Sinquefield are committed to introducing chess playing as regular parts of schools' educational programs.

"Public and private schools in the St. Louis area have chess as part of the curriculum. Teachers observe the benefits," Sinquefield said. And to quantify those benefits, "We are trying to sponsor rigorous academic efforts by the University of Missouri and St. Louis University to determine effects of chess playing," he said.

Chess Club spokesperson Laura Slay said demographically the fastest growing group of chess players is African-American boys, and an indication of that is the serious interest in chess recently shown on national television in a timed-game played by rapper RZA and The New York Times's chess columnist Dylan Loeb McClain.

RZA has established a website, www.wuchess.com, "the world's first online chess and Hip Hop community." RZA has been a chess player since he was 11.

McClain quotes RZA: "The way you have to think in chess is good for everyday thinking, really," he said, "especially for brothers in the urban community who never take that second look, never take that second thought."

After African-American boys, the fastest growing group is Hispanic boys. "Girls are lagging," Rich said, "but we want to get them involved fast."

an art installation by Diana Thater at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. 2008. 300 pixels
Credit Rachel Heidenry | St. Louis Beacon archive
The installation by Diana Thater enlivens the clubby feel.

Plans are being made for tournaments every weekend at the Chess club. Lectures on chess will be delivered, along with so-called fast chess games (also known as blitz chess, lightning chess, bullet chess and rapid chess) chess blitzes, in which players are given far less time for moves than under usual circumstances. In addition to chess as chess, the club has already taken steps to demonstrate the connections between chess and art. A lively program featuring video and performance artist Diana Thater was presented at a pre-opening gathering recently, and connections were drawn not only to her challenging work but also to the legendary chess-playing surrealist Marcel Duchamp.

There are, Rich said, 750 tournament players in St. Louis, players who have participated in a tournament in the last year. And there are many more who have played tournament chess, but haven't played in the last year, he said. Rich foresees a hundred members by the end of the year. Memberships cost $80 for one person, $120 for a family and $30 for students. There are to be inexpensive daily passes also, and Rich said inability to pay should not keep anyone away.

Stanley Kubrick's father taught him to play chess when he was 12. Kubrick, who was a brilliant if controversial filmmaker, worked at filmmaking as he did at the chessboard, which is to say slowly, deliberately, with assiduous focus and scrupulous attention to detail.

"You sit at the board and suddenly your heart leaps," he said once. "Your hand trembles to pick up the piece and move it. But what chess teaches you is that you must sit there calmly and think about whether it's really a good idea and whether there are other, better ideas."

Sit there calmly. Think. Have patience. Play chess.

For more information on the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center, go to www.saintlouischessclub.org. The club is a not-for-profit corporation.