The US victory at the biennial Chess Olympiad last month will only have won a fraction of the column inches accorded to that nation’s victorious team at the Rio Olympics. But in a way, it is a much greater achievement. Unlike athletics and swimming, chess has never been part of mainstream American culture.
But one man has fought to try to make it so, and he is the person most responsible for the US victory against all international rivals over the 64 squares. His name is Rex Sinquefield: this 71-year-old chess enthusiast has over the past decade spent an appreciable chunk of his vast fortune (built up in the mutual fund business) attempting to make America the centre of world chess, and replacing its traditional stronghold of Russia.
The US team at the 2016 Olympiad in the Azerbaijani capital Baku was augmented by two recent additions, the world’s second- ranked player Fabio Caruana and the man ranked sixth, Wesley So. These two young chess superstars had previously represented, respectively, Italy and the Philippines. But they were both pulled into the embrace of the US Chess Federation as a result of the millions that Sinquefield had been investing to make his home town of St Louis, Missouri, the unlikely capital of international chess. As a result, both have chosen to live there or nearby, as has the previous US number one player (until Caruana’s defection from the Italian flag) Hikaru Nakamura.
Both Caruana and So were devastatingly effective on boards one and three for the US team (Nakamura found himself relegated to board two). This promped a marvellously sardonic comment from the Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen, after the event. Having first tweeted that he was “so proud of my teammates” for coming fifth, Carlsen added: “Probably need an even better squad to go further though, wonder if Caruana and So are still for sale.”
Carlsen is not the first to poke fun at this. Last year on the Daily Showits then presenter, Jon Stewart, said this about Sinquefield’s grand chess strategy (after the New York Times had reported on the defections to team USA): “America is making a concerted effort to buy top foreign chess players in an attempt to win next year’s Chess Olympiad gold medal. The US is buying up nerds! Nerd mercenaries — nerdcenaries!”
Very funny. But it’s actually unjust to Sinquefield, whose largesse is by no means directed merely at the superstars of the chess world. He has set up the St Louis Chess and Scholastic Center, a three-storey 6,000-square-foot building where anyone can watch some of the world’s best players in action and also study the game themselves. It works closely with more than a hundred Missouri schools, funding the teaching of chess in an area, sadly, more associated on our screens with street violence and racial tensions than civilised intellectual combat.
And Sinquefield — who himself had a far from easy childhood in a Catholic orphanage — clearly sees this as a civilising mission. He told the New Yorker magazine that he believes chess represents “everything valued by Western civilisation, and maybe Eastern civilisation: intelligence, judgment, study, hard work, intuition, calmness under pressure — all of that is on the line with chess”.
Sinquefield’s chess ambitions have not all been realised. He had backed Garry Kasparov’s campaign to wrest control of FIDE, the world chess governing body, from its pro-Putin president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. At the previous Olympiad and FIDE general assembly in 2014 Sinquefield attempted to persuade national federations to back Kasparov (an implacable foe of the Russian regime) with a pledge that if his man were elected he would put many millions of his billion-dollar fortune into supporting the game globally.
Ilyumzhinov, who has since been placed on a US Treasury sanctions list for alleged involvement in “materially assisting the Syrian regime” (through the medium of oil trading), somehow persuaded the delegates that his money was better than Sinquefield’s. This must have been a very unpleasant and even disillusioning experience for the American chess Maecenas; and so Sinquefield did not travel to Baku to witness the US triumph. Actually, its success was in doubt until the very last. The Ukraine team performed magnificently, especially in the absence of its previous number one, Vasily Ivanchuk, who with typically unfathomable eccentricity chose instead to play in a draughts tournament.
At the end of the Olympiad’s 11 rounds the US and Ukraine were tied with 20 match points out of a maximum possible 22, with Russia third on 19. In a bizarre tie-breaking formula, Team USA were declared the winners only after the most hideously complicated calculations based on the performances of their respective opponents.
But since the US had beaten Ukraine in their head-to-head match, there could be no begrudging their gold medal. Afterwards, Sinquefield, who is a modest man, played down his part in the achievement. Asked by the New York Times about his role in getting the dual US/Italian citizen Caruana to switch federations, he joked: “I did my part by not playing.”
Not surprisingly, Sinquefield is himself a very keen player, who likes to have up to 20 games on the go at any one time, on the internet; and he has employed Jennifer Shahade, twice US women’s champion, as his coach. But is he any good? Well, as it happens, last year he was one of my opponents in the BBC Radio 4 chess interview series Across the Board. We played via the internet, with his moves — and disembodied voice — coming down the line from St Louis. The computer allotted Sinquefield the White pieces.
1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nf3 d6 4.Bc4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Bg4 (Rex’s jovial comment on the game at this stage: “I don’t like players who lie in the weeds and are sneaky, like you”) 6.0-0 Nc6 7.Be3 0-0 8.h3 Bxf3 9. Qxf3 e5 10.dxe5 Nxe5 11.Qe2 Nxc4 12.Qxc4 Re8 13.f3 d5! 14.exd5?? (Rex played this blunder very quickly: I had the feeling he was too distracted by our conversation to concentrate properly) Rxe3 15.Ne4 Nxd5 16.Rad1 c6 17.Nc3 Qb6 18.Nxd5? cxd5 19.Rxd5?? (This cataclysmic error was also played rapidly: of course the position was hopeless) Rc3+.
Finally seeing that the discovered check wins his Queen for nothing, Rex resigned. When I asked him if he had enjoyed our encounter, he laughed: “You know what I’m going to say: ‘Other than that, Mrs Lincoln, how was the play?’”