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Chess championships roll into town, cameras follow

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 3, 2013 - “Live, from the basement of the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center...”

Flip to Fox Sports Midwest sometime two weeks from now, and in the place of Waino and Yadi, Steen and Backes, there will be Krush and Robson -- not on a field or a rink, but hunched over chess boards, their each and every move picked apart by a trio of announcers.

For the fifth straight year, the formerly nomadic Championship will take over the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center (SLCCSC) in the Central West End for an 11-day event, bookended by elaborate opening and closing ceremonies. 24 of the U.S.’ top chess players will compete in a Swiss-style** tournament. Simultaneously, ten women will compete in the round robin Women's tournament.

Chess glossary

Swiss system: To determine first-round pairings, players are broken into two groups based on rating, and the highest-ranked player will be paired against the highest-ranked player in the bottom half of the list, the next highest will play the next highest-ranked player in the bottom half, and so on. After the first round, all of the players who won a game (indicated as 1/1 or 1-0) are grouped together, sorted and paired as previously explained. So too are all of the players who drew their first-round game (0.5/1 or 0.5-0.5) and players who lost their first round game (0/1 or 0-1). As rounds progress, players are grouped based on their overall scores, and then sorted and paired. This is designed to ensure players with the highest scores at the end of the event will face one another.


Grandmaster: Other than World Champion, grandmaster (GM) is the highest title a chess player can attain. Once a player reaches grandmaster status, which is awarded by FIDE, he/she will remain a grandmaster for life. To become a grandmaster, a chess player must have a current FIDE rating of at least 2500 and also earn three GM norms, or GM-quality tournament performances. This means that, in three separate tournaments, a player must play against a strong, international field of grandmasters and post a favorable result.

The exact number of points needed to earn a GM norm deponds on the strength of the rest of the players in the field of each tournament.

International Master: International master (IM) is the second-highest title a player can attain and requires three IM norms and a FIDE rating usually between 2400 and 2500. In a GM-norm tournament for instance, a player may need 6 points out of 9 to get a GM norm, but may only need 5 out of 9 to attain an IM norm.

FIDE Master: To become a FIDE Master (FM) a chess player must attain a FIDE rating of 2300.

Women’s Titles: FIDE has separate titles for women, which has been applauded by some as an effort to award and recognize a chess-playing minority (as tournament and professional chess is heavily male-dominated) and condemned by others as sexist.

Woman Grandmaster (WGM): Established in 1977, this considered less prestigious than an IM title and requires a FIDE rating of 2300. Typically, if a woman holds both the WGM and IM titles, she will prefer to be recognized as an IM.

Woman International Master (WIM): Established in 1950, this title is considered less prestigious than the FM title and typically requires a FIDE rating of 2200.

Woman FIDE Master (WFM): This typically requires a FIDE rating of 2100.

"We have the world-class player Gatakamsky, he goes in as the tournament favorite. But we have such an incredible mix of players," Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan said.

He pointed to "veteran grandmasters, really up and coming young stars who are still earning their spurs, highly talented, highly erratic players who are capable of losing five games and winning five games" and long running rivalry between the two female heavyweights, Irina Krush and Anna Zatonskih.

"I'm expecting a lot of surprises--it's just the nature of the field that we're going to have some upsets," Seirawan said.

Between Friday, May 3 and Sunday, May 12, each player will play one round a day, except on Tuesday, May 8, a “rest day.” The competitors in the main event will be competing for shares of a $180,000 purse, with a $60,000 purse up for grabs in the women’s tournament.

Chess fans will notice the absence of the U.S.’s strongest player and defending champion --The St. Louis based GM and #1 ranked American Hikaru Nakamura. Nakamura will be competing in Norway Chess 2013, a “Super-Grandmasters” tournament with the world’s top-ranked players.

Nakamura’s absence destabilizes the fields of favorites. Among them are St. Louis based GMs Ray Robson and Ben Finegold -- a full list of competitors, along with their rankings and ratings, can be seen on the Championship website, including a Women's site.

The tournament is not new (the American championships have been an annual fixture since 1857), but in the world of on-demand, streaming video, the coverage and broadcast of chess play is constantly evolving.

