On Chess: 2014 Proved Banner Year For Chess In St. Louis | St. Louis Public Radio

On Chess: 2014 Proved Banner Year For Chess In St. Louis

Jan 1, 2015

There should be excitement for what may come in 2015, as each passing year has proved better than the last. As we say goodbye to 2014, here are a few monuments St. Louis built in 2014:

Chess History Unfolds In St. Louis

Nearly 700 million people worldwide -- a number greater than what the World Chess Federation recently estimated as the number of chess-playing adults around the globe -- set their gaze on St. Louis last year, and that was only across a single two-week stretch in September.

Chess got even bigger in St. Louis.
Credit file photo | St. Louis Beacon

The 2014 Sinquefield Cup billed itself as the highest-rated chess tournament the world has ever seen, bringing in six of earth’s top-10 players including reigning World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen -- and setting the stage for a true If-You-Build-It, It-Will-Happen moment.

The world champ didn’t turn out to be the headline, as Carlsen finished a distant, “depressing” second behind the stunning performance of GM Fabiano Caruana. The Italian-American won the Sinquefield Cup running away, going undefeated through 10 rounds including an unheard-of seven consecutive victories against the rest of the world’s best -- usurping a mark set by GM Anatoly Karpov in 1994 and instantly setting the new standard as the greatest tournament performance in chess history.

Shock spread and applause grew around the globe with each passing win and, by the end, more than half a billion people tuned in to St. Louis to watch history unfold.

Congress Names St. Louis Nation’s Chess Capital

While the Sinquefield Cup might have been St. Louis’ first blip on the world’s radar of chess, the city entrenched itself as a permanent chess fixture here in America in 2014. Last May, Congress brought the nation’s eyes by naming St. Louis the National Chess Capital of the United States, and a month later Missouri lawmakers in Washington formed a bipartisan Congressional Chess Caucus alongside the first-ever congressional chess tournament (the Republicans won).

The declaration focused on the efforts of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis as the epicenter of America’s burgeoning chess scene, highlighting the CCSCSL as the six-years-running host for each of the U.S. Chess Championships, as well as its sustainable network of after-school chess programs around the city. Ultimately, it served as an awareness boon for the educational benefits of the game, as Congress further encouraged schools and community centers around the nation to “engage in chess programs to promote problem-solving, critical thinking, spatial awareness and goal setting” among school-aged children.

Webster University Wins Second Championship

While the CCSCSL catered to scholastics and professionals, Webster University gave St. Louis strong chess-representation by filling in the collegiate gap. In April, the Webster Groves university’s Grandmaster-laden team won the President’s Cup, the final four of college chess and the most-prestigious national event for post-secondary schools.

It was the second-consecutive championship for Webster, a successful defense of the 2013 crown and clear dividends paid on the decision to bring in legendary coach Susan Polgar, along with her SPICE program (the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence) in 2012. Last April’s win was actually Polgar’s fourth-straight President’s Cup win, nabbing her first two at Texas Tech before transferring to the St. Louis suburb.

St. Louis is now a steaming hotbed of collegiate activity, as top students from around the world are pouring into the city to become a part of Webster’s SPICE program -- which just sent three teams to the 2014 Pan-American Intercollegiate Championship in South Padre Island, Texas, last week. The teams finished first, second and fifth out of 45 teams, again qualifying Webster for the 2015 President’s Cup. A three-peat may be on the horizon.

Arch Bishops Win U.S. Chess League

With St. Louis as nothing less than a high-powered magnet for chess talent, national championships are apparently coming a dime a dozen. In early December, the Saint Louis Arch Bishops became the 2014 champions of the United States Chess League, beating out 18 other cities including the Dallas Destiny in a thrilling final match.

Despite having the sweetest chess team name in history, the Arch Bishops had mustered just a single disheartening playoff appearance in its previous five years within the USCL -- though 2014 proved to be a clear season of destiny right from the start. In an outstanding assembly of all the chess starpower that St. Louis could offer, Webster University standout Grandmasters Wesley So and Le Quang Liem teamed up with CCSCSL’s Resident Grandmasters Ben Finegold and Varuzhan Akobian, storming through the regular season and winning the USCL Southern Division.

With a roster balanced by homegrown, up-and-coming power, such as 15-year-old Julian Proleiko and National Master Matt Larson, a junior at Crossroads Prep, the Arch Bishops earned the second seed and marched through playoffs -- squeaking by the defending champion Miami Sharks in the semifinals, as well as Dallas in the finals, in nail-biting gauntlet-style Blitz playoffs.

St. Louis Community Embracing the Wave

It’s happening. While the chess world continues to discover St. Louis, and the chess nation continues to recognize what swells from here -- this chess city is basking in the effects.

You can see it in education, where the Chess Club’s scholastic program sprawled out in its farthest reach to date, delivering the benefits of chess to more than 3,000 students from more than 1,400 classes -- and demand continues to grow. You can see it on the bricks of our neighborhoods, as chess-themed murals have become the new graffiti. Pocket parks are sprouting out of once-vacant lots, and the game of kings even found its way into one of St. Louis’ oldest summer traditions -- the circus.

And, while the dramatic events surrounding Ferguson thrust St. Louis into the nation’s glare in 2014, ironically it was chess -- despite its inherent struggle of black versus white -- that provided one event to help pull together a community. In October, Living Like Kings: The Unexpected Collision of Chess and Hip-Hop Culture opened at the World Chess Hall of Fame and drew a record-breaking crowd over 550 artists, museum patrons, breakdancers, chess players and other St. Louisans from all walks of life.

“I’m still buzzing from last night (and hopefully will be for awhile),” said a Facebook post by Nicole Hudson, who attended the Living Like Kings opening. “Five hundred and fifty people (that’s 550 ST. LOUISANS) came to a museum, a chess museum, a hall of fame, to celebrate the artistry and scholarship of hip hop and the individual artists who cross all of the ‘traditional’ lines in the pursuit of their passion. Five hundred and fifty people of all races, backgrounds, ages and socioeconomic brackets celebrated, toasted, danced, witnessed and learned together. This is what my St. Louis looks like.”