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(BPT) - If you think chess ranks somewhere with stamp collecting and horseshoes on the cool-and-hip meter, you need to turn down the disco music on your cassette player and start paying attention.
The ancient game, now roughly 1,500 years old, is enjoying a renaissance across the country. Young people from grade schoolers to college students are playing in unprecedented numbers. Skill levels are skyrocketing. Big money is being won at tournaments. And people across the United States and the world are tuning in to watch online broadcasts of tournaments, featuring stylish commentary by sophisticated, witty analysts.
Nowhere is the trend more obvious than in St. Louis, which from a standing start in 2008 has rapidly grown into the unlikely epicenter of American chess. Once again this year, the Midwestern city has been scheduled to host the major U.S. tournaments: the U.S. Championship, the U.S. Women’s Championship, the U.S. Junior Championship and the U.S. Girl’s Junior Championship. Later in the year, St. Louis will also host the Sinquefield Cup, which will feature not only several of the top American players but global stars as well — including the world champion, Magnus Carlsen of Norway.
Carlsen is one of the reasons for the game’s renewed popularity. World Champion since 2013, he is still only 26 years old. Athletic, handsome and good-natured, he is also in many ways the opposite of the great Bobby Fischer, who captured the nation’s attention as world champion in the early 1970s. Carlsen has become to chess what Arnold Palmer was to professional golf.
But long before the soccer-playing Norwegian emerged as world champion, Rex Sinquefield, the namesake of the Cup for which Carlsen will play, was paving the way for the game’s renewal in the United States. Having retired from the financial services industry, Sinquefield began in 2008 to put some of his money to work making his hometown of St. Louis into a chess mecca. His goal was partly pedagogical; Sinquefield believes the game teaches patience, self-control, analysis, planning and other skills. But Sinquefield also just wanted more people to enjoy a game he’d always loved.
The result is the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis (CCSCSL). Located in a handsome restored building in the city’s most cosmopolitan neighborhood, across from the World and U.S. Chess Halls of Fame, the club has established chess programs in schools all over the St. Louis area. But it has also become a chess hangout, where people of all ages congregate to play and learn about the game through lectures, summer camp sessions and other programs. At the same time, the club, plush and technologically up-to-date, has become the go-to facility for the hosting of U.S. national tournaments.
While all this was happening, the Tennessee-based U.S. Chess Federation, a non-profit that has promoted the game for 75 years, was experiencing a revitalization of its own. Schools like the University of Texas at Dallas, Texas Tech University in Lubbock, the University of Maryland in Baltimore County, Webster University in St. Louis and Saint Louis University were finding they could boost their name recognition and win prestige by offering chess scholarships. And emigres from the old Soviet bloc, including Garry Kasparov, five-time former world champion, and Susan Polgar, from Hungary, were pouring their energy into developing a U.S. chess culture.
Now in New York City alone a nonprofit called Chess in the Schools runs programs in 50 elementary and middle schools, serving about 13,000 low-income students. A separate charter school program in New York reaches 9,000 more students. In Syracuse, N.Y., a new chess organization places older players in the schools to teach the game. The game is being taught to kids in schools in Chicago, Nashville, Los Angeles — all over the nation.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the record for youngest person to achieve grandmaster status keeps falling in the United States; it’s now held by Sam Sevian, of suburban Boston, who achieved it before he turned 14. Perhaps it’s no surprise either that the Boy Scouts of America now has a merit badge for chess, or that membership in the U.S. Chess Club has been rising steadily since 2011, and now surpasses 90,000. Or that purse money in tournaments is climbing and has hit the $1 million mark.
Or finally, that the level of play in the United States has improved so much that two or three of the top five players of a decade ago no longer qualify among the top dozen.
Soon it could all get much more exciting. Three of the top 10 players in the world are now American: Wesley So, 23, ranked No. 2 in the world; Fabiano Caruana, 24, the current U.S. champion, ranked No. 3; and Hikaru Nakamura, 29, ranked No. 8. Should any one of them win the crown, he would become only the second American to do it, and the first since Fischer nearly two generations ago.
Fischer’s victory ignited a chess mania in the United States, but the enthusiasm soon passed, as did Fischer’s reign.
This time, the roots of chess popularity in the United States are much deeper. Some 1,500 years since its invention, the game’s future here looks bright.