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Wall Street Brings Chess to Main Street Print E-mail
By AL Lawrence   
March 31, 2009
Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis founder, Rex Sinquefield
Most of the fun has gone out of reading about the super-rich. “Wall Street versus Main Street” is a constant media mantra. We’re shown fund managers and investment bankers perp-walking or being grilled by a congressional subcommittee, shaming the greedy traders who brought all of us down with their short-term get-rich schemes.

There are understandable reasons for this billionaire-bashing. But Rex Sinquefield is a different kind of “Wall Street” success. And neither short-term nor greed are words that apply. He made his millions by founding a Santa Monica firm that structured solid, long-term investments in real companies. Now in retirement, he’s giving back big-time to his native Saint Louis—and is sponsoring his lifelong passion, chess.

A life right out of Dickens

Even the fortunate flush now roll only half as high as they did in mid-2007. Many American companies, facing the cycle of downturns and layoffs and further downturns, are shrinking from charitable contributions. In this context, chess benefactor Rex Sinquefield is remarkable. Truth is, Rex would be pretty remarkable in any context. In fact, Charles Dickens would have loved to write Sinquefield’s life story, which features the kind of tear-jerking life-challenges the novelist loved—a cleft palate, life in an orphanage, a difficult personal choice between the Church and business, and a broken back—just to list a few. Not to mention the rags-to-riches resolution.

Following his father’s death, little Rex moved from his protective home and family, a seven-year-old’s whole world, to a crowded, nun-strict orphanage in the northwest St. Louis suburb of Normandy. Some rise to meet adversity. Young Rex flourished, especially in competitive contexts, covering any personal pain with wisecracks and grins, not tears. Deciding early to become a priest but always interested in the stock market, he entered the seminary owning $200 of stock in Great Northern Paper. Three years later, he changed course, majoring in philosophy and business at St. Louis University.

After a hitch in the Vietnam-era army, he enrolled in the University of Chicago’s MBA program, where he studied under, among others, future Nobel Laureate Merton Miller. Rex went on in 1973 to pioneer the first passively managed indexing S&P 500 fund. An “index” fund is set up to reflect, not to try to out-perform, the market in general. It’s “passive” because an investor lets his savings ride—resisting the urge to constantly churn and change his picks. Thus he avoids the risks of guessing at the future fluctuations of individual corporations. The idea is, in a way, the opposite of the overly sophisticated and risky investment approaches often blamed for our current financial problems. Indexing funds became a staple for the growing sector of middleclass investors who had their own, non-financial jobs to worry about and wanted their savings to grow long-term—at the same time, the billions in funds provided a dependable source of working capital to American companies.

In 1981, Rex co-founded and, with his wife Jeanne, a Ph.D. in economics, ran his own company, Dimensional Fund Advisors. When he retired in 2005, he had helped many others to make money—and had made a lot himself. Now he is an important and eclectic benefactor—of the St. Louis Opera Theatre, its art museum, symphony, botanical gardens, and numerous other charitable causes. But his passion is chess. And that passion brought Wall Street to Main Street in St. Louis.

Sinquefield is a real chess enthusiast. He told me that once, years ago, he was on a trans-Pacific flight that happened to also be carrying Bobby Fischer and then-FIDE-president Florencio Campomanes. Rex instantly recognized Fischer, but Campo warned Sinquefield that Bobby was in a foul mood, not even talking to his traveling partner. “But you can try,” Campo said. Even when faced with the force that cracked the biggest egos, Sinquefield couldn’t pass up an opportunity to meet the greatest ever, and he knew his audience. He stopped by Fischer’s seat. “I hope you beat those commies,” he told Fischer. The champ came out of his pout. “I will,” Bobby said.

Rex Sinquefield, playing the Sicilian in a simul game against Jennifer Shahade. World Youth representative Margaret Hua looks on.

Sinquefield is a real player as well. He studies with two-time U.S. women’s champ Jennifer Shahade. Here’s Rex crashing through in a position from a recent game on the online slow chess server, gameknot:


In this closed position derived from a Nimzo-Indian defense, Rex expertly exploits his good knight vs. bad bishop edge.
 26...Nb7 27.a6 Nd8 28.h4 f6 29.h5 Nf7 30.Be2 Ne5 31.Kf2 Kh7 32.Qd1

Position after 32.Qd1

It's hard to make immediate progress, so Rex patiently creates a two-rook battery on the g-file.
32...Rg7 33.Qh1 Rag8 34.Qg1 Qe8 35.Qh1 g4 36.fxg4 Nxg4+ 37.Bxg4 Rxg4 38.Rxg4 Rxg4 39.Qh2 Qe5 40.Rg1
Postion after 40.Rg1

A really nice backwards creeping move, agreeing to trade rooks but only on his own terms. 40...Rxg1 actually loses to 41.Qxg1 with the crushing threat of Qg6+.

