Fabiano Caruana is the first American to play in the World Chess Championship match since Bobby Fischer back in 1972.
If he wins against defending champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway this week, it won’t just be a big deal for the U.S.; it could cement St. Louis as a center for chess.
Caruana moved to St. Louis in 2015 with the intention of preparing to take on Carlsen.
“I think we're sitting in the epicenter of World Chess,” said Rex Sinquefield.
The billionaire financier has had a lot to do with making his St. Louis Chess Club in the Central West End the place for grandmasters to be. There’s the annual Sinquefield Cup, a stop on the Grand Chess Tour, as well as the grandmaster-in-residence program that’s attracted several top-level players here.
Sinquefield readily acknowledges he might be too close to judge whether the city has reached international status, but he points to someone whose opinion carries a lot of weight in the chess world.
“Garry Kasparov said it too. If Kasparov said it, it's true,” Sinquefield said, with a chuckle, referring to the Russian grandmaster and former world champion who many consider the greatest chess player.
Now, Sinquefield waits to see if Caruana will bring home the World Chess Championship to St. Louis.
Caruana and Carlsen have been evenly matched, ending with 12 consecutive draws since Nov. 9 when the championship began in London. The tiebreak will begin Wednesday with a series of rapid games. If those shorter games end in draws, the championship could culminate in what’s known as Armageddon in the chess championship. (The BBC explains it here.)
For those who couldn’t make it to London, there’s been commentary and analysis streamed around the globe from a broadcast studio in the basement of the St. Louis Chess Club.
Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan is one of three commentators for the Caruana-Carlsen showdown. He’s an American who lives in Amsterdam, but he has a strong connection to the St. Louis chess scene, having served as the club’s first grandmaster-in-residence.
He’s convinced a Caruana win could elevate chess in the U.S. to heights not seen since Fischer more than four decades ago.
“Corporate sponsors have ignored chess. And for good reason. It's not on TV. The public is not clamoring,” he said. “But once we have a world champion, then the public goes, 'oh, cool.'”
Even before making it into the World Chess Championship, Caruana had already made an impact on chess in St. Louis.
“Him being here, really inspires me,” Jason Zhou said.
The John Burroughs student is the Missouri high school chess champion and spends a lot of his time at the chess club, learning from experts brought in from around the world.
Zhou hasn’t had a chance to take on Caruana, but he hopes someday he’ll get his chance.
"I would love to," he said, "I feel like there's a lot to learn from playing against the top of the top."
Now high schoolers like Zhou and grandmasters like Yasser Seirawan will be closely watching the tiebreak in London on Wednesday. Should Caruana win, Sinquefield expects St. Louis will have the proper reaction.
“I think the only thing that makes sense is we should all go out and go crazy,” he said.
Even if Caruana doesn’t bring a championship home, Sinquefield has his eye on hosting the World Chess Championship in St. Louis. The city is already home to several big chess tournaments, including the U.S. Championship and the U.S. Women’s Championship.
“I think we know what it takes and I've already said I'm prepared to do what it takes. So the powers that be, I think, are willing to make that happen,” he said.
Sinquefield has set a goal of six years for that crowning achievement.
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