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U.S. Chess championship comes to St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 8, 2009   This afternoon, the Central West End's Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis will open its doors to 24 of the top players in the country for round one of the 2009 U.S. Chess Championship. The title of champion and $200,000 in prize money are at stake.

The tournament will follow the Swiss system in which winners play winners and losers play losers over a series of nine rounds. Points are awarded for wins or draws, and each competitor will have three hours of playing time each match. Just last night at the opening ceremony, players discovered whom they would be facing in today's match-up.

St. Louis' own Charles Lawton is looking forward to testing his mettle in the championships and is confident in his ability to beat the rankings, which slate him 23 out of 24. "That's what they're predicting," he says with a good-natured laugh. "It's not gonna happen."

Lawton, who works as an electrical engineer at BioMerieux Inc., first sat down at a chessboard while attending St. Louis University High School. As a kid who had previously enjoyed Monopoly, Risk and Checkers, he felt the pull of a complex game with many possible outcomes.

He's come a long way since his beginnings at SLUH, when he didn't realize he was supposed to remove a piece from the board after capturing it. "The rooks were an advantage there," he says, "because they could jump." Today, he describes his style of play as aggressive and tactical and enjoys "being in a position where there is no known outcome."

Two-time American Women's Chess Champion Jennifer Shahade, has been selected as a commentator for the tournament. "The two top dogs are [Gata] Kamsky and [Hikaru] Nakamura," says Shahade. "Both are international stars, and people all over the world are keeping their eyes on those two." Shahade describes Kamsky as a deliberate player unwilling to take chances if it doing so would jeopardize the outcome of the match and Nakamura as more of a risk taker.

Shahade says chess exhibits elements of sport, science and art. "The primary goal is to win the game and outlast their opponent," she says. "Analyzing the games after is more scientific, while admiring the beauty of certain moves is art."

The St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center opened in July of 2008. Being selected as a venue for the championship in October blew executive director Tony Rich away.

"I was shocked," he said. "This is the Super Bowl of the chess world."

In the bidding process, Rich says the club emphasized its central Midwest location, classy decor and that $200,000. Rex Sinquefield, whose financial backing was instrumental in establishing the brick and mortar location on Maryland Plaza, has guaranteed the total purse. Of note is that the three top-ranked players accepted the invitation to play in St. Louis this year. They have declined other championships in the past two years, says Rich.

"If we want to encourage pro chess players," he adds, "we need more events like these."

Shahade posits that the venue itself could positively impact players' performance.

"This is the nicest chess club I've been to," she said, "and I've played chess in 20 countries. ... If you play chess in a beautiful place like that, players will be inspired to play their best."

Joy Bray, owner of the event-planning business Chi Chi, LLC, which is coordinating the championship, estimates a team of about 25 to 30 individuals is working on the project to make sure the 10-day tournament goes off without a hitch. True to form, organizers have strategically thought through anything that might go wrong over the course of the championship.

In case of a power outage, Sinquefield has offered his home as an alternate playing venue, says Rich. The tournament has lined up alternate players in case someone should become sick or injured.

The club has also taken steps to ensure accessibility for spectators. Approximately 50 people at a time will be allowed into the viewing area, and sensors in each board will relay the games to computers to be streamed on the center's website.

Shahade said she would be doing her best to reach all spectators through her commentary, regardless of their level of experience. "Within any comment, I'll try to include one thing that's accessible and one thing that's couched in chess terms," she said.

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Footnote: Chess in St. Louis history

By Robert W. Duffy | Beacon Associate Editor

Chess has a dynamic pedigree in St. Louis, initiated long before the creation of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.

One of the most important centers of chess playing in 19th century St. Louis was the Mercantile Library Association, which was then the cultural epicenter of St. Louis. The library, now at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, remains one of the region's most estimable bibliographic and artistic resources.

The library's director, John Neal Hoover, is a walking historical resource himself. Hoover, knowing the 2009 U.S. Championship was set to be played at the Chess Club on Maryland Avenue, sent the Beacon this e-mail, telling of a strong connection between chess and one of the great figures in American journalism, the first Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911).

"It might be interesting," he wrote, "to relate the old story about how Joseph Pulitzer, when a young man, came into the Mercantile Library. ..." Although Pulitzer could speak German and French, as well as his native Hungarian, Hoover said that, in the late 1860s, he looked for more.

"He could barely speak English and gravitated to the Library to educate himself," Hoover wrote. "The Mercantile became a home base of sorts where Pulitzer had friends and acquaintances. The story goes that one day the old Mercantile Library chess room was filled with many German-American players. Loving the game, the young Pulitzer witnessed a bad move on a player's part, which started a conversation on how to play the game properly.

"The educated Germans took an immediate liking to Pulitzer, one being Carl Schurz, of the Westliche Post newspaper, who never forgot the afternoon of chess talk with the young man.

"When a reporting position opened up, Pulitzer got the job -- his first on a newspaper."

Eventually Pulitzer - having established himself as a tough, uncompromising journalist on the staff of the Westliche Post - gained a controlling interest in the paper, which was the most important German language paper in the Midwest. He made a huge profit by selling the paper back. Eventually, Pulitzer merged the St. Louis Dispatch with the Evening Post and an enduring Pulitzer newspaper tradition was begun.

Hoover recalled that, in 1990, Joseph Pulitzer Jr., grandson of the first Joseph Pulitzer, "called me over to his office one day to repeat the story and presented the Library with the portrait of his grandfather by (Leopold) Horowitz, in honor of that fateful and decisive chess game years ago."

Anna Vitale is a freelance writer.

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