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American Chess Is Great Again

Wilhelm Steinitz was “a fat phlegmatic little man, with a fine forehead and mussed hair and clothes,” according to one newspaper account. He was also the favorite at the inaugural world chess championship, held in 1886, and an émigré to the United States — Steinitz had adopted the U.S. as his own after emigrating from Europe, later changing his first name to William.

The championship match was a grand tour of the country, beginning in New York, ending in New Orleans, and stopping in St. Louis in between. With $4,000 on the line, Steinitz struggled in the early games and fell far behind. But by the time they reached New Orleans, he had recovered, and America’s first chess champion was crowned.

“It was from Steinitz that the era of modern chess began,” wrote Garry Kasparov, possibly the best player of all time.

But American chess was in the midst of a bleak century, only rarely punctuated by triumph. Paul Morphy, the great chess genius and Steinitz’s unofficial predecessor, died of a stroke in the bath at age 47, just a couple of years before Steinitz won. Contemporary reports described him as “insane,” walking the streets “chattering to himself.” Steinitz died, penniless and mentally ill, in a state hospital in 1900. Bobby Fischer, the only modern American world champion, failed to defend his title in 1975, descended into paranoia and anti-Semitism, and later praised the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Since Fischer’s exit, no American has ever been ranked the world No. 1. Only two Americans — Fischer and Gata Kamsky — have played in the world championship finals in the last 100 years.

But this string of misfortune may be about to end, thanks to some quintessentially American ideals: mobility and prosperity. A trio of players — both native and immigrant — have found their way to the U.S., and each now ranks in the top seven in the world.1

Those three, along with the reigning Norwegian world champion, are currently assembled in St. Louis for one of the strongest chess competitions ever held. And that American city has become a lighthouse for the game, featuring top-flight tournaments, world-class venues and varsity chess programs. And fueling it all is an aging multimillionaire who has made the success of American chess his life’s quest after growing up in an orphanage and falling in love with the game as a teenager.

Can the American dream be leveraged into chess glory?

Wilhelm Steinitz, right, was a chess great who adopted the U.S. as his own after emigrating from Europe.

Getty Images

In April, two American grandmasters stood over the shoulder of a third, watching him struggle through a winnable tournament. Hikaru Nakamura (current world No. 7), stood with his arms crossed beneath his floppy dark hair and sideburns. Fabiano Caruana (world No. 3), sparrowlike and wearing a white dress shirt, stood next to him, squinting, with his arms gathered leisurely behind his back. They are two of the three best chess players in the country, and all were vying for the title of national champion. Seated in front of them was the other, commanding a black wooden army of pieces, Wesley So.

As the tournament, which stretched from March 29 to April 9, reached its crescendo, So sat at the board bundled in an eggplant-colored sweater while tied for first place. Tied? He should’ve been crushing this field, and he knew it. He’s the next great hope, after all — the top-rated American and the world No. 2. He still found his way through the remaining games, and held on to win the national championship a couple of days later — his first.

So has an acutely poised approach to a game of chess. His arms hang at his sides. He clasps his hands, left fingers over right, on the table in front of him. He hovers over the wooden battle unfolding on the board, like the figurehead on the prow of a ship. The USS So. Occasionally, if the position is difficult, the USS So takes a hard turn starboard, and the grandmaster stares at the wall and ponders. Every so often, if that doesn’t work, the ship turns port, toward the spectators. Rarer still, he stares right at you.

So is a recent addition to an elite American lineup that now boasts three of the world’s top seven players. The three found themselves in St. Louis on that sunny spring day — and playing under the American flag — in very American ways. Nakamura wasn’t born here (he was born in Japan), but he moved here when he was 2 years old. Caruana was born here (in Florida), but moved away (Spain, Hungary, Switzerland) to train. So wasn’t born here either (Philippines), but moved here (Missouri) to attend college.

