A Bevy of Grandmasters
11:45 pm
Wed April 23, 2014

On Chess: St. Louis Flexes Its Chess Muscle

For six years, St. Louis has been steadily pumping its proverbial chess muscle.

There is, perhaps, no better way to gauge the strength of the city than to count the number of tough guys around here. The Chess Club and Scholastic Center opened in 2008 as a hopeful magnet to the game, and a year later GM Ben Finegold rode into town as the city’s very first Grandmaster. Today, backed by the murderer’s row of the Webster University collegiate team - including 2014 U.S. Championship-hopeful GM Ray Robson - St. Louis is home to 11 Grandmasters.

The magnet, indeed, is extending its reach internationally. Visiting town is Russian GM Konstantin Landa, who will stop by the Central West End tonight (only) to see what all the hubbub is about - no doubt having heard stories through Lindenwood’s WGM Anna Sharevich, one of his students.

Landa is an established GM, having earned his title in 1995 as a 23-year-old, but he has earned extra stripes in his post-career as a FIDE senior trainer. His coaching resume is impressive, boasting several students that grace the elite lists of the world, including 2008 Women’s World Champion Alexandra Kosteniuk. He will be at the CCSCSL at 7 p.m., giving a special lecture titled “Improving the Position of your Pieces,” geared toward tournament players.

Varuzhan Akobian
Credit Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis

The number of tough guys is certain to be juiced as we draw nearer the 2014 U.S. Championships, which will begin play on May 8. Already here is GM Varuzhan Akobian, getting settled in the upcoming tournament venue as the club’s current Resident Grandmaster. “Var” is the U.S. No. 5, and was here for last year’s championships; it sounds cliche, but he seems different this time around.

At 30, Akobian looks to be hitting his prime, having recently headlined as champion to several legit tournaments; including the 2013 World Open; the 2013 North American Open and the 2014 UT-Dallas Spring FIDE Open with a 7/9 score. He is definitely in top form.

But then he spent the last few evenings knocking down club members in five-minute games, with only one minute on his clock, and I noticed what was different. The games weren’t exactly preparation for the national title, but he looks like he’s having fun these days; calm and comfortable, despite what looms. I think Var came to play.

Arriving early in May will be GM Sam Shankland, one of the country’s next generation of top GMs at 22 years old. He will land on St. Louis with his best-ever rating of 2707, ranking him eighth in the nation, and he will give a lecture titled “Attacking a Color Complex” at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, May 4 to help kick off the championships.

Shankland is a regular contributor on chess.com; a quality lecturer who does well in explaining important themes and points within positions. He has a knack for putting high-level ideas into layman’s terms, creating interesting discussions for amateurs not well versed in the technical encyclopedia of chess.

Along with Akobian’s regular weekly programming as resident GM, these current lecture series should prove to be some of the best of the year: Accessing the brains of America’s finest players, just as they are razor-sharp and ready for the national title fight.

As such, the trickle-down effect is working wonders on the region. Earlier this month, the club hosted the 5th annual Bill Wright Saint Louis Open, its flagship open-to-anyone tournament with $10,000 guaranteed in prizes. Seven GMs came out to fight for it - as did 15 other nationally titled players from around the area. More than 100 players entered the tournament, which included a beefy 60-player U2000-rated section.

It was enough to make last year’s runner-up to the national crown, GM Alejandro Ramirez, the resident GM before Akobian, lament on how easy the tournaments in St. Louis “used to be” - even all the way down to the club’s regular Friday Action Quad tournaments, which pull in 40-50 players weekly.

Ramirez split the Saint Louis Open’s top prize five ways, and also made the point that some countries don’t get seven GMs in a tournament - yet now we’re doing it any weekend we want.

It’s enough to make the CCSCSL quite literally burst at its seams. Membership of the Central West End hangout has swelled to more than 1,000 active members, and we’ve spilled over to next door. The chess club will now feature an internal entrance to neighbor Lester’s Bar and Grill - a relationship that was forged when throngs of chess fans took over the restaurant for an entire football weekend during the Sinquefield Cup last fall. The chess campus is growing.

Lester’s will continue operations per usual - that is, serve delicious toasted ravioli - but the extra space will allow even more casual chess play than the club’s main floor already offers.

And it will be put to good use, immediately: Shankland’s lecture will be held in Lester’s, as will two Friday Night Blitz tournaments: special side events during both weekends of the U.S. Championships, catered to our out-of-town spectators and guests.

Read: Fresh meat, served warm!

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 Saint 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.