America at Large: Making all right moves in bid to unearth new Bobby Fischer

Former investor is spending big as he seeks to reverse decline of American chess

President of St Louis Chess Club Rex Sinquefield (left) and Republican congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer at a special event held at United States Capitol Building in 2013 in Washington, DC. Photograph: Ilya S Savenok/Getty Images

President of St Louis Chess Club Rex Sinquefield (left) and Republican congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer at a special event held at United States Capitol Building in 2013 in Washington, DC. Photograph: Ilya S Savenok/Getty Images

 

Rex Sinquefield was once a passenger on the same international flight as the notoriously irascible grandmaster Bobby Fischer. For a chess nut, this proximity to America’s best ever player, a man then at the peak of his powers and fame, was too good a chance to pass up. Even when Fischer’s travelling companion warned Sinquefield off making an approach, he couldn’t help walking down the aisle and taking his shot. He just had to meet his hero and remind him that his matches against Russian opponents were about way more than just pieces on a board.

“I hope you beat those commies,” he said.

“I will,” said Fischer.

It wasn’t much of an exchange and reeked of the time when chess was one of the many fronts on which the Cold War was fought, but it was enough. Decades later, after Fischer had died an international outcast in Iceland, Sinquefield paid $61,000 (€56,000) at auction for his personal library of chess tomes and notebooks.

A trifling sum for a man whose wealth was at that point estimated to be near a billion, the collection is currently on display at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St Louis, Missouri, a venue that represents just one part of Sinquefield’s impressive and ongoing investment in the sport in America over the past seven years.

The Guardian calls him America’s chess Maecenas (after the Ancient Roman patron of the arts). The New York Times compares him to Jurgen Klinsmann (for the manner in which he’s trying to attract chess-playing children of the diaspora to play under the stars and stripes). If the way in which he’s willing to spend big on a sporting passion definitely brings to mind the plutocrats dabbling in European soccer club ownership, Sinquefield may just be having a lot more fun than any of them.

Take what happened at his eponymous tournament in St Louis last September. Having attracted some of the planet’s best players with a first prize of $100,000, Sinquefield got them all to participate in a novelty event called Ultimate Moves in which two teams of four grandmasters and an amateur squared off against each other on one board.

The rules allowed for time-outs and trash-talking, the grandmasters included the legendary Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen (the current World Number 1 from Norway), and the amateurs were Sinquefield and his son Randy. Imagine Roman Abramovich hosting a five a side match so he and his kid could pass the ball around with Messi, Ronaldo and Zidane for a night and you get the picture.

Sporting fantasies

Sinquefield Cup

After he subsequently told reporters he’d been offered a large cash incentive to switch international allegiances from Italy to the USA, it was assumed the mystery benefactor was Sinquefield. After all, nobody else has spent so much trying to revitalise American chess.

Caruana appears to have the game to do just that and he has the qualifications too. Born in Miami, he spent his formative years in Brooklyn before his parents brought him to Europe to accelerate his development against the superior competition available there. Sinquefield has spent $1m financing the swanky Chess Club and Scholastic Centre of St Louis to ensure no American prospect will ever have to leave the country again to improve as a player.

They will come

Almost every profile of Sinquefield uses the adjective Dickensian to describe an especially hardscrabble childhood. Born with a cleft palate, his family were so poor after his father died that he and his brother spent years living in a Catholic orphanage in St Louis. Growing up, he found solace in chess, flirted with entering the priesthood, and later came under the influence of Nobel prize-winning economist Eugene Fama at the University of Chicago.

Eventually, he put his free market theories to work on an index-linked investment fund where he made so much money that he confessed to becoming bored. In retirement, he moved back to his native Missouri from California and quickly became famous for two things; turning St Louis into the chess capital of America and spending tens of millions supporting political candidates who shared his right-wing views on taxation and the outsized influence of teachers’ unions.

If the philanthropy has made him a hero in the chess world and to the 2,000 public school children to whom he gives annual scholarships, his attempts to influence elections are, predictably, a lot more divisive.

“I would love to be able to say I’m a grand schemer,” said the 70-year-old. “I’d love to be able to say, like the Emperor in Star Wars, ‘Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen.’ It just happened.”

As if a man who made his fortune playing the markets and spends his free time studying chess would ever plan anything.

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