That is, not until a few years ago.
Now there’s a consensus: The capital of U.S. chess, the white-hot center, the place great players from all over the world make pilgrimages to, the place some people move to just to be part of the scene, is ... St. Louis.
“It’s indisputable,” says Ben Finegold, who’s one of the reasons it happens to be true. “If you want to do chess, this is the place to be.”
He ticks off the evidence:
- The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, the top chess club in the country, with a huge membership and the best facilities – making it the go-to venue for the top U.S. tournaments.
- Hikaru Nakamura, the best player in the United States, who moved here to be associated with the Chess Club.
- The World Chess Hall of Fame, with exhibits that draw chess aficionados from around the globe.
- The top college team in the country at Webster University, which in 2012 used St. Louis’s emergence as chess mecca to lure Susan Polgar and her championship program from Texas.
- Outstanding college teams as well at Lindenwood University and Washington University.
- And chess even in the schools – in the public schools, the private schools, the parochial schools. Kids all over St. Louis are playing chess.
All of this got started only in 2007, with the founding of the non-profit Chess Club and Scholastic Center. The Center’s spearhead was local philanthropist Rex Sinquefield, whose vision was to build the game’s popularity locally, and especially among children, for whom he felt it offered intellectual and academic benefits. Under Sinquefield’s leadership, the club renovated an old building in the city’s cosmopolitan Central West End and converted it into the most plush chess facility in the world. After a little more than year, the club also hired Ben, one of the top two or three dozen players in the country, to serve as resident grandmaster and enhance its legitimacy in chess circles.
Ben, who had lived previously in such places as New York, Brussels and Ann Arbor, moved here knowing little about St. Louis. But he found himself an apartment down the street from the Chess Club in a neighborhood of sidewalk cafes, galleries, and gracious homes, and settled in quickly.
The club, he says, has surpassed everyone’s expectations, including his own. “Everyone in the world knows this chess club,” he says.
One reason for the venture’s success, he says, is its deliberate inclusiveness. Membership fees are set low, he says, so that people of all means can join. The result is that the St. Louis club has more than 1,000 members – compared with 10 or 15 at a typical club, he says.
The dues structure reflects the mission, which is to promote chess not just for great players but for everyone. That means even people who have never played in their lives are joining and learning to enjoy the game. And it helps make the club a “social condenser,” Ben says, where people of all backgrounds and ages mingle to hear lectures, watch tournaments and play against one another.
Meanwhile, St. Louis has grown so much in chess that in 2013, Ben stepped down from his staff position at the club to become a chess entrepreneur. Along with his son, Spencer, who has also moved to St. Louis, he is giving private lessons, running chess camps, and giving lectures, among other activities, while the club is relying on a rotating roster of visiting grandmasters to take his place.
And now Ben, always ready to leave wherever he was living in the past, has no intention of leaving St. Louis. Not only does he love the chess scene – he also loves the community. In the analytical style of a chess player, he ticks off some of St. Louis’s virtues: great Asian restaurants; the urban sophistication and diversity of his Central West End neighborhood; nearby Forest Park; and quick access by air to any part of the country for his frequent chess events.
“In chess, you learn to play in the center (of the board),” he says. “Well, St. Louis is the center of chess and it’s in the center of the country. This place is awesome.”