Back in July, I received an e-mail invitation from Mike Wilmering to attend the Sinquefield Cup as a part of the chess media. The concept sounded exciting… the world’s top two players and America’s top two players in a double round-robin! I responded and gave him a “tentative yes”. I knew it would be difficult for me because the university semester would been in the first week. As a university professor, it would put me under the gun. However, I would have to make a decision soon. What would it be?
Outstanding video cuts…
…a great commentary duo…
…and an ESPN-worthy production means, “book your ticket!”
As I watched the first few days of the Sinquefield Cup, it was obvious that something special was taking place. With star players, all-star commentary and a wonderful venue, I started realizing that I had to be there. My “tentative yes” soon turned into an “affirmative yes”. At best, I could also see my 98-year old great-aunt; at the least, I could see perhaps the most important tournament in recent U.S. history. I couldn’t lose so I booked a ticket (with the help of Delta Skymiles) and got to St. Louis on Thursday night, the rest day.
As is custom with major tournaments that I cover live, I give reflections. These are memories I have of the tournament which may add life to the stories already written. Some of these memories would not be relevant in the official chess stories I file here, but may give the reader a better idea of some of the intangibles that made this such a special tournament. There were a lot of good memories that I took away from this inaugural tournament. I am posting it weeks after, but the memories are still fresh.
I have been to the St. Louis Chess Club on a few other occasions to cover two U.S. Championships (2009 and 2013) and another time to visit the World Chess Hall of Fame (while attending great-aunt’s then 97th birthday). However, there was an excitement that I had not seen before and the scene in and around the St. Louis Chess Club was electric. It was quite a sight to see and I was glad to have been a part of the event.
The ten best memories were…
- …my initial arrival. I arrived Thursday night which was a rest day. I planned it this way so I would not miss a day of coverage. Journalists may know the pain of traveling on a day when a tournament is in progress. You never quite catch up. However, I checked into my hotel and drove over to the club. While turning onto Euclid Avenue toward the club, I felt an excitement. I parked in the adjacent lot and went inside. While the playing hall was empty, I finally saw the scene that I had covered on the Internet. Covering online is nothing like being in person!
- …meeting and interviewing other journalists. I enjoy the press room of large events because (1) it is a great social environment (2) you meet those who you’ve only e-mailed, Tweeted or Facebooked (3) you are on the cutting edge of the event (4) you get to pick up journalism tips and (5) you get to meet with the top players. The press room is always buzzing with activity. Commentary, breaking news, rumors and countless stories fill the room. Journalists’ row was filled with some very interesting characters. I reunited with Chess Life Editor Daniel Lucas, who I had know from days living in Atlanta. I finally met Sabrina Chevannes who was in from England (ending a successful tour) and Janis Nisii the Italian journalist whom I met at the 2008 Dresden Olympiad. Cathy Rogers was also here with her husband GM Ian Rogers from Australia. They had just come from Norway for the World Cup and were going to China for the Women’s World Championship after the Sinquefield Cup. Wow!
Journalists’ Row (L-R)
Cathy Rogers, Daaim Shabazz, Mike Klein,
Janis Nisii, Sabrina Chevannes
Photo by Dan Lucas.
My biggest surprise was seeing GM Alejandro Ramirez behind the camera! I told him I was surprised to see him on the “other side”. He quipped that it was strange to be on the other side. FM Mike Klein was there and my story on him is… he was filing stories for so many organizations… chess.com, chessvibes.com and uschess.org. When he’s not covering chess, he is globe-trotting or taking cross-country expeditions. Must be nice. My conversations with Dirk Jan ten Guezendam of New in Chess were the most intriguing. His stories and chess acumen are quite enriching. Surprisingly, he made some very flattering comments about The Chess Drum adding that he has followed it for some time.
