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On Chess: U.S. Chess Federation opens office in St. Louis, opens doors to innovators

Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan plays a seven-board simul during a Venture Cafe gathering in the Cortex Innovation Community in early March.
Provided by Cortex Innovation Community

The United States Chess Federation, the governing body for chess competition in the U.S., recently announced that it has opened an office here in the nation’s capital of chess. The new St. Louis hub looks to handle marketing and development efforts for the organization, which received 501(c)(3) non-profit status last year, while customer and membership services continue to operate from its headquarters in Crossville, Tenn.

Like the game goes, it was a small and relatively quiet move. Only Executive Director Jean Hoffman made the trip in February, opening (for the moment) a one-person office within the Cortex Innovation Community between the Central West End and Forest Park residential neighborhoods. The office has slow and straightforward plans for expansion, and reasoning was simple on its decision for locale:

“St. Louis just seemed like the ideal place to do it,” Hoffman said, “You can talk about St. Louis making chess history and becoming the chess capital, supporting tournaments like the U.S. Championships while coming up with innovative events like the Sinquefield Cup. But (the move) was also in part because of this vibrant chess culture, all the ways the St. Louis community as a whole has supported chess.”

All the correct thinking, indeed, though not explaining the surprise received when Hoffman first opened her doors at Cortex to find that a chess tournament was about to break out.

Cortex is a 200-acre innovation hub and technology district in Midtown, a physically compact, transit-accessible and technically wired corridor that mixes corporate and entrepreneurial innovators within the same incubating space. For instance, the building on 4240 Duncan Ave. -- otherwise known as “@4240” -- houses the Washington University office of Technology Management alongside a handful of research labs and several dozen startups, all who use their close-quarter neighbors to share ideas and practice “open innovation.”

Earlier this month, the community launched the Cortex Innovation Madness chess tournament, pitting its entrepreneurs, artists, bio-science engineers and IT experts in a 64-person bracket that plays chess along the theme of March Madness basketball. Playing two single-elimination games a week, Innovation Madness has knocked itself down to the Sweet 16, which plays out tonight @4240. Next week, the Final Four will play for a cut of $2,500 cash prizes, with the winner grabbing a cool $1,000 -- not a bad pull for an event that charged no entry fee.

“This chess tournament really falls in line with the different ways that people can engage and get to know each other -- and to do that over something that is fun is equally as valuable as something that happens over business,” said Phyllis Ellison, director of entrepreneur services at Cortex. “It really shows that innovation doesn’t just happen in a business or scientific setting. The networking that surrounds the arts or around things like chess is equally as valuable, and really starts to show how people’s minds think differently or take a different path. Whenever you start to explore things a different way -- that’s strategy -- and you start to see parallels with people’s creativity and their decision-making in business, as well.”

The Innovation Madness chess tournament pitted 64 entrepreneurs, scientists and IT experts from around the Cortex Innovation Community
Credit Provided by Cortex Innovation Community
The Innovation Madness chess tournament pitted 64 entrepreneurs, scientists and IT experts from around the Cortex Innovation Community

Cortex provides the groundwork for this creative networking through its Venture Cafe gatherings, located on the second floor @4240, offering 5-10 different speakers and workshops in weekly, five-hour sessions that remain free and open to the public. Ellison says the gatherings pull in a regular 300-400 people that range from high-school and college students who chase science innovation, to retirees looking to mingle with the startup community.

Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan was a Venture Cafe feature in early March, playing seven boards simultaneously in front of a crowd to help promote Innovation Madness. Next week for the final four, WGM Jennifer Shahade will be there not only hand out winner checks, but the host of the 2015 U.S. Championships and Mind Sports Ambassador for PokerStars is alsoscheduled to give her TED talk linking chess with poker and strategy.

Today at 3:15 p.m. in the Havana Room @4240, Hoffman herself will be one of those featured speakers, presenting her personal angle on innovation and how it extends from the chess world -- what the international, national and local scenes are doing to one of the world’s oldest games that has never been seen before.

And St. Louis just seems like the ideal spot to do that.

“This was just a great example of the serendipitous collision that can happen when there is so much going on in one area,” Hoffman said. “I would say this tournament and the timing involved really seemed like a sign that we were in the right place. We held an executive board meeting right after the tournament was announced, and it just couldn’t have been better timing to have board members fly across the country, walk in and see that this tournament would be happening in a couple weeks.

“This just seems like the perfect place for us right now, at this stage of opening this office. The Cortex community has been incredibly welcoming and is a great way for us to meet some of the key leaders in the innovation community and really jump right in to the St. Louis community.”

Brian Jerauld is communications specialist at Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.