If 41...Rxg5 hxg5 and Black will win either the e4 or c3 pawn.
41...Qxc3+ 42.Kxf4 Qe5+ 0–1

The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis

During a break from the recent Mid America Open, I went, with my longtime buddy, Nebraska chess-expert Gary Colvin, to visit the new club that Rex Sinquefield sponsors. I admit it was a bittersweet and sentimental journey. After catching chess fever while a sophomore at the University of Missouri, I joined the old Capablanca Chess Club, in the St. Louis suburbs. A key-club (adult members could enter the club any time of the day or night—a sensible arrangement in the three-shift industrial city that St. Louis was in the 1970s), the “Capa” Club served as an incubator of Midwest chess, nurturing a number of then-rare Missouri experts and masters. But when the Fischer bubble burst, the Capa club, like other chess clubs across America—after expanding into bigger and fancier quarters when Fischer beat Spassky—had to shutter its doors when Bobby refused to play again.

Not your grandfather’s chess club

The new club was organized in 2007 as a nonprofit organization, dedicated to introducing thousands of St. Louis children and adults to the benefits of chess, and to supporting existing school chess programs while encouraging new programs within the regular school curricula. Already the club has attracted more than 500 members and has been written about in both chess and non-chess media.

Since my familiarity with the St. Louis’ roadways peaked 35 years ago, I had to use my Verizon’s phone navigator to find the club’s address: 4657 Maryland Avenue, just east of the intersection of Euclid and Maryland. My first shock came on hearing the fembot-voice tell us “Your destination is ahead on the left.” The old Capa Club occupied the second story of a car dealership on a main but definitely unromantic intersection, across Big Bend Avenue from a White Castle and across Manchester from a Jack in the Box. (Did the side effects of those wee-hour junk-food forays keep me and my old gang from making norms?)

outdoors225.jpgBut now Gary and I found ourselves in a trendy dining section of St. Louis. In the unseasonably warm weather, couples were drinking lattes and families were snacking under umbrellas along the fashionable street. We could have been in Pasadena along the row of clubs on Colorado Boulevard, at the outdoor restaurants across from Lincoln Center on New York City’s Broadway, or walking along the bilingual bistros on the sidewalks along Sunset Drive in South Miami. No car dealership, no Jack in the Box. Could there really be a chess club here?

Out of the car and strolling down the café-lined avenue, seeing the restaurant tables change to stone chess benches with green-and-beige board tops, we knew we had arrived. But we had trouble accepting that a chess club—in a well appointed, two-story building of its own—was in the middle of this block of obviously prime real estate.

Once inside, we saw that chessboard had met boardroom. The worn chairs and cigar-stained tables of the old Capa Club were nowhere to be seen. If James Bond and Donald Trump were going to play some serious chess, this would be the place. The pictures tell the story.

Tony Rich
Club executive director Tony Rich, who looks as if he runs a fitness center, not a chess club, heads a truly professional staff. We were given a friendly greeting  at the reception desk (really, a reception desk!), and  a tour of the three-level facility—the two above-ground floors and a lower level that features a small kitchen, lounge area, and a classroom for teaching chess. There are flat-screen monitors throughout the facility and even monitors available to show the outside passers-by the tournament action happening inside.

And there will be lots to show them this year. In May the site will host the U.S. Championship , and in October, the U.S. Women’s Championship. Meanwhile, there’s a full calendar of regional events as well, for both beginners and experienced tournament players.

I’m already making plans to be at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis in May. Check out the schedule of events here. I know a lot of us will be visiting this new and unique chess destination in upcoming years to see some of the most important chess events in North America.

More Games from the Mid-America Open

Among the participants in the U.S. Championship are two local wildcards: Saint Louis's own Charles Lawton and IM Michael Brooks of Missouri. Brooks has been rated as highly as 2600, but is relatively inactive lately. He is re-entering the tournament scene in preparation for the big event. Two of his games from the Mid-America Open are presented here, the first annotated by tournament champion GM Alejandro Ramirez. (Check out the first part of my Mid-American Open report here. )

Annotations by GM Alejandro Ramirez

This was my fourth round in the Mid-America open. I was lucky to have a relatively easy tournament pairing-wise, and this was the highest rated oponent I faced.
 Normally in open tournaments I like to use openings that have little to no theory, I hate being caught off guard in someone's pet openings. The English suits this purpose perfectly.
1...e5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.Nf3 g6 4.g3 Bg7 5.Bg2 d6 6.d3

