The US is about to become a chess powerhouse, thanks to this 22-year-old

Caruana Tata Steel
Coming to America! Alina L’Ami

Chess in the United States is enjoying a resurgence.

It’s the most exciting time for the ancient game since Bobby Fischer came back from Iceland in 1972, carrying the title of World Chess Champion.

But it just got a whole lot more exciting. The number three ranked player in the world, Fabiano Caruana, has expressed his intention to change from playing for the Italian Chess Federation to the US Chess Federation (USCF).

“I’m absolutely thrilled to be representing the United States again,” Caruana said in a statement on Tuesday. “I’d like to thank everybody who has made this possible, and I look forward to this exciting new partnership. In addition, I want to take this opportunity to express my appreciation and gratitude for the support given to me over the past ten years by the Italian Chess Federation. I wish them all the best for the future.”

Caruana’s move means that the US will now have three players in the world’s top ten.

“This is historic,” said Jean Hoffman, Executive Director of the USCF, in an interview with Business Insider.

That it is! Caruana will join Hikaru Nakamura, world number 4 and the current US Chess Champion; and Wesley So, world number 7, who recently switched his federation to the US from the Philippines. The US has never had three players in the modern era’s top ten.

Hikaru Nakamura
GM Hikaru Nakamura. US Chess Championship

Caruana was born the US, but the Super Grandmaster has been competing for Italy since before he became a teenager. The former chess prodigy crushed the field last year at a major invitational tournament in St. Louis and is frequently discussed as a future challenger to the reigning World Chess Champion and world number 1, Norway’s Magnus Carlsen. (India’s Vishy Anand, runner-up in last year’s World Championship match, is number 2).

Caruana’s playing strength has surged in the past two years. Carlsen has admitted that among the field of younger players closing in on his title, Caruana is “the guy.” At this point, it’s unclear whether Caruaua will qualify for the Candidates Tournament that selects the challenger for the World Championship title. But given his rating — 2803, among the highest ever achieved — he stands a good chance.

Magnus juice
World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen. FIDE

Changing federations isn’t frictionless, nor is it cheap. It will cost $US61,000 for Caruana to play again for the US, as the New York Times’ Dylan Loeb McClain noted. There’s ample speculation that the bill is being picked up by Rex Sinquefield, a wealthy chess benefactor who established the Chess Club & Scholastic Center of St. Louis, a veritable chess Mecca in the US — and the host of the Sinquefield Cup, where last year Caruana put on a dominating performance that had everyone comparing him to Fischer and yearning for the young man to return to the nation of his birth.

Caruana’s announcement has captivated the US chess scene, but according to Hoffman, the switch isn’t quite a done deal.

“A lot depends on Italian Federation,” she said. “This is definitely a unique case, and I don’t know what to expect.”

If Caruana’s change does happen, however, he’s planning to spend time in St. Louis, enhancing the city’s newfound reputation as the center of chess in the US and, increasingly, the world. The USCF, based in Nashville, relocated some of its operations to St. Louis earlier this year, to be closer to the action. This year’s Sinquefield Cup will have new status as one of three elite invitational tournaments, called the Grand Chess Tour, with a total prize money purse of $US1 million.

Wesley So
GM Wesley So. US Chess Championship

Former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov is involved — and seen quite often in St. Louis these days. Nakamura lives in St. Louis. The Chess Club & Scholastic Center is now the home of both the US Championship for men and women and has set a new standard for coverage of competitive chess events, with scintillating online commentary and analysis. With Sinquefield’s support and the arrival of a new generation of players, chess is entering an ESPN age that has for decades eluded the game, long consider dull and cerebral.

Magnus Carlsen is the biggest draw. He’s the Tiger Woods of professional woodpushers, a youthful, charismatic champion taking chess to heights it hasn’t witnessed since the “Fischer Boom” of the 1970s.

“I think he’s done wonderful things for the game,” Hoffman said. “He’s part of a new generation of players, who are challenging traditional stereotypes and convincing us to finally treat chess players as the world-class athletes they are.”

If there’s a problem with the 24-year-old Carlsen’s ascent, it’s the World Champ has so far battled — twice — for the title only with Anand, 45, who has enjoyed a late-career renaissance (he claimed the WCC crown five times, between the Kasparov and Carlsen eras). The chess world is itching for him to have a more youthful rival. And — taking nothing away from Anand, who has proved himself capable of beating the best to get the Championship match — put up a more compelling fight. Carlsen’s pair of WCC victories were captured over an Anand who at times didn’t bring his best chess to the board. The assumption is that Caruana, with youth on his side, can do better.

And do better as an American, raising the prospect of the first US Champion since Fischer.

The spotlight will now really be on Caruana. It’s worth noting, of course, that both Nakamura and So have also been coming on. Again, due to the unusual (some would say “corrupt”) manner in which FIDE, the world chess governing body, runs the qualifying process for the WCC, neither may make it to the Candidates Tournament. Fortunately, the Grand Chess Tour will feature both Caruana and Nakamura, along with Carlsen, in a field of ten top players, eight of whom have already been named. So, who won the inaugural “Millionaire Chess” tournament in las Vegas last year, could get in as a player-to-be-named-later or as a wildcard.

The bottom line is that American chess is now poised, for the first time ever, to become a true powerhouse. Caruana has finally put the game in this country over the top.

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