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Chess providers break ties with St. Louis Chess Club over sexual misconduct allegations

Bob Fowler does work July 16, 2018, on the world's largest chess piece, set outside of the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis' Central West End.
Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Bob Fowler does work on the world's largest chess piece in July 2018 outside of the World Chess Hall of Fame in the Central West End.

Two major chess organizations have cut ties with the St. Louis Chess Club. The move comes as sexual misconduct allegations are increasing calls for change across the chess world.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jonathan Ahl spoke with Wall Street Journal sports reporter Andrew Beaton who has been covering the unfolding developments.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jonathan Ahl: What did you find that these two big chess organizations have done in their relationship with the St. Louis Chess Club?

Andrew Beaton: Well, in recent months and throughout the course of this year, there's been a broader reckoning over how allegations of sexual misconduct in the chess world have been handled by the powers that be.

And over the past week or so, two of the biggest online operators around, Lichess.org and Chess.com have functionally suspended their relationships with the St. Louis Chess Club over their perception of how the club has handled accusations of wrongdoing.

Ahl: These accusations of wrongdoing are not new. Do you know why they took this action now?

Beaton: Well, I think there's been a growing crescendo throughout the course of this year where we had in the wake of Jennifer Shahade’s (Chess grandmaster and Program Director at U.S. Chess Women) tweet where she outlined allegations against Alejandro Ramirez, a prominent grandmaster, who's the resident grandmaster at the St. Louis Chess Club.

We had done some deeper reporting and found that there were numerous women who accused Ramirez of wrongdoing and one of the key bits we think of our reporting was that it wasn't just that he had done things wrong, but many people had told us that it seemed that bodies such as the St.Louis Chess Club and the U.S. Chess Federation knew about this type of behavior and didn't act on it for quite some time.

And I think one of the things we've seen in the recent weeks and months since then is that there has been a growing #MeToo movement of sorts within the chess world.

There were four women who resigned recently from the U.S. chess accessibility committee. So I think all of what we're seeing now is a growing tidal wave and this is part of it where these powerful entities such as Chess.com and Lichess are part of the growing chorus demanding accountability and a safer space for women in the game.

Ahl: From a functional point of view, what is the impact on the St. Louis Chess Club with Chess.com and Lichess not recognizing, supporting and engaging with their tournaments?

Beaton: For one, there's a visibility standpoint, most people who are following a chess tournament, like the ones hosted in St. Louis are doing so online and Chess.com and Lichess.org are incredibly popular websites and operators that usually lend a very large audience to these events. And so for if you take Chess.com, for example, they're usually providing their own video, they have their own content people on site and they're giving it a big spotlight when there's a big tournament in St. Louis. And now that spotlight is gone.

Basically, they're saying if we don't love the way you guys are handling these important issues, we don't want to be shining a positive and bright light on you.

Any big-time sporting event is made big-time by the viewers. You know what makes the Super Bowl the Super Bowl is that there's 100 million people watching. And while we're not talking about that type of number with a chess tournament, it sort of has the same message if Fox or CBS took the Super Bowl off the air.

Ahl: Do you believe that this is the beginning of substantial and sustainable change in the chess world?

Beaton: I think that's what the people involved hope. I think whether we see substantial change is to be determined, the U.S. Chess Federation has introduced new measures such as partnering with the U.S. Center for SafeSport. But I think having spoken to people in the industry, they're all looking at it with an air of skepticism because until they feel the change, they won't necessarily believe the change has happened.

The St. Louis Chess Club did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Jonathan Ahl is the Newscast Editor and Rolla correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.