Two years ago, the inaugural Sinquefield Cup lured World Champion Magnus Carlsen to his first-ever American chess game -- and the St. Louis super tournament, then-celebrated as the strongest in U.S. history, was opened with rousing success.
The follow-up turned out to be the mother of all upgrades.
Carlsen returned last August in defense of the Sinquefield Cup, this time featuring five other world top-tenners to oppose him. The event was crowned as the strongest the world had ever seen, and it went beyond what just a little organization and planning could accomplish. With the table set, the strongest tournament in chess history served up the finest performance in the same book, featuring an improbable 7-0 run by Italy’s Fabiano Caruana that both humbled the World Champ and went down as an instant classic in chess lore .
That left the Sinquefield Cup in a difficult position for its third move: What can you do when you’ve already outdone yourself?
The answer came last week at an internationally viewed press conference in the Central West End, announcing the newly formed Grand Chess Tour -- and a new gold standard for elite chess competition. In 2015, the Sinquefield Cup will join forces with two more of the world’s most-prestigious events, marking St. Louis as one of three stops in a global circuit featuring 10 of chess’ kings.
The goal now is maintenance: Keeping the bar held high. The Grand Chess Tour links the organizational efforts behind the Sinquefield Cup with those backing the London Chess Classic and Norway Chess, together setting a new model for player conditions, prize funds and a full-blown spectator experience.
Each tournament will be 10-player round-robin events featuring $300,000 individual prize funds, and the players will accumulate points in an overall tour race for an extra $150,000 circuit payoff -- just qualifying as a $1 million circuit. That’s easily enough cash to make it rain and, with no doubt some extra behind-the-scenes pampering, chess’ superstars seem quite content to play their part in the GCT: Nearly all of the world’s top-10 players have agreed to participate in all three events.
The players are: Carlsen, Caruana, Armenia’s Levon Aronian, Bulgaria’s Veselin Topalov, France’s Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and U.S. Champion Hikaru Nakamura -- all six of whom appeared in last year’s Sinquefield Cup. New additions for the 2015 Grand Chess Tour are Russia’s Alexander Grischuk, the Netherlands’ Anish Giri and India’s Viswanathan Anand. The addition of Anand, along with Carlsen and Topalov, marks three World Champions among the field.
Each event will select a tenth Grandmaster as a wildcard to complete its field, with rumors strongly indicating American No. 2 and fellow world-ranker Wesley So in the Sinquefield Cup’s extra chair. So was invited as one of the original nine, but could not commit to all three tour events.
Most importantly to all but 10 of us, the Grand Chess Tour will also feature the same lofty standards demanded by a growing global audience. Tournaments these days are expected in full, multi-camera-angled glory, complete with commentary by world-renowned Grandmasters who highlight squares, draw arrows and cycle through variations to help fans predict what their chess heroes might be plodding.
With each passing event, the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, host of the Sinquefield Cup as well as the annual U.S. Chess Championships, has continued to enhance its global broadcast-ability. Last month’s national championship unveiled a permanent ESPN-style studio in the club’s basement that streamed live around the World Wide Web and connected with a secondary channel of commentary to beam the event out, for the first time, en espagnol. For each of the Grand Chess Tour events, the studio plans to sync with fellow broadcast teams in Norway and London.
And that’s just this year. On the subject of out-doing one’s self, the Grand Chess Tour has been built around a model of growth. Realizing chess’ yet-to-be-maximized potential as a global sport, the circuit plans to add additional tour stops with other events that can meet the new visionary standard, with a goal of holding at least one major tournament on every continent. More strong rumors indicate events in South Africa and Indonesia as early as next year.
This year’s Sinquefield Cup will take place Aug. 21 to Sept. 3, as the second stop in the 2015 Grand Chess Tour. The cycle will kick off with Norway Chess in Stavanger on June 15, and wrap up at the London Chess Classic in December. More information can be found at www.grandchesstour.com.