St Louis has been on my bucket list for years. Why wouldn’t it be? The now-famous chess club, tucked in the Central West End, plays host to a myriad of world-class chess events every year: the US Chess Championships, the Sinquefield Cup, and this past week, the St Louis Rapid and Blitz. I don’t think I could have picked a better first time to make the trip.
While the field lacked the likes of reigning World Champion Magnus Carlsen and Sinquefield Cup winner Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, a certain former World Champion’s return after a twelve-year absence captured the international spotlight and attention of chess fans worldwide. It was truly something else.
The Race Is On
Kasparov’s return to chess was not easy, and it wasn’t until the last day of the tournament when he finally found his form. When it was all said and done, the former World Champion finished a half point out of a tie for 5th place. That dreaded loss to Navara in the rapid really did his undoing this tournament…
I, like many others, had picked Kasparov to place well (I even thought second place was realistic!), but the lofty expectations proved too much. Kasparov started with a lackluster score in the rapid at -2, much of which can be attributed to massive pressure to perform and his long absence from tournament chess. He had some interesting games along the way, but to the dismay of the spectators, never posed a threat to the tournament.
I arrived in St. Louis right after the rapid games finished, and with eighteen rounds of blitz left, Levon Aronian had established himself as the front-runner with a two point lead. Could he score par? At 12.5/18, he held on to his lead throughout the blitz, but came to a close scare when Sergey Karjakin scored an undefeated 8/9 on the first day, and started the second with 1. b3 and won against Kasparov.
Of all the players in the field, it was the tail-ender that proved the most important, as Czech Grandmaster David Navara dealt a surprising blow to Levon Aronian in round 11 of the blitz from a drawn ending to bring the margin to 1 point between first and second place. The narrative almost seemed set, the race between Sergey Karjakin and Levon Aronian was on! The 2016 World Championship Challenger had won seven straight and had a lot of momentum.
But streaks stop at seven in St. Louis. Navara pulled another upset, this time as Black against Karjakin, while Aronian put together a win against Le Quang Liem. The Armenian’s lead was back up to 2, and with only six rounds left, his tournament chances were never in doubt. He secured his Grand Chess Tour tournament win with a draw against Kasparov with two rounds to spare.
Karjakin’s setback against Navara meant the end of his tournament winning chances, but still had work to do after Hikaru Nakamura beat him late to keep the two in a dogfight at the top of the table. With Nakamura beating Caruana in the last round, the American secured a tie for second alongside his Russian rival at a score of 21.5/36.
A Day in St Louis
Being a reporter for the St Louis Rapid and Blitz meant also a lot of behind-the-scenes work and amusing stories as well. Given Kasparov’s return to chess, hundreds of chess fans made the trek to the Gateway City, meaning that at times it could be difficult to watch games during a given round.
I distinctly remember getting stuck behind Peter Doggers before the final day’s opening round. Wanting to see if Karjakin could beat Kasparov, it felt like I was standing behind an eight foot tall giant! I don’t think I remember ever feeling so short…
Even with so many spectators, the atmosphere was great, and I even found myself playing in a few side events along the way. It’s one thing to hear about St Louis Chess, it’s another thing to actually be there. In reporting for Chess^Summit, I felt really lucky to interview some of the players, and be invited to the closing ceremony.
I put together a vlog to recreate the last day of the Rapid and Blitz, as well as a small tour of the Chess Campus in St Louis:
With all this excitement, my stay in St Louis was hardly over, as the famous Sinquefield Brawl, Ultimate Moves, followed after the tournament. Even though the players were exhausted, it felt like they (particularly Garry) took the event even more seriously.
I’m not going to lie, the tournament room was hot, as an unprecedented number of fans came to watch Garry one last time. I was one of the first people in the playing hall, but finding a good spot to take photos from still wasn’t easy. If you couldn’t tell during the broadcast, people were that excited to watch the former World Champ – even if it was only five moves at a time! You’re going to need your Where’s Waldo skills to find me in the crowd:
This event was a blast to watch, as all the players were encouraged to smack-talk during the games. Even David Navara, the nicest guy in the room, joined in on the fun: “It’s not nice to beat your children!”
Team Rex got the better of Team Randy in a tiebreaker, as Randy made his dad’s staple move in the end and promoted illegally to lose the match. Even if the level of chess wasn’t super high, it was a lot of fun watching the players come together and root for the amateurs. You don’t see this kind of stuff outside of St Louis…
Just in Time!
I had an extra day to spare in St Louis before visiting my parents in Richmond, which meant I was lucky enough to watch the eclipse from the path of totality! What a coincidence – this managed to be a popular discussion among spectators as the Rapid and Blitz came to a close, and with Eric skipping town early to drive south to watch the eclipse from Carbondale, I was on my own to try to get a peek before my flight home.
Having spent the summer in Pittsburgh, and being solely in St Louis for the Rapid and Blitz, viewing the eclipse hadn’t even crossed my radar. No glasses, no special lenses for my camera, no idea of where to watch from.
As I finished my breakfast from the Kingside Diner, I was frantically calling local museums and zoos to try to find glasses, but to no luck! I had one hour before the eclipse started and if I wasn’t careful, my eyes were going to melt out of my face (right?)! Luckily enough, I managed to befriend a nurse who just finished her shift at the local hospital and was also looking for glasses, and we managed to find glasses at the St Louis Cardinals’ stadium in Downtown and was able to watch the eclipse from there.
Wow. I didn’t have the right lenses to take a photo of the eclipse, as you can see, it was amazing how quickly things got dark. I don’t think I’ll ever see something like this again, and I’m even luckier that everything came together so nicely in the last minute.
As Kasparov said during the closing ceremony, “Miracles happen in St Louis”, and that’s certainly what this week was. Will Kasparov ever make a comeback? I have a hunch it will be before 2024.