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Competitive chess returns to St. Louis

By Rachel Lippmann, KWMU


St. Louis – Wander into the St. Louis Bread Company in the Delmar Loop most nights, and you'll likely find among the patrons a group of chess players, focused laser-like on the pieces in front of them.

The relaxed atmosphere is typical for chess enthusiasts across the country, who set up boards in bookstores, coffee houses, or church basements and compete.

"In the U-City Loop, we don't have tournaments going on, it's just guys that get together, they like playing chess, like the environment, like to relax and have fun," said Orlandus Parker, who has played in the Loop for 10 years.

In the 1970s, the Capablanca Club in Maplewood offered chess players in the region - like St. Louis native Al Lawrence, a former executive director of the United States Chess Federation - a guaranteed place to play.

"It was a walk-up, you know it was on the second story above a car dealership. The furniture was worn, the boards were worn, but we had a place to play and we had a library," Lawrence said.

The club went belly-up after the chess bubble inspired by Grandmaster Bobby Fischer's popularity popped after Fischer left the game. In one of several historical connections St. Louis has to chess, Fischer's mother grew up in the city. Nine months ago, a facility opened to take the place of the Capablanca Club.

"I once said if Donald Trump and James Bond were going to play chess, they would go to the St. Louis Chess Club," Lawrence said.

The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis is a 6000-square-foot facility at the corner of Euclid and Maryland in the Central West End. The only stand-alone chess facility in Missouri and one of a few in the country was the brainchild of the local multi-millionaire activist Rex Sinquefield, who is a former competitive player looking to get back into the game, as well as a strong supporter of scholastic chess.

"I don't think I ever concluded that St. Louis absolutely needed a dedicated chess facility, I thought it was highly desirable," Sinquefield said. "It's always easier when you have a place to go, a destination. There's a lot of Internet activity in chess, but there's just something about the location that creates a hum, it becomes a hub of activity."

A furniture store vacated the three-story building a few months before the Chess Club began a million-dollar renovation. Seven concrete chess boards outside are known to attract passersby who grab dinner or coffee and sit down to play. Wood paneling and crown molding are all over the main floor, and flat-screen TV's show Internet Chess Club matches and replays of three of Bobby Fischer's most famous games. A library and classroom occupy the basement.

For the next 10 days, the top 24 players in the United States will huddle over boards on the upper floor, vying to be named the 2009 US chess champion.

St. Louis native Charles Lawton received a wildcard invitation to the competition. Lawton also played at the Capablanca club, which is less than 1/6 the size of the new building.

"My first reaction was wow," Lawton said. "It basically shows everybody else around that chess can be more than just something that you pull out of a toy store or whatever."

The facility's grandeur was one of the main reasons the St. Louis club bid to host the championships, said executive director Tony Rich.

"Just like every other sport, it's important to showcase your competitors, and especially your world-class competitors," Rich said. "I mean, these are people that would be ideal role models for children as they grow up."

The championship is chess's equivalent of the Super Bowl. Winners will receive trophies crafted from Swarovski crystal, and at least 350 people a day are expected to watch some of the matches at the club, with thousands more tuned in via the Internet, where the games will be streamed live with commentary from two Grandmasters.

The prestige of and attention from the tournament have the potential to make St. Louis a hub of top-level chess, benefactor Rex Sinquefield said - and his club will be at the center if it happens.

In addition to being the childhood home of Regina Wender, Bobby Fischer's mother, St. Louis also hosted matches in what historians recognize as the first official World Chess Championship, played in 1886. In 1904, the city hosted the American Chess Congress. And St. Louis resident Ben Foster was a developer and ardent supporter of a new form of chess that added a piece with the ability to attack like a rook and a knight. His proposal was first published in the February 12, 1887 edition of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.