Chess is a global game, enjoyed by millions around the world. For much
of the 20th Century the nucleus of chess was the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. But now a new chess capital of the world is emerging -
the American Midwest city of St Louis.
It's a beautiful spring evening and Chuck is sitting opposite me,
outside the St Louis chess club. He's an African-American in late middle
age who, during the day, runs a business selling meat. But this is where
he comes after work. Between us is a beautiful inlaid chess board, on
which stand elegant wood-carved pieces.
I'm forcing Chuck's king back: "Check, check, check." Then his king
finds a safe haven. "Damn," I say, "I've run out of checks."
"No worries," he says, without pausing for breath and grabbing a pawn:
"I'll take a credit card."
Chess is a tricky game to start with, and it's not made any easier by
having to think and talk at the same time. But in speed games - blitz
games, as they're called - trash-talk is all part of the competition.
The aim is to outwit your opponent verbally as well as on the board. And
Chuck is the King of Trash.
It's a skill shared by Maurice Ashley, the world's first black
grandmaster, who grew up with chess and trash-talking in the parks of
New York."The best trash-talkers blend themes on the board with themes
from life, with politics, with music - they quote Shakespeare," he says.
The real art, he says, is to put down your opponent - but in jest, not
malice. "If you're actually insulting someone while trash-talking,
you're probably not doing it right."
Over the past couple of years, St Louis has been in the news for all the
wrong reasons. In August 2014, a white policeman shot dead a black
teenager, Michael Brown, in the northern suburb of Ferguson. The riots
that followed received global coverage. Here was a story about one of
the most violent cities in the country, a story of racial segregation.
But chess is an unusual game in that it transcends race, in a way few
things in America do. "Chess has exploded in the black communities
here," says Ashley.
The city's mayor, Francis Slay, wants to rebrand St Louis. If the world
knows about St Louis for its black-white tension, he'd rather it was
celebrated for its black and white squares. "It's a great cultural
attraction. By itself it's not going to change our image. But it adds to
the mix of things that make our city unique," he says.
The US Congress has officially declared the city the chess capital of
the nation. In central St Louis, the plush three-storey St Louis Chess
Club and Scholastic Center now hosts elite grandmaster tournaments -
during my visit, it was the American championship.
Next door is the Kingside Diner, where instead of baseball on its giant
TV screens, as in a traditional bar, you can follow chess commentary.
Opposite the club is the Chess Hall of Fame, difficult to miss because
at its entrance stands a 4.5m-high chess piece (a king). It offers
classes, including "Toddler Tuesdays", where nought-to-three-year olds
can use chess for, to quote the leaflet, "cognitive development".
At the award ceremony for the US championship one of the world's best grandmasters played some fast and furious games of "bullet chess" -
where a whole game is over in less than two minutes.
[Video: Hikaru Nakamura playing bullet chess]
Much of this has to do with one man. Rex Sinquefield, a grey-haired man
in his early 70s, is sitting in the audience watching the US Chess Championship. He's in his shorts, wearing a baseball cap, and fuelling
his concentration with glass after glass of Diet Coke. Sinquefield is a
rich man, and he likes chess. He likes it so much he's put tens of
millions of dollars into the game. No, he's not partially responsible
for the renaissance in American chess, former US champion Yasser
Seirawan corrects me - he's entirely responsible.
The scale of Sinquefield's wealth is unknown. He claims, a bit
implausibly, that he himself has no idea. Unlike other super-rich, he's
not one to brag about his bank account, though it's widely assumed he's
a billionaire. The money comes from a career in finance - he created
some of the first index funds, funds that are cheap to run because they
simply track the performance of a stock-market index.
In Missouri, Rex is a deeply contentious figure, a looming giant of
local politics -Tyrannosaurus Rex, he's been called. He pushes a radical free-market agenda and wants to abolish the state income tax. He's
funded right-wing think tanks and backed selected candidates to the tune
of $40m (£28m) - no-one in the state has ever given more. Missouri is
the only state in the United States which has no limits to campaign
donations, a freedom Sinquefield has exploited to the full. Laura
Swinford of Progress Missouri, an advocacy organisation, believes his
power in politics is pernicious: "I think we would all throw ticker-tape parades down the centre of the city if he would only focus on chess and
his charitable donations," she says.
But Sinquefield says his political donations are small change compared
to the sums he has spent on chess and other charities.
At the weekend, Sinquefield lives on a vast countryside estate. During
the week, home is a handsome stone mansion, complete with an extensive
art collection, just round the corner from the chess club. A solid but
not expert player himself, he thinks about chess every day. He has about
18 online games going on at any one time, with opponents from around the
world (he uses a pseudonym, so they have no idea who they're playing).
It's not easy to fathom what motivates his philanthropy - Sinquefield
rarely speaks to the local press, and quickly deflects personal
questions. But a clue is to be found a 20-minute drive from his city
home - St Vincent's orphanage, where his mother sent him after his
father died and where he spent much of his childhood. It was run by
strict German nuns - the children slept in big dormitories, had to wash
the dishes, clean the rooms and scrub the floors with steel wool. He's
oddly nostalgic about his time there. "It was regimented, it taught me self-discipline," he says.
He did well at school, getting 100% in many of his tests, though he
still smarts at his 97% for spelling, when he was downgraded for writing "judgement" with an "e", the British way. He went on to do graduate work
at the University of Chicago, where he was taught "rational economics",
and the idea that individual investors can't outwit the markets. It was
this that eventually inspired him to set up index funds - the foundation
of his fortune.
[Image caption A regular at the St Louis chess club, eight-year-old
Arjun Puri is already beating his father]
But just as he credits the orphanage with strengthening his character,
so he believes in the transforming power of chess. "It carries over into
all aspects of a child's academic life," he says.
Around St Louis there is now an extraordinary clustering of chess
activity. Three local universities offer chess scholarships, covering
the tuition fees of top players. They include Webster University, which
houses SPICE, the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence. Brainy
Spice herself, Susan Polgar, was the first woman in history to earn the grandmaster title by successfully competing in chess tournaments. She's
built a college team at Webster that would trounce almost every national
chess team in the world.
And chess is not just funded at university level. It's been introduced
in after-school classes in more than 100 local schools, including all
the schools in the Ferguson-Florissant School District, where the riots
At Vogt Elementary School in Ferguson, I meet the principal, Dr Leslie Thomas-Washington. She's wearing a vivid pink trouser suit, and in the
morning greets each of her students with a hug. Vogt is part of a
rigorous study designed to assess whether chess really can improve
attendance and test scores.
The full results won't be known for several years, but Washington says
she's already noticed a difference among the children playing chess.
"I've seen a dramatic change in grades. The children look at things with
a more critical lens."
Back at the club, the US Chess Championship concluded with victory for
Fabiano Caruana - or Fabulous Fabi, as the commentators call him.
This tournament attracted the strongest field in US chess history - the
country now has three players in the top 10 in the world. They include
Wesley So, who was raised in the Philippines, and Caruana, who, though
born in the United States, later moved to Europe and played for Italy.
Both players now compete under the Stars and Stripes. Caruana is
sponsored by the St Louis Chess Club - his move back to the US is all
part of the Sinquefield effect
Outside the club, the chess tables - paid for with Sinquefield money -
are all occupied. I await my turn and decide to take on Chuck in another
blitz game. He talks incessantly. It's the sedate game of chess - with a
loud running commentary. "I'm in your house," he says, as a rook enters
my half of the board. "I didn't want to break in, but you left the back
door open and I'm in your house." And with that, he captures another pawn.