It’s not easy to describe what makes So’s game unique — or Caruana’s or Nakamura’s, for that matter. The difficulty arises not only from chess’s vastness, but also from the creeping influence of computers. Chess is a more homogenized game than it once was. “It’s harder to differentiate the thinking of the different players because they’re all using the same programs,” John Donaldson, an international master who captained the U.S. team to a 2016 Olympiad win, said in a phone call.

That being said, some differences do remain. Caruana and Nakamura have very aggressive styles, and Donaldson said occasionally they have to remind themselves to temper this aggression. But a more placid temperament comes naturally to So, and it’s precisely this cool on the board that distinguishes him. His play is consistent, calm and highly theoretical. Unlike the world champion, Magnus Carlsen, who is known for not being especially well prepared when it comes to his opening moves, So takes theoretically established lines and adds in his own fresh strategic ideas.

The three U.S. players’ journeys to the precipice of a world championship have differed, too, but all have been long and some occasionally scandalous. But all hope they’ll end with a world title. Nakamura, 29, is the old hand. He first clinched the country’s No. 1 spot in 2005, and has suffered the Fischer comparisons for years now. “There are very few people out there who have the ability to, I don’t want to say change the world, but make a very big impact, and with chess I feel like I really have that chance,” Nakamura told the Riverfront Times in 2011. So came next, switching his chess allegiances from the Filipino team to the U.S. in 2014. (At the time, he was No. 14 in the world.) Caruana, 25, followed shortly after, defecting from the Italian squad in 2015. “I think I will be world champion someday,” Caruana told The New Yorker.

More players transfer to the U.S. than to any other country

Nations that received the highest number of player transfers, 2000-17

COUNTRY NUMBER OF TRANSFERS
1 United States 89
2 Germany 55
3 Canada 44
4 Spain 41
5 Russia 36
6 France 34
7 Bosnia and Herzegovina 32
8 Croatia 32
9 Turkey 31
10 Austria 29

2017 data as of April 11.

Source: FIDE

Caruana and So’s transfers did not go unnoticed.

Caruana’s transfer required a fee of $61,000, paid to the Italians and FIDE, the game’s international governing body. According to the Italian Chess Federation, Caruana was also offered more than $200,000 a year by the Americans. Some top players, including Carlsen, scoffed at what they saw as a mercenary approach to building an American roster.

The U.S. Chess Federation recognizes its role in building the American roster this way, but is shy with details. “We get involved because a player of So’s stature carries with it some heavy funding requirements,” its president Gary Walters told me. “FIDE has penalties when you cross and change flags … When you’re Wesley So, we’re talking about tens of thousands of euros to make the transfer. That money has to be paid through U.S. Chess … We typically do not make the payments for players, but we will facilitate the payments.” (FIDE lists So’s transfer fee at 5,000 euros.) The federation operates with a total annual revenue of about $3.8 million in 2015, according to its tax documents.

Who did pay? “I don’t know who paid the transfer fees,” Walters said. The New York Times reported that the United States Chess Federation had created a charitable fund “to help recruit and pay the fees of foreign players interested in moving to the United States.” So has said he paid the fee out of pocket.

Despite their far-flung origins, the American players have, as a group, achieved early success. The U.S. won gold at the Olympiad, the top team chess competition, last year. It was the first time the country had taken gold in 40 years. But the triad aren’t close, and remain professional rivals. At the closing ceremonies after the nationals, as Nakamura nursed a beer at a ballroom table in St. Louis waiting for So to receive his trophy, Nakamura explained to me that his friends generally aren’t top chess players. They’re his competition, after all. I also asked So, over email, if he had good friends in the chess world. “No. This is not a team sport,” he responded. (Although there are occasional team events, such as the Olympiad.) “We respect and admire each other but mostly keep to ourselves because sooner or later we are going to have to play each other and then you might have mental conflict.”

U.S. chess’s plan to shift players to its team has worked out beautifully on the surface. Beneath it, though, its top player has wrestled with family strife and the growing pains of a new life under chess’s spotlight.

