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Vivat Rex!
October 2016

Chess: A civilising influence (David Lapetina GNU 1.2)

The US victory at the biennial Chess Olympiad last month will only have won a fraction of the column inches accorded to that nation’s victorious team at the Rio Olympics. But in a way, it is a much greater achievement. Unlike athletics and swimming, chess has never been part of mainstream American culture.

But one man has fought to try to make it so, and he is the person most responsible for the US victory against all international rivals over the 64 squares. His name is Rex Sinquefield: this 71-year-old chess enthusiast has over the past decade spent an appreciable chunk of his vast fortune (built up in the mutual fund business) attempting to make America the centre of world chess, and replacing its traditional stronghold of Russia.

The US team at the 2016 Olympiad in the Azerbaijani capital Baku was augmented by two recent additions, the world’s second- ranked player Fabio Caruana and the man ranked sixth, Wesley So. These two young chess superstars had previously represented, respectively, Italy and the Philippines. But they were both pulled into the embrace of the US Chess Federation as a result of the millions that Sinquefield had been investing to make his home town of St Louis, Missouri, the unlikely capital of international chess. As a result, both have chosen to live there or nearby, as has the previous US number one player (until Caruana’s defection from the Italian flag) Hikaru Nakamura.

Both Caruana and So were devastatingly effective on boards one and three for the US team (Nakamura found himself relegated to board two). This promped a marvellously sardonic comment from the Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen, after the event. Having first tweeted that he was “so proud of my teammates” for coming fifth, Carlsen added: “Probably need an even better squad to go further though, wonder if Caruana and So are still for sale.”

Carlsen is not the first to poke fun at this. Last year on the Daily Show its then presenter, Jon Stewart, said this about Sinquefield’s grand chess strategy (after the New York Times had reported on the defections to team USA): “America is making a concerted effort to buy top foreign chess players in an attempt to win next year’s Chess Olympiad gold medal. The US is buying up nerds! Nerd mercenaries — nerdcenaries!”

Very funny. But it’s actually unjust to Sinquefield, whose largesse is by no means directed merely at the superstars of the chess world. He has set up the St Louis Chess and Scholastic Center, a three-storey 6,000-square-foot building where anyone can watch some of the world’s best players in action and also study the game themselves. It works closely with more than a hundred Missouri schools, funding the teaching of chess in an area, sadly, more associated on our screens with street violence and racial tensions than civilised intellectual combat.

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