Just announced was the 2014 Sinquefield Cup, the encore to last year's megalith international competition that delivered four of the world's most-elite chess players to the Central West End.
At that time, the somewhat-surprise event served as the United States’ clear re-emergence on the world’s chess stage, a triumphant “hello again” to a global audience after having gone long dormant from the days of Bobby Fischer.
Rivaled only by competitions held 50 years ago, last year’s tournament far and away set records as the strongest ever held on American soil, and the mid-event announcement of the Sinquefield Cup becoming an annual occurrence was gladly received -- even if it did leave already wide-eyed enthusiasts wondering how the first version could be topped.
For 2014, however, the headliner alone has one-upped the event, all on his own accord. Norwegian GM Magnus Carlsen, winner of last year’s inaugural cup, left St. Louis merely as the No. 1 rated player in the world. He returns as the reigning World Champion -- three times over. Carlsen wrested the global chess throne in the classical time control (long games) from GM Viswanathan Anand a month after his visit here, and went on to win world championships in Rapid chess (faster games) as well as in Blitz chess (even faster) at the FIDE Championships this past June. The 23 year old is now the first triple-crown World Champion in the history of chess.
Beyond Carlsen’s individual upgrades, the 2014 Sinquefield Cup sees a one-up in its player field, increasing from four a year ago, to now feature six of the world’s top-nine players. Returning is World No. 2 Levon Aronian from Armenia, as well as the American top dog Hikaru Nakamura, who took second in last year’s event and currently sits at No. 5 on the planet. Newly added is Italy’s Fabiano Caruana (World No. 3), Bulgaria’s Veselin Topalov (World No. 8) and France’s Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (World No. 9).
These chess stars have found a perfect alignment, however, bringing next month’s event to an even higher peak -- at least for one brief, almost fleeting, moment. The current ratings of the player field, as they stand at this very second, sets the 2014 Sinquefield Cup as the strongest tournament in the history of chess.
Building headlines from player ratings is tricky, working off numbers that are both fickle and arguable, at best. Technically, the World Chess Federation (FIDE) publishes updated listings on the first of every month, locking them in as “official” until the next list every 30 days or so. But in between, obsession over the world’s elite has happily married with the instant gratification of the internet, providing us the ability to monitor ratings right down to the very second a handshake is made. Dedicated websites, such as www.2700chess.com (a 2700 rating is considered the threshold to the chess elite), keep daily track of tournaments hosting top players, instantly applying every win, loss and draw to the formula for a literal “live” rating list.
Again, fleeting is the operative word here, in regards to the Strongest Tournament Ever. The first game of the 2014 Sinquefield Cup is less than a month away -- just over a light year, in terms of live ratings. A single match from any of those six players between now and then will undoubtedly affect that magic average. All-but guaranteeing significant fluctuation is the 2014 Chess Olympiad, which begins tomorrow in Tromso, Norway, and features all six of the Sinquefield Cup stars active for their respective countries.
Who knows what the numbers will look like in a few weeks, when the players pull up their chairs in St. Louis. But for now, for this one instantly gratifying moment, it happened: A perfect alignment, a peak. And for argument’s sake, it doesn’t hurt that FIDE’s next list is due out tomorrow -- just before the Olympiad begins. Just to make it official.
That’s enough to make the enthusiasts wonder: How can the second version be topped?
Brian Jerauld is a chess instructor to area students, a student of the game himself and the communications specialist for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. He is a 2001 graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism and has more than a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other ways to relax. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.