It is a question commonly posed to Grandmasters -- business-suit wearing giants with perennially furrowed brows, constantly wrinkled above troubled looks of genuine stress -- can you still have fun?
There were several surprisingly light moments between the kings of chess this past Monday afternoon, as part of a bonus event that came on the heels of the 2014 Sinquefield Cup. The strongest tournament in history had brought six of the world’s top-10 to the Central West End: Reigning World Champion GM Magnus Carlsen, World No. 2 Levon Aronian, No. 3 Fabiano Caruana, No. 5 Hikaru Nakamura, No. 8 Veselin Topalov and No. 9 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. After the tournament wrapped up over the weekend, the group stayed in town for an exhibition called “Ultimate Moves.”
The bonus event featured two amateur players -- tournament sponsor Rex Sinquefield, a Class B player, according to the U.S. Chess Federation; and his son Randy, who helped the Chess Club organize Ultimate Moves as a birthday present for his father -- playing alongside eight super-GMs. Note, that is two more Grandmasters than the six aforementioned world-bests.
Joining the group was four-time U.S. Champion GM Yasser Seirawan, who I don’t suppose I will ever mention again as second-fiddle. But the candle-blowing surprise of the event (for everyone) was the appearance of the legendary 13th World Champion Garry Kasparov, arguably the greatest chess player in history.
Among other connections that link these chess gods together in one room was the collection of three World Champions -- Kasparov, Carlsen and Topalov, the 2005 king -- as well as the top-four highest-rated players the world has ever seen: Carlsen, who peaked at 2889 just this past April; Kasparov, at 2856 at the turn of the century; and Caruana, who reached 2836 after his monumental 7-game win streak just a week ago here in the Central West End, edging out Aronian by a single point to reach the third-highest rating ever.
For a moment, the room felt heavy, almost pregnant. Like there was uncertainty in the walls of the Chess Club’s “board room” that they could contain so much calculating power -- or was it ego? The 10 players were split into two teams -- Randy versus Rex, each with four hand-picked chess gods -- and maybe even those gods themselves were caught up in the moment. Not helping were both Sinquefields, who each wore matching looks of terror that they might blunder in front of their new peers.
The weight in the room held just for a moment, and then it gave out -- when someone reminded them that we play chess to have fun.
It is hard to locate exactly where the mood shifted, but it was likely around the time someone asked one of the World Champions why he was taking so damn long. A snicker from this corner, another jab from that side and, in a matter of minutes, the back row of legendary super-GMs had devolved into nothing more than a peanut gallery. Soon, everyone was up out of their seats, hurling smack to the team across the room and mercilessly tormenting whatever poor soul was sitting at the board.
Laughter in the midst of a chess game, for the record, sounds like music.
With guards down and shirts untucked, it was truly a moment to see these chess heroes acting like common men. Aronian -- who I’ve said could be the World’s No. 1 nicest guy, if he had to settle for being the World’s No. 2 player -- was exceptionally sharp, with a knack for instantly piercing the skin of everyone there. Topalov, too, genuinely kind and soft-spoken, could barely contain his squeals after delivering an appropriate punch.
While the relaxed atmosphere at this highest level of chess was a sight, also superb was watching the room ebb and flow between playful recess and the commanding competitiveness that each of the players harbored. Not one of these kings of the world found thrones because they enjoyed losing. Kasparov, who the world has not seen command pieces in many years, was fantastic to see, sitting down again.
He had his moments of laughter, and there was no doubt he was there to have fun, but Kasparov can wear no disguise. In town for the Sinquefield Cup was Dutch chess journalist and editor-in chief for New In Chess magazine Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam, who described 13th World Champion during Ultimate Moves:
It was great to see Garry in action again, even if it was only a fun event. But then, are there any fun events for Garry when chess is concerned? Hardly, as he demonstrated with the focus and seriousness that he approached these games with -- chess is way too important for him. As he sat thinking about his moves, all the gestures, poses and expressions came back that we knew so well from his active years. It was as if he was playing for some action picture that someone didn’t have the occasion to take at the time. Good to know that Garry Kasparov will always be Garry Kasparov!
Brian Jerauld is the 2014 Chess Journalist of the Year, 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.