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On Chess: St. Louis influence on the Big 3 American players

The American "Big Three" at the Batumi Chess Olympiad in Batumi, Georgia in 2018. From left, Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana, Caruana's coach and Wesley So.
Lana Afandiyeva

When Americans hear of a “Big Three,” nostalgia might take their minds to competitors in the automotive industry or the early television networks. Fans of the runaway NBC television hit "This is Us" may shed uncontrollable tears when hearing the phrase.

Today’s American chess fans know Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So as the “Big Three.” They represent the United States. St. Louis and the St.Louis Chess Club and have played an integral role in raising the standards of American chess.

The first of 10 straight U.S. and U.S. Women’s Championships held in St. Louis were played in 2009, with Nakamura, then a newly-minted 2700 FIDE, reigning supreme for his second title.

Since that championship, Nakamura has tacked on two more and become a mainstay in the world top 10, reaching the peak of world No. 2 in October 2015. He scored an impressive international victory in Wijk aan Zee (2011) and three-peats at the Zurich Chess Challenge and the Gibraltar Chess Festival (2015-17). Nakamura’s strong play in the 2016 Grand Prix qualified him for the Candidates’ Tournament, whose winner earns the right to face the World Champion. His quest for additional U.S. Championships has been halted by Caruana and So, both of whom are also firmly entrenched among the world’s elite players.

Caruana, a dual citizen who switched to the Italian federation in 2005 before returning to compete under the American flag in 2015, acknowledged that the Chess Club played a vital role in his decision to depart Europe. A historic seven straight wins during his domination at the 2014 Sinquefield Cup, arguably the greatest performance ever recorded, undoubtedly influenced him to establish residence in St. Louis. As a result of that tournament, Caruana became the third highest-rated player in history.

In 2016, only a last round defeat to Sergey Karjakin prevented Caruana from challenging Magnus Carlsen for the world championship. However, his next run at the 2018 Candidates' Tournament ended with victory and he will battle Carlsen in November for the title of World Chess Champion – the first time an American has competed for the undisputed title since Bobby Fischer in 1972.

So was born and raised in the Philippines. He initially came to the U.S. to join the chess program at Webster University. After leaving school to make the game his profession, So’s rating has soared. Opportunities in St. Louis have aided So in his journey to the world's No. 2 player and to qualifying for the 2018 Candidates’ Tournament. The 2016 Sinquefield Cup was his first super-tournament victory and propelled him to the top of the 2016 Grand Chess Tour. He followed up that breakthrough success by winning the 2017 U.S. Championship.

The trio have been fierce competitors, but together formed a potent one-two-three punch at the 2016 World Chess Olympiad this year. The United States team, supported in part by the Chess Club and U.S. Chess, won gold in Baku for the first time in four decades. The trio, along with current U.S. Champion Sam Shankland, who won his Championship in St. Louis, are hoping to defend their gold medal at the 2018 Olympiad in Batumi, Georgia. The competition is underway in Batumi with the world watching.

Inspired by Caruana, Nakamura and So, the next generation of American chess talent has more opportunities than any of its predecessors. Through the St. Louis Chess Club’s support of the U.S. Junior Championships and strong quarterly tournaments, the country’s next “Big Three” are sure to have a St. Louis influence on their careers.

Robert Hess is a former U.S. Junior Champion, the 2010 Samford Award winner, the runner-up at the 2009 U.S. Championship, and a three-time member of the U.S. National team. He is a known chess analyst and commentator and was the coach of the U.S. Women's team at the 2016 Olympiad in Baku, Azerbaijan. He is the current coach of the U.S. Women’s team at the 2018 Olympiad in Batumi, Georgia.