America is not exactly a chess-mad country, but it’s about to host a chess tournament that could redefine the landscape of competitive chess for a generation.
The Sinquefield Cup will kick off on Sunday and run for a full two weeks. It’s second instalment and the centrepiece of the new Grand Chess Tour, a three-tournament series that started with Norway Chess in June and will conclude with the London Chess Classic in December.
The 2015 Sinquefield cup is the strongest tournament in the history of chess. The field includes many of the world’s top players, including current World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway and the runner up in the two previous world championship matches, Viswanathan Anand of India. Joining them are the three top-ranked Americans: Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So, and Fabiano Caruana. Caruana is the story of the tournament, having switched his national affiliation from Italy to the US earlier this year after dominating the 2014 Sinquefield Cup with a performance that many observers compared to some epic competitive runs by Bobby Fischer.
That probably all sounds great, but then you have to note that the field also includes former World Champion Veselin Topalov (who won the Norway tournament), the powerful Armenian number one, Levon Aronian, and two strong younger players, Anish Giri from the Netherlands and Maxine Vachier-Lagrave of France. All of these Grandmasters are rated above 2800 or in the very high 2700s.
Behind it all is Rex Sinquefield, who has apparently made it his life’s work to turn the US in general and St. Louis in particular into the new centres of world chess.
“The game is dramatically advancing,” Sinquefield, who made his fortune by developing prototypical index funds, told Business Insider. “I’d love to tell to you I had every move worked out, but it’s been one good thing after another.”
The 2104 tournament was a stunner. Caruana shocked the chess world by running the table against the game’s elite, storming to a 7-0 start and, eventually, capturing the title. Chess experts who thought they’d seen it all were rendered nearly speechless by the then-22-year-old’s performance.
Seismic shift in chess
A tough act to follow, but the the intervening months, a seismic shift has occurred in the chess world. Magnus Carlsen, at 23, successfully defended his World Champion title, in 11 games against a reinvigorated Vishy Anand, who in his forties wasn’t yet ready to completely give up his claim to a title that he had won five times. But it was a defence that had a dark cloud hanging over it. Carlsen’s play at the 2014 Sinquefield Cup was, in the view of some commenters, negatively affected by a debate with world chess’ governing body, FIDE, over aspects of the the upcoming World Championship match, which was held in Russia.
FIDE — it stands for Fédération Internationale des Échecs — is widely considered to be a highly politicized organisation with ties to the Russian ruling class. It bears the standard for Russian chess, with all that entails. And it has repeatedly over the years seen clashes with former World Champion Garry Kasparov, who in the late 1980s tried to break with the FIDE and form a separate affiliation of prominent chess professionals. That experiment failed, but Kasparov is back and has been instrumental in the creation of the Grand Chess Tour.
“Garry does have an agenda, and it’s very clearly not with the establishment,” said Grandmaster Maurice Ashley, a chess commentator and tournament organiser who will be bringing his unique brand of analysis to the live-streaming internet broadcasts of the Sinquefield Cup over the duration of the event.
In the 1980s, Kasparov and the players who joined him formed what was called the Grandmasters Association, putting aside the traditional lone-wolf attitude of elite players. Think of how tennis players got together in the early 1970s to form the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP).
Ultimately, Kasparov and his challenger for the 1993 World Chess Championship — the same Nigel Short whom he was playing in an exhibition in St. Louis the weekend following the World Chess Tour announcement — would break away from FIDE and start the Professional Chess Association to conduct a separate world championship match.
The organisation collapsed by the mid 1990s, but for chess professionals and fans who resent the lock FIDE holds over both the Candidates Tournament that leads up to the World Championship and title match itself, Kasparov’s efforts to make chess more like other pro sports remain admired, even if they came to a bad end.
In 2014, Kasparov made an unsuccessful run to unseat Kirsan Ilyumzhinov as FIDE president. Ever since his defeat, Kasparov has been showing up at the various tournaments that collectively represent the existing pro chess tour, and more importantly, he spent a lot of quality time in St. Louis.
