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On Chess: Sinquefield Cup echoes Piatigorsky Cups of '60s

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: As the current resident grandmaster at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, I was initially hesitant when  asked to write a guest column about the upcoming Sinquefield Cup. After all, I was brought to St. Louis because of my chess abilities, not my writing skills. My first reaction was: Really? Me? But, why? What have I done?

The more I thought about it, the more I felt the urge to write this column. Not since the Piatigorsky Cup tournaments in the 1960s has the U.S. seen a high-profile chess event of this caliber, and it’s taking place not in New York City, the financial center of the world; not in San Francisco, the home of Facebook, Apple and many other tech titans; but here in St. Louis, which is staking its claim as a different kind of center, the chess center of the U.S.

In just a few days the strongest-ever tournament in U.S. history will begin.

The importance of this tournament cannot be undermined. The rankings and ratings of the players are impressive enough (World No. 1 Magnus Carlsen; World No. 2 Levon Aronian; U.S. No. 1 Hikaru Nakmura; U.S. No. 2 Gata Kamsky), but even they can’t show the importance of this tournament to the chess world.

This is the last tournament for Carlsen before his match against reigning World Champion Vishy Anand, a match scheduled to start in India in early November.  Many view Carlsen as a huge favorite for to win, so all the eyes of the chess world will be focused on the contender and his final tournament before the match.

Aronian, the eternal World No. 2, will get a chance to once again go head-to-head with the potential future world champion, and I won’t be surprised if Magnus and Levon will fight each other for the title in the coming years.

Nakamura, currently ranked No. 7 in the world, is still quite young at 25, and this may be his chance to show the world’s top two who’s boss on his home turf here in St. Louis.

Finally, Kamsky, the reigning U.S. champion, has a career as old as Carlsen. Breaking into chess awareness in the early ‘90s, Kamsky played a world championship match in 1996 against FIDE World Champion Anatoly Karpov. He’s put together some impressive performances over the past year, and he must feel comfortable in St. Louis having won three of the five U.S. Championships that were hosted here (2010, 2011, 2013).

For obvious reasons, many compare the Sinquefield Cup to the Piatigorsky Cup tournaments held in the U.S. in 1963 and 1966. These events, sponsored by the Piatigorsky foundation, brought in some of the best players in the world, including the world champion Tigran Petrosian in 1966 and two future world champions, Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer. Both the Piatigorsky Cup and the Sinquefield Cup are historically extremely strong, and easily rank among the strongest ever in U.S. history, but the Piatigorsky Cup eventually folded, and U.S. chess was somewhat left out of the world spotlight. I believe the Sinquefield Cup will not suffer the same fate.

The Piatigorsky Cup tournaments were stand-alone events, without a well-established organization behind them. In fact, the legendary Pal Benko, who played in the 1963 Piatigorsky Cup, wrote an article about why the event collapsed, citing lack of support from the players and lack of commitment from the organizers to meet their demands. Being the resident GM in the club for the past month (and this being my second stint in the rotation), I see the endless daily efforts by a big group of people to make sure everything will function properly, so that the players and spectators enjoy their experience and that the tournament will run smoothly.

The second difference is that the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis has a history of putting on big events. The club has played host to every major U.S. Championship since 2009 along with a number of other high-profile matches with the world’s best players.

I had the pleasure of having one long dinner with Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield, and after speaking with them at length, and witnessing their previous commitment to chess, I believe that this historical event will not end up like the Piatigorsky Cup. I also think this could lead to even bigger and better things to come for chess in St. Louis.

On Chess is provided by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.