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On Chess: Hide-and-seek with world's best chess players

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon,  Sept. 13, 2013 - Norwegian super Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen is in town for a few games, and his alone time must be at an absolute premium.

The world’s No. 1-rated player is in the Central West End for the Sinquefield Cup, fine-tuning his game against the world’s No. 2 Levon Aronian, as well as America’s top-two players, Hikaru Nakamura and Gata Kamsky. It is Carlsen’s first chess-related visit to the U.S. and, after the tournament wraps up on Sunday, the 22 year old will disappear from the public. He’ll go into hiding to prepare for the impending world championship match against reigning king Viswanathan Anand in November.

And Carlsen looks ready to hide.

Sign this? Magnus, sign that? Please smile for your 50-iPhone salute, Mr. Carlsen. He moves around the Chess Club and Scholastic Center in a bubble of bodies and flash photography and, for three days in a row, a cross-eyed journalist has trapped him in a corner to ask: “Why you move funny piece like that?” It’s my job to get inside his head, yet the more I do, the more I just want to leave him alone.

And let him think.

How ironic that, while he is incessantly bothered around the globe, all anyone really wants to do is watch the kid think. The club has set up three teams of grandmasters around the CWE chess campus, which offer commentary on the Sinquefield Cup games to crowds both live (at the World Chess Hall of Fame, across the street; and Lester’s bar/restaurant, just next door) and online, at www.uschesschamps.com. It has been fascinating to watch GMs get shocked and excited as they break the game down “for the rest of us.” But they’re also simultaneously sitting in the same congregation: In chess, literally everyone looks up to Carlsen.

Australian GM and chess journalist Ian Rogers possesses an impressive wealth of knowledge, and it’s been a pleasure watching him analyze the games of these chess greats move-for-move. He was almost giddy as he watched Carlsen pick the “only correct move” for the fourth time in Monday’s win over Kamsky. It was a slow and beautiful strangulation of the reigning U.S. champ.

This is not to suggest that no one is here to see the other players, all of them chess royalty in their own right. If Levon Aronian can’t be the World’s No. 1 chess player, he might have to settle for being the World’s No. 1 nicest guy. Armenia’s national hero is a total class act; he’s gracious and happy to chat with everyone he meets. And, I must say, always looking quite dapper, where chess can often get stuffy in its business suits.

I watched him try to walk to the World Chess Hall of Fame, just across the street, and it took him nearly 20 minutes. GM Ben Finegold sabotaged him by making him pose for a picture in front of the world’s largest chess piece, and it immediately drew a crowd. But Aronian was never in a hurry, shaking hands, taking pictures and chatting patiently with each person. He did the same to a large group of Armenian, flag-waving fans after a two-hour autograph session last Sunday.

Aronian was the favorite to at least challenge Carlsen for top billing in the Sinquefield Cup, but that idea was derailed during Monday’s first round with an absolute teeth-grinding blunder of 30. … Qb5??, which led immediately to his demise. The elementary oversight was nothing anyone expected to see in such an elite tournament, or from such an elite player.

“That is a blunder you might see him make once every five years, and every time it happens, you’re still surprised,” Rogers said.

But Aronian handled it with grace, saying, “I prefer not to lose in such a way, but that’s something about the game of chess: It’s humbling.”

Loving life right now is U.S. No. 1 Hikaru Nakamura, who seems extremely comfortable playing at home. Though he makes his living globetrotting around the earth’s most prestigious tournaments, he’s finally making good use of his apartment, which is just walking distance from the Club. The chess-deprived United States has not offered a world-class tournament of this caliber since the Piatagorsky Cup in 1966 – or ever, in Nakamura’s 25 years.

Nakamura pounced all over Aronian’s gaffe in round 1, then pulled out some beautiful tricks in time trouble against Kamsky on Tuesday. And after a draw with Carlsen (whom he has never beaten in 21 games), Nakamura not only leads the tournament with 2.5/3 points, but he has moved up to No. 4 in the world on the live chess rating.

Gata Kamsky has had great success in St. Louis before, but he is having a rough go this time around, currently fourth place with only a draw and two losses. The 39 year old has been a force in the chess world for decades. He is a four-time U.S champion, and was a challenger for the World Champion title in 1996. But these kids he fights with today are almost at a different level, even on the elite scale.

I got a bit snarky trying to fish for a good quote, asking him when was the last tournament at which he had been an underdog. He sized me up with a once-over and stared a hole into my blushed head, then offered a smile and a laugh that was neither laughing nor smiling. He didn’t say anything, or actually he did, but my hand was trembling too much to write down his quote.

I felt like hiding.

Brian Jerauld is a chess instructor to area students, including his own children, and a student of the game himself through the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. He is also a Mizzou journalist with a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other odds and ends. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.