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World Chess Champion Competes In St. Louis At Strongest Chess Tournament Ever

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, left, and Magnus Carlsen played to a draw in their first game in the Sinquefield Cup.
Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio

This year’s Sinquefield Cup chess championship is underway here in St. Louis and it’s billed as the strongest chess tournament in the history of the sport. The tournament features six of the top nine players in the world and takes place at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. The compete for a first place prize of $100,000. Before the end of the tournament, each player will play every other player twice. Current world chess champion Magnus Carlsen is a favored competitor.

“He’s absolutely recognized by everybody, they follow him, it’s like Tiger Woods used to be when he broke into the world of golf,” said Susan Polgar, a grandmaster, winner of four world championships, five gold medals in the Chess Olympiad and head of the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence at Webster University. 

When fans and people involved in chess talk about Carlsen, he is continually being compared to other world class athletes, from Muhammad Ali to LeBron James. Carlsen is a rarity in chess. He models for clothing lines, emphasizes fitness and is only 23 years old. He’s a new breed of chess champion who’s worked with computers and coaches but is also relatively self-sufficient according to Polgar. She said some Grandmasters travel to tournaments with an entourage of coaches and other grandmasters. When Carlsen won the 2013 World Chess Championship he brought his family members, a doctor, and a cook. However he values input from other players.

Polgar thinks Carlsen’s creativity and fighting spirit contribute to his popularity.

“Even in positions that most would think are boring or there aren’t that many creative ideas, he draws water out of stone.”


Before the cup began, Carlsen was cool and calm, displaying no trace of the anxiety one might expect with such stiff competition for $100,000.

Magnus Carlsen won the Sinquefield Cup last year.
Credit Provided the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis
Magnus Carlsen won the Sinquefield Cup last year.

“There isn’t always the need for psychological games and all these antics. If you believe in what you do, if you have that confidence in your game the moves will speak for themselves and you won’t need to play all these games,” he said.

The day before the Sinquefield Cup’s began, the six competitors talked while fans slid from grandmaster to grandmaster, having them sign t-shirts, posters and rollup chessboards. The competitors talked and joked. Fans discussed the comradery among the players. Yet Carlsen said the group doesn’t share any strong friendships.

“We’re good colleagues. We discuss our games and we can share a laugh but it’s hard to be really good friends with your fiercest rivals because every time you sit down at the board, they’re not your friends,” said Carlsen. 

While competing, Carlsen relies on his endurance. He plays soccer and excercises to maintain his physical strength.

“Chess is not only about what happens in the opening what happens in the complicated struggle in the middle game. Even in the 5th 6th hours play you need to be able to perform at a very high level to be able to find the slightest ideas that can give you an advantage over your opponent,” said the world champion.

The chess world is a small and devoted community. Carlsen supported Garry Kasparov in the recent World Chess Federation presidential elections. Kasparov was defeated by Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. For Carlsen it’s clear the chess world will now focus more on the east.

“I think that’s unfortunate. I think chess has a long way to go here in the western world and Kasperov could definitely be part of developing that,” said Carlsen before turning practical. “I supported him but you’ve got to face the facts.”

But for fans of the Sinquefield Cup, it’s all about the game. 

Fan support

Al Myatt drove six hours to watch the opening matches. Myatt thought even draws were exciting games to watch.

“You’re on the edge of your seat watching what will happen next,” he said. 

Before Myatt left his house, he promised his wife not to repeat last year’s actions. When Myatt attended the 2013 Sinquefield Cup, he brought a camera. After documenting a match he returned home, developed the film, and was disappointed in the dark images. The following day he drove the 12 hour round trip again - just to get better photos.

Ken Marshall also came to see the start of the cup. 

“I hate to call myself a chess groupie because I don’t think I am, but I’m a fan. I have the time now and it’s what I want to do so I come down and watch these guys play and dream about being able to play with quarter of the ability they have. 10 percent,” he said.

Marshall and Myatt were both excited to meet Carlsen and watch him play. Grandmaster Susan Polgar thinks their enthusiasm is warranted. Apparently Carlsen can put on a show.

“He doesn’t care to win in an elegant fancy way, he cares to win. In most situations where other grandmasters would settle for a draw or stop fighting, he wouldn’t,” Polgar said about Carlsen. 

The Sinquefield Cup will run through Saturday, Sept. 7. There will be a day of rest Monday, Sept. 1. Live coverage can be found at the US Chess Champs website.

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