- …watching the commentary team in action. Other the years I have gotten a chance to see WGM Jennifer Shahade and GM Yasser Seirawan “on the call” at U.S. Championships. GM Maurice Ashley always adds a touch of enthusiasm both in the commentator’s booth and off-camera. It is interesting to see the dynamics play out in person and to also hear the conversations during a break. Commentators are in the kitchen munching on snacks and all of a sudden, raucous laughter breaks out about something. Sometimes I bolt from my seat to hear what was said. Seeing the off-the-camera moments is something you cannot get while following from the computer and it makes for an enriching experience. Seirawan is a hoot and chockful of stories!
- …learning a lot from the production team. Despite the various glitches, the production team was fantastic! Rex Sinquefield attempted to raise the standards from the earlier 2013 U.S. Championship. Mike Wilmering was explaining to me the setup and I was able to go over and watch them put together the production in action. They would switch cameras on cue and point to various segments that were pre-recorded. Despite the complaints, it was a high-level operation. The fans are unforgiving because they do not know what goes on behind the scenes and the level of detail that is needed. It’s quite a task. Nevertheless, kudos to the production team. Next year it will be even better.
- …the enthusiasm of the fans, crowd at the venue and everyone involved. This historic event was unfolding in front of our eyes. To see grown men seeking autographs like a teen was quite refreshing. There was a lot of excitement around Hikaru Nakamura, but of course eyes were on Magnus Carlsen. There was a Nordic TV crew there to cover him and tons of autograph seekers. Nakamura got quite a bit of attention from his broad fan base and Armenians came to see Aronian. Press conferences were held in the lobby of the first floor. This gave the press and fans direct access. Wilmering had to keep the fans from answering questions since journalists had priority. The excitement was amazing!
- …the various blitz segments going on. Outside the club were a variety of street games going on and it was something that gave “storefront appeal”. The place looked very busy from the street. There was the usual trash-talking and Shiva Maharaj of Chicago was in the middle of it. The well-informed enthusiast is an of East Indian ancestry with Caribbean roots. Many were local players merely enjoying a great time blitzing, but most were oblivious to what was happening inside the club, or who was involved in the tournament. Amazing how different the two worlds are, but the enthusiasm for chess is no less.
- …the various visitors milling around the event. I saw players I had not seen for 25-30 years (such as Dr. Sheldon Gelbart) and other players I recognize from my younger days (such as Kurt Stein). I saw Nicky Rosenthal who told me he had flown in from Florida just for the event. Living in Florida myself, I have seen him and his mother at events and we actually played in a World Open. As a scholastic player, I would imagine, he toured Webster and Lindenwood Universities to check his options. There was Jarrett Gaymon who flew in from New York to promote “chess-boxing”. Of course, Wesley So and Ray Robson of Webster University came over to do interviews. The analysis rooms were packed and Lester’s Bar and Grill next door was like a chess club in itself.
- …eating exploration. I packed my NutriBullet blender and went shopping for fresh fruits and organic juices at Schnuck’s but discovered that my hotel did not have a refrigerator so I had to get the hotel to store them in kitchen fridge. Always make sure you have this amenity. I tried a new spot called “Tree House” (3177 South Grand Blvd.) which offered gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan fare. It has a simple decorum and an outdoor seating area.
No… this is not blueberry sorbet.
It is beet hummus with garlic bread! GOOOOD!
I started with some beet hummus (tasty!!) had a raw noodle bowl (mung bean noodles with vegetables and a very spicy chili sauce). It was good, but will try something different next time. The next day, I went to “PuraVegan” (307 Belt Avenue) but they were no longer serving dinner so I got a dessert. I also visited the Lebanese restaurant close by that also doubles as a houka bar. Didn’t do the houka, but got babaganouj and tabouli. This all sounds like mumbo-jumbo, but the food is delicious! St. Louis has some nice restaurants in the vicinity of the club as well and a grocery store nearby. The West End is an ideal locale for chess players.
