It is, perhaps, the pinnacle chess week of the year, with several dazzling headlines labeling every level of the sport. When things get chaotic, keeping track of your lines can be difficult ... scattered thoughts, like pawns, need attending:
Locally, the Central West End chess campus is readying the arrival of a legendary king of American chess, Grandmaster Walter Browne, who comes in for his first visit to the U.S. Capital of Chess. If Bobby Fischer was the boom of the 1970s, Browne was the ticking fuse, a dominant force around the nation fondly remembered for his unsettling, pressure-filled play during epic moments of time trouble.
Browne is a six-time U.S. champion, a number topped only by the eight national titles of GM Sammy Reshevsky and Fischer, though he perhaps reached his legendary status in Open-to-anyone tournaments as the winner of more Swiss-style events than any other American player. Among his Open tournament wins throughout the 1970s and ’80s was the National Open (11 times), American Open (seven times), World Open (three times) and the U.S. Open (twice) -- doing it all while balancing a day job as a professional poker player, another mindsport where Browne is equally legendary.
Browne, now 65, still cashes regularly in World Series of Poker events and, though admittedly not at the peak of his career, doesn’t seem to have lost many chops at the board either. Browne won the 2014 Senior Open in September, tied for first in Reno’s Western States Open two weeks ago and now sets a new target on in this weekend’s Saint Louis Thanksgiving Open at the Chess Club.
The tournament begins Friday, and Browne will give a special lecture at the club tonight on two important games from his career, including one against a 16-year-old Garry Kasparov just entering the scene in 1979. The highlight of Browne’s visit, however, will be a special symposium next Tuesday night at the World Chess Hall of Fame, where he already adorns the walls. A Conversation With Walter Browne will undoubtedly be two hours worth of name-dropping from an outstanding list of opponents through a storied career, accompanied by another storyteller and king from the era, GM Yasser Seirawan.
Nationally, hopes abound for the current king of America GM Hikaru Nakamura, carefully walking the path of prophecy as the U.S.’ next-best hope for a World Champion. Nakamura, currently ranked No. 9 in the world, has lost just one game out of his last 22 -- an excellent time for such a run, as all were played in two events from the 2014-15 FIDE Grand Prix cycle.
The FIDE Grand Prix is a series of tournaments closed to 16 of the world’s best players, with performances from each tournament earning points toward an overall series standings. The top-two players from the Grand Prix cycle qualify for the 2015 Candidates Tournament, an eight-seat, highly exclusive event whose winner becomes challenger to the World Champion throne.
Nakamura has never appeared in a Candidates Tournament but, during this fine streak, has tied for second in both Grand Prix events held in Baku, Azerbaijan and Tashkent, Uzbekistan, which wrapped up last Sunday. Halfway through the cycle, he sits second place in the overall standings, behind GM Fabiano Caruana.
The other half of the Grand Prix won’t take place until next year, though Nakamura will return to St. Louis at the end of the month to keep in shape while he waits. Just announced was the Showdown in St. Louis, a five-round exhibition match that pits the American star against Armenian GM Levon Aronian (World No. 4) where they will duke out four classical games of chess as well as 16 Blitz games (5 minutes per side) for a $100,000 purse.
The event will be hosted by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis just before Thanksgiving, Nov. 21-25, surrounded by two norm tournaments that feature some of America’s up-and-coming talent trying to achieve their International Master and Grandmaster titles.
Internationally, all eyes are again centered on Sochi, Russia, for the 2015 World Chess Championship, which kicks off this Saturday, Nov. 8. The global title fight is a rematch of last year’s, once again featuring Norway’s Magnus Carlsen and India’s Viswanathan Anand -- though this time with the roles reversed.
Last year it was Carlsen who had climbed to the final rung of the world, knocking Anand from the perch on which he had sat for nearly 10 years. The defeat was to be the end of Vishy’s illustrious career, a 44-year-old who had just been usurped by chess’ prodigal face of the future and left to slowly fade into retirement. He did not, however, succumb to the farewell narrative.
He rebounded impressively, going undefeated through the 2014 Candidates Tournament last March and winning by an impressive 1.5-point margin. So now Anand has returned as challenger to his former throne, his first time on that side of the table since 2007. Carlsen will play defense after his first year of life on the lonely peak.
And the year has been anything but parades and celebration for the new World Champion, especially lately. Carlsen was all-but embarrassed in August’s Chess Olympiad, losing twice to inferiors and pulling out of the event early. And he didn’t regain any face here in town for the Sinquefield Cup in September, outclassed by the historical performance of Caruana.
Carlsen is still considered the favorite, though perhaps not as clear as in last year’s bout with Anand, mostly due to his handling of pressure as a first-time World Champion. The lead-up to Saturday’s World Championship came with distractions from just about everything except chess, wrapping up a year that delivered quite a sobering reminder: Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown.
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 decided to give up on the King's Indian Defense. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.