Mike Wilmering, communications specialist for the club and the go-to guy for all things media, is hoping to bring in record numbers via the online stream and Fox Sports' one hour recap.

The closest thing to a hype man in the chess world, Wilmering hopes for a "climactic finish" with a Monday playoff hours before the closing ceremony--if Seirawan's predictions hold true, that may well happen.

Locals can watch the action closely: Three screenings, complete with food and drink, will be available inside the club itself (which is just east of the intersections of Maryland and Euclid Avenues), on a 70 inch screen in the World Chess Hall of Fame across the street, or above the club on the patio of Lester’s. The last shares a (soundproofed) wall with the Club.

Admission is $10 day, or free with a yearly membership. Kibitzing is encouraged.

Some highlights in the next week and a half:

A dynamic trio of announcers:

This tournament will be streamed across the world both through the Club’s Championships website and Fox Sports Midwest. The club assembled a trio of play-by-play announcers, three literati of the chess world. Their stream is available through the U.S. Championship website.

  • The smooth baritone, four-time U.S. champion and Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan, who serves as part of the SLSCCC rotation of resident Grandmasters. Seirawan was invited to play in the tournament, but turned it down to serve as a commentator. "The overall arching goal has been to get chess on t.v., to get a sports channel to carry the action. This year just happened to be a break through year, and the Club asked me [to announce]." Seirawan gave up his role in the tournament, saying his potential impact as an announcer could be greater than his impact as a player. "Everybody benefits. That was the concept, let's hope the sacrifice was worht it."
  • Maurice Ashley, the first African-American Grandmaster and ESPN commentator, who is as a joint fellow at Harvard and MIT developing ways to spread chess with new technology. A preview of his chess-inspired work can be seen in his TED talk.
  • Women’s Grandmaster Jennifer Shahade, author of "Chess Bitch, Play Like a Girl" and co-author of "Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess" and the editor of Chess Life Online. Shahade has announced the championships since they came to St. Louis in 2009 and, like St. Louis’ own Susan Polgar, actively promotes chess for girls and women.

Fantasy chess, with quite the prize:

Chess fans and fantasy sports fanatics still have until play starts this afternoon (1 p.m. May 3) to create their own team. Players are preranked and given point values correlating to their ranking. Fantasy "coaches" are allotted a set amount of "points"’ to spend on their team.

The fantasy team with the highest combined score of its competitors will be crowned winner of Fantasy Chess and receive round-trip airfare for two people to St. Louis, private dinner and two lessons from Seirawan. More than 500 teams have been created, including one by the writer (who, admittedly, was more or less pulling names out of a hat).

Several team names humorously play off of chess players names, from the benign -- e.g. “Team Krush” nods to IM Irina Krush -- to the teasing -- ”Ivanchuk time management school now open” references GM Vassily Ivanchuk’s notoriously crippling time management skills -- to the unprintable.

Hip-hop, martial arts and chess on a rest day:

The World Chess Hall of Fame, 4652 Maryland Ave., across the street from the SLCCSC,  will host a “Live the Game” event  at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 8 at the Schlafly Branch of the St. Louis Public Library. Led by Adisa Banjoko, founder of the Hip Hop Chess Federation in San Francisco, the panel discussion will explore the connections between chess, hip hop and martial arts.

Take a look the “Jiu Jitsu x Chess,” from Youtube remix celebrity Mike Relm, who will be present for the forum.

Teen takeover: 

Three players under the age of 18 will compete in the Championships for the first time this year -- 12-year-old International Master Sam Sevian, 14-year-old International Master Kayden Troff and 16-year-old Women FIDE Master Sarah Chiang.

In a sport with no physical requirements, young prodigies competing at the highest level of play are uncommon, but not unheard of -- the famous Bobby Fischer won at the age of 14.

All three teens are longshot contenders, but Troff and Chiang both said that an opportunity to play with seasoned veterans on a national stage is worth the trip, regardless of points.

"I've actually never played any of these women," Chiang said. "But I'm not really going to care about results or points, because that just gets in the way of playing a good game."