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American Chess May Finally Emerge From The Shadow Of Bobby Fischer

If you are a super-elite chess player, odds are that you’ve spent the past week in St. Louis. Ten of the world’s best have been there competing in the Sinquefield Cup — a tournament that was founded by the billionaire Rex Sinquefield and that this year may have been the strongest chess competition ever held.

Notably, three of these world-class players — Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So — are Americans. In fact, while this year’s Sinquefield Cup didn’t go exactly as the U.S. players hoped, American chess hasn’t been this good in a long, long time.

“American chess has never been in better shape,” Nakamura, the defending U.S. champion and world No. 4, told me. “It bodes very well for the the future because you have players who are doing very well — very successful and visible — as well as getting a lot of financial support. It makes it much more inspiring for the up-and-coming kids who perhaps are the future of American chess.”

AMERICANS IN THE TOP …
YEAR 100 50 25 10
1972 8 5 2 1
1982 12 4 3 0
1992 12 5 2 0
2002 7 2 0 0
2012 3 2 2 1
2015 7 3 3 3

This table gives a snapshot of the number of Americans in the top echelons of chess since 1972, the year of American Bobby Fischer’s world championship.1 While the U.S. has had more players in the world’s top 100 before, it hasn’t had such a top-heavy roster in a long time.

While this week’s tournament was an individual competition, the truest test of national team chess is the biennial Chess Olympiad. The next one will be held next summer, in Baku, Azerbaijan. Each team sends four players to the tournament, along with an alternate. The U.S. hasn’t won since 1976 — a year the Soviet Union boycotted the event. Before that, the U.S. hadn’t won since 1937.

So why is the U.S. looking so strong?

Most immediately: Caruana, No. 5 in the world. He went on a miracle run at the Sinquefield Cup last year and switched allegiances from the Italian team to the American team earlier this year. Caruana was born in Miami, grew up in New York and now wants to win an Olympiad for his birth country. “That’s actually a dream of mine, to be able to bring back a gold medal for the U.S.,” he told me. Wesley So also switched allegiances to the American team, from the Philippines in 2014.

The U.S. has long had the potential to be a strong chess nation. Most obviously, it’s a large, rich country with a lot of players and potential players. But the country hasn’t focused on chess like the Soviet Union did (the game was the state-sponsored national pastime for much of the 20th century) or Armenia has (chess is now mandatory in schools). America’s only world champion was Fischer, who emerged not out of a state-run chess facility but from an apartment in Brooklyn. However, the American focus on chess may be sharpening, thanks in large part to Rex Sinquefield. The former financier bankrolled the Sinquefield Cup and also the club where it’s held — the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. He may also be bankrolling the revolution at the top of American chess. There has been speculation that he footed the bill for the transfer fees required to bring Caruana to the American team. The long-term hope is that this strength at the top will trickle down, inspiring young players who will become the next greats.

The top American players have already noticed this happening. When Nakamura was a junior player, ages 13 to 17, there were maybe one or two other very strong juniors, he said. But now there are five to 10 who are “very strong and have a lot of potential,” he said.

Both Caruana and Nakamura pointed to Ray Robson, 20, and Sam Shankland, 23, as two young Americans to watch. They may well be gunning for the fourth spot on the Olympiad team.

It’s not just Americans who are bullish on the Americans’ chances. Levon Aronian is the top Armenian player and world No. 11. The additions of Caruana and So are “a great thing for the development of chess in the United States as a national sport,” he said.

The promise wasn’t on full display in this tournament, however. Nakamura, Caruana and So finished third, eighth and 10th, respectively. (Aronian finished first.)

When it comes to the game itself, the players are well aware of the historical stakes. “There were periods when the United States was top in the world,” Caruana said. “In the ’30s, the U.S. was by far the strongest chess nation. But later, there was Soviet domination of chess, which lasted for a very long time, until Fischer came around.”

In many ways, the state of American chess — both over the board and in the public consciousness — has languished in Fischer’s shadow. He remains one of the few Americans to crack the world top 10 in the past 50 years. During live coverage of the Sinquefield Cup this year, Aronian and former world champions Garry Kasparov and Veselin Topalov expressed their wish that Fischer could have had the chance to play at the elite tournament in his home country. But even after Fischer’s disappearance from chess, and his death in 2008, embers of hope glow.

“After [Fischer’s] departure from chess, there’s been a lot of good players, but the U.S. hasn’t had a chance to go for gold in an Olympiad,” Caruana said. “And I think now everything has changed.”

Footnotes

  1. Data is from OlimpBase and FIDE, and is from the midyear rankings lists for the given years.

Oliver Roeder is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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