by Tom Finkel
The décor is black and white -- what else? -- with accents of fashionable chartreuse. Plasma TV sets play in the lobby's huge display window overlooking Maryland Avenue. The basement is equipped with a lounge and classroom, where even the hard-backed chairs get a touch of class: mahogany-color hardwood with a contrasting motif of a king's piece on their backs. Another plasma TV monitor will relay the moves being made by tournament players on the second floor. There, a cluster of freshly matted and framed photographs of famous chess players, mid-think, adorn one wall. A door opens into an even more lavish setting, the board room. Here the chess tables and pieces are handmade by St. James craftsman Nate Cohen. The chairs are high wingbacks, set on zebra-striped and fur rugs. Six plasma screens show close-ups of disembodied hands moving pieces through historic chess matches. It's the work of video installation artist Diana Thater.
The $1 million-plus digs are a little surreal, especially when you start talking to the chess aficionados in attendance. Ten-year-olds Joshua Wiedner and Christopher Haberstroh keep gazing around They didn't hesitate to start a game at one of the tables in the lobby, but this room has a museum quality. "It's a really cool place," Haberstroh finally concludes.
Cesareo Rodriguez, a Class A player from Belleville, is taking the tour with his wife Meiko. Rodriguez wears gold-rimmed glasses in a vertical egg shape, which give him the look of a quirky comic-book villain. Rodriguez is drawn to the club for the competition, not the swank. "I beat the U.S. champion when I was seventeen," he notes. (Granted, Rodriguez's victory over then-champion Larry Christiansen occurred during a 30-player simultaneous exhibition, but he won lifetime bragging rights and a 16-piece bucket of Church's fried chicken.)
Hearing that story, I wonder whether the long-standing, somewhat grittier Delmar Loop chess (more info here) games will migrate to 4657 Maryland Avenue. The chess club does offer sidewalk tables.
I'm told Sinquefield -- who serves on the boards of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Missouri History Museum, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis Symphony and Saint Louis University (his alma mater) -- is sharpening his game with lessons from an international champion, but I don't learn much else about his personal experience. He asks that I arrange an interview at a later date with his public relations consultant, Laura Slay. Sporting an electric-blue knit shirt, Sinquefield makes a short speech, which reveals his mischievous personality. Tongue in cheek, he says the club will bring "cultural uplifting" to a neighborhood that is so otherwise lacking. "Probably it's going to be known as 'The St. Louis Chess Club: Where egos are shattered on a daily basis,'" he says, grinning.
The St. Louis area has a long tradition of chess in schools, but Sinquefield laments that scholastic chess doesn't get enough media attention. The club will lend supplies and volunteers to city schools that want to expand chess programs or start new ones.
Sinquefield acknowledges that there's been no "rigorous, scientific study" of the purported benefits of chess, but he'll take care of that, too: The club is sponsoring a five-year study of chess and schoolchildren. "It would be shocking if they didn't show huge discipline and cognitive improvements in children, even if they only stayed in it a few years," he predicts.
Tony Rich, a chess player who left his job doing tech support at a major law firm to become the club's executive director, tells me that Mike Podgursky, a University of Missouri economics professor who directs the Show-Me Institute (a libertarian think tank underwritten by Sinquefield), and SLU educational studies professor Michael Grady, are to design and conduct the study.