CENTRAL WEST END – To say chess is a big thing in the Central West End is true, both literally and figuratively. From the world’s largest chess piece, to the nondescript building across the street that is among the biggest-name spots to hang out and play the game, it’s big.
Craig Winkler sat playing chess on the sidewalk outside with a friend on Thursday. He was quick with a compliment for the place he had chosen to spend his afternoon.
“Compared to other clubs, this is the club,” he said.
You could call the people such as Winkler who gathered here Thursday, chess fanatics. They were inspired by what was going on just steps away. It’s called the Sinquefield Cup, and it’s become one of the biggest events in their world.
The crowd inside barely let you get a glimpse of those in front of them. That’s because they were admiring chess rock stars.
Garry Kasparov is a former world champion who held the No. 1 spot in the world for 20 years. He’s the guy IBM calls when they want their computer to play someone.
Hikaru Nakamura is the five-time U.S. champion who lives in St. Louis, largely because of the St. Louis Chess Club.
And, of course, there is Magnus Carlson, the current king of chess who has the highest rating of any player in the history of the game. Yes, the stats say he’s the best ever. But on this day, this star lost.
The man who beat him is also among the world’s best. He’s No. 1 in China. His name is Ding Liren.
“Of course very happy,” the soft-spoken Chinese player said after the match.
Liren is also a star in the game, and in a playoff on the final day of the Sinquefield Cup, the world of chess watched him take down the champ. An upset, yet. A shock? Not to big fans.
“The top 10 players can typically beat each other,” chess fan and part-time chess club instructor Mario Roper said. “Even though Magnus didn’t win, I just knew anything is possible with these top 10 players.”
Liren played down his pre-match confidence, telling us he didn’t expect to win coming in. But he was happy with the result.
“Right after the game I was very excited and very good feeling to beat the world champion,” he said.
The aftermath of the tournament provides more fun for hardcore chess lovers, as billionaire philanthropist Rex Sinquefield, for whom the Sinquefield Cup is named, and his son choose up sides among grand masters and play a team game. Imagine Lebron James and Michael Jordan picking all stars for a pickup basketball game.
“So many spectators,” Liren said of the mini-rock concert environment. “Chess players get respect here.”
Back outside, Winkler was still reveling in his chance to get an up-close look at some of his chess heroes.
“Chess is something we can all do, all play,” he said, “and when you watch Magnus and Fabi [Fabiano Caruana] and all those guys, it’s amazing to watch them play.”
“As terrible as the average player is,” he continued, “these guys play on a different level, and that’s something to be respected.”