St. Louis chess club gears up for national tournament

Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Tony Rich, executive director of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, sat Thursday at one of the 150 boards available for play at the center in St. Louis. The center will be hosting the U.S. Chess Championship, considered the nation's most prestigious chess tournament, May 7 to17. (TOM GANNAM ~ Associated Press)

ST. LOUIS -- Chess isn't exactly a spectator sport, but when two dozen of the nation's finest players are in St. Louis next month, Sean Trani can't wait to watch.

Trani is one of the 500 or so members of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. Less than a year after the state-of-the-art, high-tech chess center opened, it will host the U.S. Chess Championship May 7 through 17. The event is considered the nation's most prestigious chess tournament.

"There are board games that people know about, but when it's professionals practicing this skill that's half math, half art, that is really a pleasure for me," Trani, 28, said.

Competitors will include the "Big Three" of chess in America -- Gata Kamsky, Hikaru Nakamura and Alexander Onischuk, along with current U.S. champion Yury Shulman. Female Olympic medalists Irina Krush and Anna Zatonskih, the current women's champion, also are competing.

The Crossville, Tenn.-based U.S. Chess Federation selected the St. Louis club for the championship, citing the new venue.

"I think St. Louis will start a new tradition," said Shulman, 34, of Barrington, Ill. "I think it's a wonderful opportunity in chess history."

The club opened in July after founder Rex Sinquefield, 64, and his wife, Jeanne, funded much of the more than $1 million renovation to a 112-year-old building in the city's Central West End.

The building features 150 chess boards -- some wired so that when a player moves a piece, it shows up on an overhead screen. Flat-screen TVs abound. Technology allows groups -- even those walking by on the street -- to watch a game in progress. For the national tournament, play can be watched on the Internet.

The basement includes a chess library and classroom space. At the championship, live commentary will be provided on the lower level by grandmasters Jennifer Shahade and Emil Sutovsky.

The upstairs rooms where the games will be played will hold small groups of spectators who must remain quiet in roped-off areas, club director Tony Rich said. He expects 350 to 500 people to visit the club each day of the championship. Members of the public who want to attend can buy a one-month membership for $12.

A $35,000 first-prize is part of the $135,000 total purse, but there's a potential $64,000 bonus known as the Fischer Memorial Prize for any player who sweeps the competition 9-0. The prize is named for former world and U.S. champion Bobby Fischer, who died last year. Fischer's 11-0 run in the 1963-1964 U.S. championship is the only perfect score in the event's history.

Top players are gearing up, both mentally and physically. Shulman said exercise is helpful before or after play. He also regularly teaches chess, works with a chess database that stores millions of games and reads chess books.

"You enjoy the game, and you try to play your best," he said.

Sinquefield, co-founder of the investment management firm Dimensional Fund Advisors, wanted a center where young people could take up the game for its mental stimulation. He also wanted to make the center financially accessible. An annual family membership is $120. The annual student fee is $30.

He hopes the championship will help others take an interest in the game he loves.

"The best way to raise the profile was to get a big event," he said.

On the Net

* Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis: www.saintlouischessclub.org/

* The U.S. Chess Federation: www.uschess.org/

* Yury Shulman: www.shulmanchess.com/Welcome.html

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