At the end of the 2015 national championship, So posted this message to his Facebook page: “Let me state right at the top of this that I write my own emails and NO ONE controls my communication, or when and how I choose to communicate. I am not cut off, isolated, drugged, in bondage or kidnapped. I do not belong to anyone but God. I am a man who wishes to be let alone to find his own life.” He had been forced to forfeit a crucial game for writing notes to himself on a piece of paper, in violation of tournament rules. The indiscretion came, So has explained, as the result of a bout of stress following an international family dispute.

At a dinner party in Minnesota in 2013, So met Lotis Key, a former film actress who has starred in over 75 Asian movies, and Renato “Bambi” Kabigting, a basketball star while in the Philippines. The couple lives in Minnetonka, a leafy Minneapolis suburb. The trio hit it off, and by the end of 2014, So had left college and moved in with them; he began calling Key mom.

According to an account Key gave the Star Tribune, the dispute at the tournament occurred when So’s birth mother, Eleanor So — who now lives in Canada — showed up at the tournament, demanding that he return to school and threatening to cut all ties to the family. A minor scuffle — arm grabbing, yelling — ensued outside the chess club. Eleanor So told the paper that, “Since someone is blocking us access to our own son, we had to try and see him in person to help him.”

The meeting was orchestrated, Key told the Star Tribune, by Wesley So’s former coach at Webster University, Paul Truong, who was upset at having lost his star player when he dropped out. Truong denied this and told me that So’s scholarship had been revoked, although he said he couldn’t discuss why. “We knew that he was going to go through some rough times, and we just wanted to protect him, so we never bothered correcting what the media said,” Truong said. Key told me that So decided to leave school, and turn pro, weeks before his scholarship was withdrawn. “The simple fact is Wesley left because he was unhappy at Webster and had decided to play chess professionally,” she said in an email. A spokesman for Webster declined to comment on why So left the university.

Several years before, Truong, in a separate incident, had been accused of posting obscene messages online under the name of a rival in a campaign to get elected to the U.S. Chess Federation board. (Truong continues to deny those accusations, although they were confirmed by a private investigator hired by U.S. Chess.) He was later ousted from the federation, and the legal dispute was settled.

Despite a strained relationship with So, Truong was optimistic about his future. “Out of all the current players in the United States today, I believe that [So] would have the best chance to be the next world champion,” he said.

Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So playing in the London Chess Classic in 2016.

Ray Tang / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Amid this chess-world furor, So’s play has remained placid, and he described his adopted family as a supportive team. “They have had a lot of foster kids over the years and because they are Christians they believe in helping others.” So, too, relies heavily on his Christian faith. And it’s precisely his monkish calm and ascetic approach that fuel his game and intimidate his opponents. “I do not go to parties. I do not ‘hang out,’ I do not play games or use the internet,” So said in an email. “I don’t drink alcohol, use drugs or eat junk food. I don’t even have a cell phone.”

Maurice Ashley, a grandmaster and chess commentator, described So as “playing the best chess” in the world right now, and others agree that So is on the brink of chess’s highest prize. “It’s like he’s in the high Himalayas climbing, and it’s the last 1,000 feet toward the summit, toward the world championship,” Donaldson said. “He’s in rarefied air.”

As I sought to find out more about America’s best chess player, Key got wind of my inquiries. “Why did you try to establish contact with his estranged relatives?” she asked about my having tried to reach his biological family. “Aware that his enemies are always trying to hurt him, we wondered at the curious timing of your trying to locate them in the weeks just before the tournament began.”

I never did reach So’s birth family, and my efforts to arrange more meaningful time with the grandmaster through his adoptive mother were unsuccessful. Key insisted that all communication be funneled through her. “You probably consider our precautions extraordinary,” she said. “Yet consider that when you want to stop an elite skater you try to break her leg. With a chess player, you must break something else.”