- …conversation with Sunil Weeramantry and Hikaru Nakamura. After deciding to call it a day and grab a bite to eat at the aforementioned Middle Eastern place, I passed by Sunil and Hikaru having lunch at a local restaurant. Sunil goes, “Guess who’s in Tanzania?” He tells me his wife is on a hiking expedition to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Wow! A couple of days later, Hikaru tweeted about it.
Congratulations to my mother who reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro this morning!!!!! Yessss!!!!!
— Hikaru Nakamura (@GMHikaru) September 18, 2013
I have talked with Hikaru on Facebook about his aspirations to climb various mountains, but had no idea it was a family affair. We chatted about a number of topics including my observations of chess culture in Cuba, how expensive Norway was during their stay at the World Cup knockout (US$50 for a pizza, US$20 for a martini, US$300 dinner for a party of four), upcoming World Championship between Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen. None of us gave Carlsen a free pass against Anand.
Hikaru also told me he wore his Chess Drum t-shirt while playing tennis with Rex Sinquefield (I believe). I curtly asked him, “Did you win?” He chuckled as if he knew that I was thinking, “Hey if you’re not going to win, don’t wear that shirt.” It’s always a pleasure chatting with these two even though Hikaru always picks arguments with me on Facebook. He enjoys being combative which is probably why he such a strong chess player. It’s great fun though! Hikaru certainly gets undeserved criticism amongst a cadre of “haters”, but in social settings (away from chess) he is much more relaxed. It’s great to see.
- …seeing my 98-year old great-aunt. Yes I know this isn’t chess-related, but it always gives me an incentive to go to St. Louis. My great-aunt lives 15-20 minutes away from the St. Louis Chess Club in East St. Louis, Illinois.
Visiting with my Great-Aunt Mattie Malone was the highlight of my trip of course. She will turn 99 in November.
E. St. Louis is an impoverished town which collapsed due to industries leaving and city corruption. My Aunt Mattie bore 12 children and will be 99 in two months. So I’ll probably be back. I sat down with her for an hour and a half and she still recalls events in tremendous detail and clarity with dates provided. I took copious notes and recorded about an hour of our conversation.
Few shots from earlier rounds.
Photos by Sabrina Chevannes and Alejandro Ramirez.
Photos by Daaim Shabazz, The Chess Drum.
Photos by Daaim Shabazz, The Chess Drum.
Photos by Daaim Shabazz, The Chess Drum.
The Sinquefield Cup was a special event and at the Closing Ceremonies, Rex Sinquefield stated his intention to have it again, next year… only bigger and better! I had a chance to say a few words with him and thank him for his vision. He seems to be enjoying the journey. I watched his interview with Maurice Ashley and he talked about how it exceeded his expectations and said that Lester’s Bar & Grill next door had the largest crowds in quite sometime… not for football, baseball or basketball, but for chess! Yes… that’s right.
Lester’s Sports Bar & Grill was buzzing! People watched the telecast, played and analyzed chess and I even saw one person learning to play!
Lester’s also hosted one of the two analysis rooms.
It will be interesting to see what this tradition becomes. I have heard the tentative lineup for next year’s event. While I will not preempt the official announcement, it will be quite a show if the players are able to compete! Kudos to the Sinquefields and their hard-working crew for a wonderful event! St. Louis has certainly become America’s chess Mecca. Perhaps it can become the center of chess in the world.
All photos by Daaim Shabazz unless otherwise stated.
More can be found at The Chess Drum (Facebook).
September 9th-15, 2013 (St. Louis, USA)
|World Rank||Name||FIDE Rating||Country||Age|
|No. 1||GM Magnus Carlsen||2862||Norway||22|
|No. 2||GM Levon Aronian||2802||Armenia||30|
|No. 7||GM Hikaru Nakamura||2774||USA||25|
|No. 17||GM Gata Kamsky||2741||USA||39|
| Round 1 | Round 2 | Round 3 | Round 4 | Round 5 | Round 6 |