In chess, conquering the center is a strategy nearly as old as the game itself.
It is a building block, a foundation, with centuries of theory backing the blueprint. American legend Bobby Fischer opened all but one of his myriad games by instantly striking into the center with 1. e4, famously referring to the first move as “best, by test.”
And it’s a theme that stays constant throughout the game. The early jockey for central management often induces a larger fight, one that radiates from where it started. All pieces converge on the battle’s expansion, using the center as a launchpad to fresh attack.
There is a moment in chess games, in essence an undrawn line that separates middlegame from end, where the kings look around an open battlefield and see only dust clearing. The queens have been traded away, the bishops and knights have valiantly served their duties, and scattered pawns cry out desperately for support.
At this moment the king, who quite often spends the entire game hiding in his castle, finds himself with a significant role in the fight. At this moment the monarch, the last of the major pieces, grabs his trusty sword and ventures fearlessly out into the open. Toward the center.
Here come the kings.
Next week, America’s emperors will converge on the Central West End of this middle-squared city, for the 2014 U.S. Championships hosted by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. It will be the sixth time in a row St. Louis has held the event, the most-ever held consecutively by the same venue, with games set to begin next Thursday, May 8 at 1 p.m.
The format for the event changes annually, and the theme along with it, though the story behind this edition is shaping up to be a straight-out, bare-knuckled dogfight. With U.S. No. 1 Hikaru Nakamura passing on his invitation for the second year in a row, focusing instead on global competition as the world’s current No. 7, his absence leaves no favorite to win the 2014 national title.
The 12 kings slated to fight for it create one of the most well-rounded fields in years, each of them entering on noticeable upswings and high points in their careers. And it has been interesting to watch these kings recently, leaving the dark depths of preparation and emerging from their castles. Hell-bent on conquest in St. Louis, these kings have spent the last few weeks raiding and pillaging their respective regions in their march toward the center.
Reigning champion Gata Kamsky has but seven days left before that title expires, but the four-time winner eyes a new jewel for his crown. Anyone holding their breath for the 39 year old to pass his prime and fade into retirement had better come up for air: Over Easter weekend, Kamsky set fire to the Philadelphia Open, which featured more than 500 players as well as 23 Grandmasters and International Masters. Kamsky took down the event in clear first with 7.5/9 after scoring three points in his last three games, against the toughest competition. It was the third large-scale tournament he has won since March.
Two-seed Timur Gareev has been conquering land in the west, beating out seven other GMs for a clear-first finish at the Far West Open in Reno, Nev., over Easter, and then knocking down the Western Pacific Open last weekend. He would have won in February, too, at a surprisingly stacked Recession Buster tournament in San Diego, had he not drawn in the last round with Mackenzie Molner - this year’s U.S. Championship wildcard.
Alejandro Ramirez, runner-up after losing to Kamsky in a playoff for last year’s championships, recently duked it out with six other GMs to win the St. Louis Open - then he hopped on a plane and flew right into a national-title mindset by competing in Mexico’s 2014 National Championship, where he finished just one point out of first place with 6/9.
Also celebrating victory is local hero Ray Robson, one of the starters on the two-time collegiate champion Webster University squad. Robson is the youngest American ever to become a Grandmaster (beating out Nakamura by a month, who beat out Fischer by three months) and seeks another big milestone to support the prophecy; the national title seems the next logical step. He tied for fifth out of 24 in last year’s U.S. Championship.
If there is a better environment for a flourishing chess star like Robson, find it. The 19 year old has been coached by legendary grandmaster Susan Polgar for both of his years at Webster, currently trains with seven other GMs as teammates, and has Wesley So - ranked No. 22 in the world - as his roommate. Robson’s only emergence from his castle this year was to help Webster win its second title last month, though his teammates did some talking for him at the St. Louis Open: Three of them, including So, tangled with Ramirez to tie for first.
And behind each of these banner-hoisting kings comes a second wave, not exactly waiting in the wings to find victory: America’s three-seed Alex Onischuk finished just behind Gareev in Reno; 2013 U.S. Open winner Josh Friedel took clear second place in Philadelphia, a half-point behind Kamsky; and 2013 U.S. Junior Champion Daniel Naroditsky tied for first with Sam Shankland at the Bay Area International earlier this year.
The battlefield has been cleared, and all minor pieces have been laid to rest. Only monarchs are left to settle the score, each of them confidently swinging sharpened, recently battle-tested swords. Regional conquest has been exhausted, and the fight for middle earth is upon us.
Next week, the kings of American chess will arrive in St. Louis for one more battle. The one to rule them all.
Brian Jerauld is a chess instructor to area students, including his own children, and a student of the game himself through the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. He is also a Mizzou journalist with a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other odds and ends. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.