The World Chess Championship operates like a fiefdom. The reigning champion, currently the Norwegian Carlsen, is the overlord. He sits in his throne waiting while the rest of the super-grandmasters bloody each other over the course of a grueling two-year cycle. A triumphant performance in several Grand-Prix tournaments, the Chess World Cup or the official world rankings lands a contender in the Candidates Tournament, in which eight survivors battle each other one final time. Exactly one of them wins the right to challenge the defending champion for the title in yet another lengthy series of games. The next Candidates is slated for March 2018 and the next championship match for the following November. Their locations have not yet been announced.

Who might challenge Carlsen?

Top players’ chance of winning Candidates Tournament (and challenging Carlsen), based on Elo ratings

RANK PLAYER COUNTRY WIN PROB.
2 So 🇺🇸 25.2%
3 Caruana 🇺🇸 19.1
4 Kramnik 🇷🇺 14.5
5 Aronian 🇦🇲 12.5
6 Mamedyarov 🇦🇿 10.8
7 Nakamura 🇺🇸 8.4
8 Vachier-Lagrave 🇫🇷 6.2
12 Karjakin 🇷🇺 3.3

Includes the most highly rated players as of Aug. 1, and the defending world runner-up, Karjakin.

Based on data from 2700chess.com

If the Candidates were held today and all three top Americans qualified, which they would if their official ratings are any guide, the Americans would have a better-than-50 percent chance of sending a challenger to face Carlsen, according to my simulations. (Sergey Karjakin, last year’s challenger, qualifies for the Candidates automatically.) Assuming any American that won the Candidates had a fighting chance against the Norwegian, we arrive at something like the following: There is a 1-in-5 chance that the next world chess champion will represent the United States.

Jennifer Shahade, a two-time U.S. women’s chess champion, had a similar outlook, although she hadn’t run any simulations. “I’m also a poker player,” she told me, “and it’s definitely good odds.” She put the chances of an American challenging for the world title in the next two cycles at 55 percent.

Last year, Caruana missed a Candidates victory by one devastating game. The world championship was then held in New York City, where Caruana spent some of his early years, and American observers saw it as a missed opportunity for the game in the States. Few think the full-blown 1972 Fischer fever will take hold again in the U.S. — fueled, as it was, by Cold War implications — but everyone seems hopeful that another chance at glory will come.

“That will be the final sealing of the deal, to say U.S. chess is the best chess in the world, which is the goal,” Ashley told me as he was being miked up to broadcast the next round at the nationals. “That’s how we roll. That’s essential: to be the best.”

Only So himself struck a melancholy note at the whole prospect. “I sometimes feel sorry for [Carlsen] because the pressure is terrible,” he told me over email. “If he even draws a game, people are disappointed. People think they have a right to every bit of his life. I don’t want to live like that.”

But a world championship is the goal. And it’s being pursued with that most American of fuels: money. “A world championship would be spectacular,” said Walters, the U.S. Chess president. “And there are forces here in St. Louis who would put that very near the top of the list.”

The three best American chess players: Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana.

Getty Images

On Oct. 10, 2016, at a rally in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, then-candidate Donald Trump was riffing on what he saw as the unfortunate complexity of existing U.S. trade deals. To understand them, he said, “You have to be like a grand chess master — and we don’t have any of them.” At the time, the United States had 90 grandmasters.

Rex Sinquefield was listening to that speech, and he wasn’t pleased. He reached for his cell phone, flipped through his contacts, and rang up Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence.

“I left a long message. I said, ‘I want to explain to you, first of all, what’s going on in St. Louis.’ I said, ‘There are plenty of grandmasters.’ I said, ‘At any point in time, there are probably 25 grandmasters in St. Louis,’” Sinquefield recalled. “Pence called me back … He said, ‘Rex, I had no idea what was going on in your city.’ He said, ‘This is absolutely amazing.’ He said, ‘I’m going to tell Donald. He said, ‘He will be embarrassed and amused.’” (Sinquefield never heard from Trump.)