He now has a formidable ally in Sinquefield, who according to everyone I’ve talked to has assembled his plans to make the US the new center of world chess based on one thing and one things only: a love of the game.
And a love to make big things happen and aim very, very high.
“Rex has a short attention span and very little tolerance or respect for past,” said Ashley, when asked if the 2015 Sinquefield Cup could possibly top the 2014 instalment. “He only knows about doing things one way, at the highest level, and he wants it to be first class.”
The Sinquefield Cup is certainly first class. It’s held at the Chess Club & Scholastic Center of St. Louis, one of the premier chess venues in the world. The players are treated like major-league sports stars, like professional tennis players or pro golfers vying for a Grand Slam trophy. A lot of veteran American chess pros can easily recall a time when big events were held at seedy hotels and everyone was playing for what amounted to lunch money. On the Chess Grand Tour, the total prize money purse is just over $US1 million. For big-time chess, this is huge.
“It’s marvellous,” said Yasser Seirawan, a four-time US Champion who will provide commentary during this year’s Cup matches, alongside Ashley and former US Women’s Chess Champion Jennifer Shahade. “I played in churches, basements, at YMCAs. Now we’re in St. Louis and the players are staying at five-star hotels, enjoying the high life.”
“It’s a dream come come true,” he added. “I’m envious! Why wasn’t Rex around when I was winning tournaments? It’s great to see the players appreciated now and I feel so happy for them.”
Big-time chess in St. Louis
The 2015 Cup will consist of nine rounds played over a two-week period, concluding in a playoff, if needed. In talking with Ashley, Seirawan, and Shahade, the favourite at this point is Carlsen, who is after all the number-one player in the world and the current World Champion. But in the first tournament of the Grand Chess Tour, Norway Chess, he turned in a very un-Carlsen-like performance, finishing seventh on his home turf.
“Magnus is gonna kick butt,” Seirawan said. “I think he was genuinely embarrassed by what happened in Norway. He’s got everything to prove and a huge chip on his shoulder.”
Ashley echoed that prediction. “Magnus came out of Norway playing horribly. Now he has a thirst for blood. He could go 9-0, trying to erase that memory! He’s eager to prove that he’s the number one player, so I can see Magnus owning this event.”
Shahade, by contrast, picked Caruana, in the process acknowledging that the history of the Cup has so far been spectacular for such a young event.
Another player who is attracting a lot of pre-tournament attention is Nakamura, who stormed to a fourth US Chess Championship this year and set his sights squarely on being the next challenger for Carlsen’s World Championship title.
“Naka is the player of the year,” Ashley said. “He’s been most consistent, he’s won the most events, and his play has included a solidity we hadn’t seen before. He doesn’t have to take as many chances now, and it’s proven difficult to beat him.”
“His evolution is on the upswing,” Ashley added “There’s no day where you say, ‘He’s in trouble.’ And if he breaks through against Magnus, then he will have won a big psychological battle.” (Nakamura, one of the best “blitz” players in the world, has never defeated Carlsen in classical chess.)
Nakamura, who has cemented his position in the world’s top ten, with a current FIDE rating of 2814. The “old” Hiraku, a bold and aggressive player who could sometimes overplay in an effort to win in dramatic fashion, has been supplanted by a degree by a “new” Hiraku, who plays in a more steady and controlled manner.
He said that he still turn up the volume “when the situation requires it.” But he also recognises that a shift in his style has paid dividends. A lot of chess experts now consider him and Caruana to be the two guys who have the best shot of challenging Carlsen for future World Championship titles.
“I think at this point I’m in a better place psychologically,” he said, noting that his struggles against Carlsen had “gotten into his head.”
But that’s all changed going into the Sinquefield Cup. “I’m one of the very few people who has a chance at beating Magnus,” he said — not exactly an outrageous boast, as Nakamura has come close to notching decisive victories against Carlsen in the past.
So it’s game on across — and over — the board as the world’s best chess players look to make history in St. Louis this week and next. I’ll be updating the results and analysing key games over the next two weeks, so check back in. It’s going to be thrilling. Chess has entered a new era. The game has become a major-league sport. Now all fans need to sit back and enjoy the fireworks.