Next week, the Central West End chess club will again be joined by the top player in the United States, Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, who returns for a special exhibition match with one of his main rivals from the world stage, Armenia’s Levon Aronian.
The event, which will feature four classical games of chess and one afternoon that features 16 five-minute Blitz games, has been billed like a boxing match: a clash between two chess heavyweights, going five rounds in a fight over a $100,000 purse, in a showcase aptly named the Showdown in Saint Louis.
Excitement is a given any time two of the world’s elite sit down for a brawl, but when the final bell rings on the Showdown, it might just be a fighter from the undercard who finds his name in flashing lights.
Surrounding the headlining matches are two specialized tournaments called “title norm” events, designed for up-and-coming players who are chasing chess’ elite handles of International Master (IM) and the superior Grandmaster (GM). These titles are awarded by FIDE, the French acronym for the World Chess Federation. Earning either title requires three norms -- that is, superior performances against a qualified field of opponents.
These performances extend beyond execution of tactics -- norm qualification is a separate trick all on its own. FIDE certainly doesn’t need a bunch of masters running the streets, so guidelines for norm recognition are overly stringent. Among other technicalities, a norm is only recognized if the player performs to a certain score, against a field that averages above a certain rating, and must include three players already holding the sought-after title, as well as three players who represent three different countries -- reflecting the international recognition of these titles. Have fun coordinating that.
The chapter on chasing norms and subsequent titles is an interesting read in any player’s career, quite often a dark and lengthy story, one that does not usually carry a theme of playing chess for competitive enjoyment. Most any chess player with a title also comes with their own tale of norm-horror:
This amazing performance versus a rating average just a few points shy.
That unbelievable winning streak against a player field lacking a third nationality.
An unfortunate last-round pairing against a no-namer who wrecks everything -- all of this out of the player's control.
U.S. Women’s Chess Champion Irina Krush earned her first GM norm when she was 18 years old, then waited 12 years before earning her second. America almost lost Sam Shankland, a gold medalist from this year’s Chess Olympiad, who actually announced his retirement from chess when he was 18 years old (albeit in Brett Favre-style), citing the ridiculous hoops of FIDE and its denial of several performances -- particularly the achievement of that most-important third GM norm. Bryan Smith, one of the rotating resident GMs at the St. Louis Chess Club, simply packed up his stuff and moved to Europe to earn his norms.
A problem, specifically for American chess players, is that norm opportunities are few and far between. So that’s what makes next week’s GM/IM norm events so special -- they are designed with all the FIDE hoop-jumping in mind. Each field is closed to 10 players, all of whom have been coordinated to pass norm qualification requirements. Nationalities are covered. Rating average has been confirmed. Three players already hold the necessary title, with seven others looking to score. All anyone has to do is show up and play.
With performance as their only task, there are a few highlights who are on the brink of major achievement. Priyadharshan Kannappan is our local hero, a Lindenwood University student and International Master looking for that final title. “Priya” set off on a title mission last May and will enter next week needing only his third Grandmaster norm. Home seems like a stellar place for that to happen.
Eyes across the nation, however, will be on IM Sam Sevian. The Boston 13 year old is a long-watched American prodigy, a U12 world champion and likely next in line to become the U.S. Junior champion. Sevian already holds the record as the youngest-ever American International Master, still on pace to grab an even bigger record.
Including one claimed here in St. Louis’ from a previous event, Sevian has already notched all three of his GM norms -- making him a “GM-elect” in the eyes of FIDE. All the boy needs is for his rating to pass the 2500 rating watermark, and he will instantly become a Grandmaster, right there on the spot. He will enter next week’s tournament just 16 points shy, and a solid performance will easily cover that ground.
If it happens, Sevian will become the youngest American Grandmaster in history, a record once held by Bobby Fischer and, subsequently, Nakamura.
And the U.S. Capital of Chess seems like a stellar place for that to happen.
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.