Sinquefield and I met in St. Louis in April in the midst of the national championship. We sat on the second floor of the well-appointed chess club he founded in 2008. On one side of the room stood chess tables prepared for battle. On the other hung the spoils of the game — gleaming trophies and old photos of American legends, including Fischer. Sinquefield wore a windbreaker over a polo shirt, both emblazoned with the insignia of his club, the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.

Sinquefield — a multimillionaire or billionaire, depending on your source — is somewhere between a Medici and the Wizard of Oz of American chess. He was raised in Saint Vincent Home for Children, an orphanage just outside the city, and went on to make his money pioneering index funds, after earning an MBA at the University of Chicago. His current home, an 8,000-square-foot mansion on a private street a few blocks from the club, bears some resemblance to a rook.

He pours millions a year into this chess hamlet he’s built within the city’s tony Central West End. Within a literal stone’s throw, there’s the three-story club, which has dues-paying members and hosts elite tournaments, a grandmaster-in-residence, and a high-tech production facility; a hall of fame and museum which houses an impressive collection of Fischer artifacts; a chess-themed diner which shows Cardinals baseball games and chess games on side-by-side TVs; and three “chess houses” which are home to a rotation of visiting players. That’s all on one block, and doesn’t begin to mention the sidewalk chess tables and the 14½-foot-tall king that keeps watch over the street.

A 2015 New York Times article strongly suggested that Sinquefield footed the bill for Caruana’s transfer to the U.S. It’s a suggestion Sinquefield denies. “He paid that fee entirely himself,” Sinquefield said. “We didn’t pay a penny of it.” In either case, there’s no denying that the cash he has laid out has helped attract Caruana and So, and helped to launch a real bid for the world title. Sinquefield predicts an American world champion by 2020. If an American looks poised to qualify, he insisted he’d do everything he could to negotiate with FIDE to bring the match to St. Louis. He even had a venue picked out.

What’s in it for Sinquefield? Is this like some other billionaire owning a baseball team? “This is infinitely more fun than that,” he said, adding that he’d turned down a chance to take an ownership share in the Cardinals.

Instead, Sinquefield says the answer is twofold: First, it’s a passion — a retirement hobby for a wealthy Missourian. He learned the game when was 13 from his Uncle Fred. When we spoke, he had 19 chess games in progress online, and he takes a weekly lesson from Shahade, the women’s national champion. He’s on a first-name basis with most of the best players in the world, and he haunts the club during tournaments, keeping a close eye on the games.

Second, it’s an investment. Sinquefield is a financier, a public policy wonk, and a fiscal conservative. (Another lifelong passion is the elimination of income tax.) He expects that his privately funded improvement in American chess will yield public returns. These could come, he explained, in the form of educational and health outcomes. His club is working to put chess in local schools and, in an effort to improve community relations, to train cops how to teach kids the game. And he’s keeping a close eye on studies in a local hospital on the potentially ameliorative effects of chess on dementia and Alzheimer’s.

“It’s several million a year, easily,” Sinquefield said about what he’s putting into the game. “So far it seems well worth it.”

“It’s a dream — this is the Mecca of chess,” Shahade said. “Obviously, the financial contributions are so considerable and so generous. But a lot of the passion to donate that money is that Rex really absolutely loves chess and sees the multifaceted nature of the game. And he really loves history.”

Sinquefield is only a year younger than Fischer would be if he were alive. The 1972 world championship, and the historic performance that led up to it, struck a nerve, and Sinquefield has been obsessed with Fischer and the game ever since. He effortlessly rattled off Fischer’s conquests on his way to the world title. “It had an impact on everybody,” Sinquefield said, speaking about the patriotic frenzy around the match. “We were all captured by it.”

And we may be again.

Graphics by Rachael Dottle.

UPDATE (Aug. 8, 5:01 p.m.): This article has been updated with comments from Lotis Key on the timing of events surrounding So’s departure from Webster University.

Footnotes

  1. All the world rankings and Elo ratings mentioned in this article are accurate as of the beginning of August’s Sinquefield Cup tournament.

Oliver Roeder is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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