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Checking out new competition

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 21, 2012 - A decade and a half ago, Tony Rich was organizing chess tournaments in coffee shops and bookstores — anywhere he and a handful of other chess enthusiasts “could borrow space,” he said.

Now, as executive director of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, Rich is helping to roll out the board for two elite collegiate teams moving to the St. Louis area this fall.

Webster University announced early this month that renowned chess player and educator Susan Polgar would relocate her champion chess team, the Knight Raiders, from Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas, to Webster. Polgar said that the members of the team will transfer from Texas Tech to Webster University at the end of this academic year.

Three days before that, Lindenwood University announced it would be developing a multi-team program in a joint venture between the university and the Chess Club. The expected six teams — ranging from Grandmasters (GM) to expert chess enthusiasts looking to further their game — will be coached by the club’s GM-in-Residence, Ben Finegold, who contributes a blog on chess to the St. Louis Beacon.

The Knight Raiders and Lindenwood's Lions will represent the St. Louis area’s first scholarship-backed chess teams. Finegold said that the rush of new talent to St. Louis will invigorate the thriving, but still young/green/fresh, international chess scene in St. Louis.

“We hope to get a lot of new blood, a lot of players from other countries in St. Louis playing chess,” Finegold said.

All five members on Polgar’s championship 2011 team were foreign students, and Lindenwood’s Dean of Evening and Graduate Admissions and Extension Campuses Brett Barger said that they had “been fielding calls and e-mails from all over the world” since announcing the formation of the team.

Inspiration at Lindenwood

It was Barger, who does not work in Lindenwood’s athletics department and is only a recreational chess player, who sparked that university’s chess aspirations. Nearly two years ago, Barger saw two students playing chess with a roll-out board on the ground.

“I thought ‘We can do better than that',” he said, and began looking for outdoor chess tables to purchase for the school.

His search led him to the Chess Club, located in a recently rehabbed, multi-story building in the Central West End's bustling Maryland Plaza area. Barger and the club began to discuss the possibility of starting a recreational chess club at Lindenwood.

“So I went down and visited the Chess Club for the first time and met [Chess Club founder] Rex Sinquefield, and Tony Rich and Finegold. And I was just blown away ... by what they’re doing in the community, in the grade schools, the middle schools, the high schools,” Barger said, referring to the club's extensive work in chess education in several dozen area schools. “I sort of caught the bug.”

Barger said that administrators at Lindenwood, which has a history of powerhouse non-NCAA athletics, were immediately receptive to the idea of a competitive, elite team. Soon, Finegold and the Chess Club were on board.

Fitting in at Webster

While Webster’s team has no official affiliation with the Chess Club, Polgar said that St. Louis’ growing reputation as a chess hub made St. Louis a natural fit for both teams.

“The more universities that get in the ring and move resources to support chess, the better for the game,” Polgar said.

When Finegold first moved to St. Louis in 2009 to work for the Chess Club, there were no other GMs in the area. Soon after, GM Hikaru Nakamura, who is the highest FIDE rated American chess player, moved to St. Louis in connection with the club.

Next year, Finegold estimates there will be a dozen or more GMs in the St. Louis area. Finegold noted that he also plans to “grow local chess players.”

“This gives a sense of legitimacy, a buy-in to St. Louis becoming the hub for chess in the United States,” Rich said. “It’s exciting to see other people stake their reputation, and hard earned dollars and time and efforts to be able to promote chess in St. Louis.”

“It means a lot more potential chess teachers, more interest in chess in St. Louis,” he said.

Chess benefits

As someone who believes chess stimulates scholastic aptitude, Finegold says that the more people playing chess, the better. Finegold’s duties at the club include a handful of classes and lessons, including at St. Louis Community College’s Florrisant Valley campus.

Chess terms

The World Chess Federation, or FIDE, is the governing board of international chess competition. Recognized by the International Olympic Committee, the organization runs the World Chess Championship, among other tournaments. Chess players have “Elo” rating based from FIDE-sanctioned play. This rating determines both ranking and title. A players ranking is his or her own FIDE rating relative to other players’ ratings. The four titles, in ascending order, are Candidate Master, FIDE Master, International Master and Grandmaster.

At times, Polgar’s work through the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE) overshadows her team. It is known widely for its annual SPICE Cup, which Polgar said is the highest rated invitational chess tournament in the U.S. each year, a feat she hopes to repeat this October in St. Louis. But Polgar tends to focus on the educational outreach, especially as it applies to young women in the world of chess.

SPICE serves “to promote chess, with all its educational, social, and competitive benefits throughout the United States, for young people of all ages, especially girls,” according to the organization’s mission statement. Polgar, a self-described “chess prodigy” who was born in Budapest, Hungary, went undefeated at the age of 4 in her first tournament and was the first woman to qualify for the Chess World Championships in 1986, at the age of 27. Chess extends beyond competition, she said.

“Chess is a huge benefit to all children in helping them focus and concentrate better, be responsible for their decisions, think ahead, and take into account other side’s moves in chess or in life,” she said. “In Chess, they can learn these skills in a natural and playful way, that they barely notice, they learn in disguise.”