This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: I teach kids how to play chess.
I show up weekly to various elementary schools around St. Louis, with my oversized, roll-up chess board and easel. It’s an easy task, enjoyable, rewarding, even if a tad repetitive: Get your pawns in the center. Castle your king. You’re going to like these forks and pins. Nothing fancy. Not exactly searching for Bobby Fischer. Just making sure everyone gets the standard fighting chances.
Regardless of school or district or class size or day, the first session of the series is always the same. This is a pawn. This is how a pawn moves. This is a diagonal. This is a file. Check. Checkmate. Just the basics. Just laying the groundwork.
The first session, a session restricted by rules and devoid of the creativity of the game, is actually the antithesis of chess as a whole. As many variations as stars in the sky, every game is your own personal snowflake. But there is no discussion, no alternatives, when we talk about the rules of chess. You will never have a conversation on how a bishop moves. That is how your pawn captures, and these are your options when your king is attacked. Period.
It’s the same routine, every classroom: A couple of kids who have never played before, one of whom will invariably ask where the horsey can jump, while a dozen other students restlessly glare at me like I’m from the Department of the Redundancy Department. Just get on with the good stuff! But its necessary to make sure everyone’s brought up to speed.
So, let’s get it done. Out of the way. This is the column, the first of a series, that lays the groundwork for understanding just exactly what chess means for St. Louis and what St. Louis means for chess.
Many of you know St. Louis is the emerging chess capital of the country if not the world, but for those of you who don’t, this column is designed to catch you up with the rest of the class.
You may have read an article on what was going on a couple years ago, or maybe someone mentioned it over Christmas, but today you need to understand that the game is over. St. Louis has captured a 1,500-year-old game and, to prove it, triumphantly placed the Guinness Book of World Record’s World’s Largest Chess piece – a king, taller than a giraffe – right in the middle of the Central West End.
You also understand that no sculpture can make such a claim on its own, but what flanks the 14-and-a-half-footer certainly has. The monument is appropriately positioned between the World Chess Hall of Fame and the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, two major pieces in why chess players on a global scale are recognizing this city as the king of chess. Whereas the Hall of Fame serves as a cultural reminder of the history of chess – bringing yesterday to today – the 6,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art Chess Club is plowing today into tomorrow, squeezing fresh ideas from a game 1,500 years old.
E: In recognition of St. Louis' growing stature in the world of chess, members of the Missouri congressional delegation -- U.S. Reps. William “Lacy” Clay, D-Mo., and Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, and U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., introduced resolutions in the U.S. House and Senate Thursday lauding Saint Louis as the nation’s chess
From May 2-13, the club will host the U.S. Championship and U.S. Women’s Championship for the fifth straight year. The tournament facilities there will turn the two-week event into an actual spectator sport. The downstairs classroom will be converted into a production studio for live play-by-play of the event, and every move of every game will be instantly broadcast to an internet audience through the U.S. Championships website. This year Fox Sports Midwest also will live stream the tournament through its website and air an hour-long recap of the event.
The Chess Club’s educational outreach initiative has also drawn national attention. Using chess as an innovative educational tool, the Chess Club has brought programming to thousands of students across the greater St. Louis area in hundreds of classrooms and community centers. Educators across the area are beginning to understand that chess can offer an engaging and fun solution to help students learn important developmental skills.
And the world’s top players are gravitating to the nation’s center. Hikaru Nakamura, the top player in the U.S. and someone who gets paid to think ahead, moved to St. Louis in 2010, declaring it the “epicenter of chess.” Last year, Susan Polgar, one of the strongest female chess players in history, orchestrated the move of the nation’s finest collegiate team out of Lubbock, Tex., and onto the Webster University campus. Like wildfire, other collegiate programs around the area are starting to catch.
This is a wave, a movement, swelling on a national scale, directly out of the Central West End – and possibly, right under your nose. Soon, very soon, someone not from St. Louis will ask you about chess. And you’ll either be an active part of the conversation – displaying knowledge of what surrounds you – or you’ll be left sitting there wondering where the horsey can jump.
Before we go too deep, I just want to make sure you have the standard fighting chances.