 So far this resembles a reverse closed sicilian, normally Black continues here with Nf6, but my opponent deviates from theory and chooses a rather strange move.
I don't like this move too much, it blocks the Nc6's retreat to e7, and the e7 knight itself doesn't have any useful places to go. This relates to Dvoretsky's theory of the superfluous knight. 6...f5 was an alternative. 
7.0–0 0–0 8.Bd2
Preparing b4. What I like about this position is that White's plan is very simple, and yet it is difficult to stop. White's next moves are almost invariably Rb1 b4 b5 and expand on the queenside.
8...h6 9.Rb1 Be6 
This move allows me to put pressure on c7 as fast as I can. In my next moves I want to exchange knights on d5 to open the c-file.
10...Kh7 11.b4 Qd7 12.b5 Nd8
12...Nd4 13.Ne1!? Bh3 14.Bxb7 Bxf1 15.Bxa8 Bxe2 (15...Nxe2+ 16.Nxe2 Bxe2 17.Bg2²) 16.Bg2 Qf5 17.Rb4! I saw this during the game, and thought that White was better in the insuing position. Black has some active pieces, but the weakness on a7 and the discoordination between Black's kingside pieces leads to a white advantage. Of course the d3 pawn is poisoned. 17...Bxd3 18.g4 Qxg4 19.Nxd3±
A standard move, white opens the diagonal for the bishop, reinforces d5 and plans to transfer the knight to e3 via g2 if Black exchanges bishops.
 13...Bh3 14.Nd5

 Opening the c-file. I don't believe that Black should have traded this knight.
14...Bxg2 15.Nxg2 Nxd5?!
15...Ne6!?  was an interesting move, taking advantage of the absence of the bishop on g2. 16.Bxh6? (16.Nge3ק) 16...Nd4 (16...Bxh6 17.Nf6+ Kg7 18.Nxd7 Bxc1 19.Nxf8±) 17.Rb2 (17.Bxg7 Nxe2+ 18.Kh1 Kxg7 19.Qb2 Nxd5 20.cxd5 Nd4³) 17...Bxh6 18.Nf6+ Kg7 19.Qxh6+ Kxf6! 20.f4 Nef5 21.fxe5+ Ke7 and Black survives.
 16.cxd5 a6 17.a4
17.Qa3! Ok, I missed this... this move is much stronger, retaining the pressure.
 17...axb5 18.axb5 Ra2?!
This move looks very strange. It seems to just help White play Qc4-Rfc1, since it will hit the rook on the way. Much better was b6, with the idea of improving the sad knight on d8.
 19.Rd1 c6 20.Qc4 Ra8 21.bxc6 bxc6
Now White's pressure is very strong. Black sacrifices a pawn to get some counterplay, but it is easily handled.
22...cxd5 23.Qxd5 Ne6 24.Qxd6± Qxd6 25.Rxd6 Nd4 26.Kf1 Ra2 27.Ne3 Rfa8 28.Rb6 R8a7 29.Nc4 h5 30.Rbb1 Rc2 31.Be3 Raa2 32.Rd2

 Initiating the simplification process. One set of rooks will come off, and then one set of minor pieces.
 32...Nf5 33.Rxc2 Rxc2 34.Rb2 Nxe3+ 35.fxe3 Rc1+ 36.Kf2 e4 37.Ra2 f5
37...Rc3 38.Rd2 f5 39.Nd6 exd3 40.exd3 This was probably black's best attempt, but here White can push for a long time without any fear. He has a passed pawn and his knight is not any worse than the black bishop.
38.Nd2 Bc3 39.dxe4 Bxd2 40.Rxd2 fxe4 41.Rd4
White is now up two pawns, even though they are doubled, the rest is easy.
41...Rh1 42.h4 Rh2+ 43.Kf1 Kg7 44.Rxe4 Kf6 45.Ra4 Kf5 46.Ra6 g5!
 The last trick. 46...Rh1+ 47.Kg2 Rc1 48.e4+ Kxe4 49.Rxg6 is very very easy.
 47.Ra5+ Ke4
Position after 47...Ke4

48.Rxg5?! This still wins but it is not as easy 48...Rf2+! 49.Kg1 (49.Ke1? Rxe2+!) 49...Rxe2 50.Rxh5+-
48...h4 49.g6 The pawn is unstoppable. 1–0

Annotations by Al Lawrence

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 dxe4 5.Nxe4 Be7 6.Bxf6 Bxf6

A counterattacking idea is 6. ... gxf6, opening the g-file for Black and using a later ... f5 to block the g1-h7 diagonal.
7.Nf3 0–0 8.Qe2 Nd7 9.0–0–0 b6 10.Ne5 Bb7 11.Nxd7 Qxd7 12.Nxf6+ gxf6 13.d5

A troublesome challenge. White threatens to bring his queen into play with 13. Qg4+ and 14. Qh4. In fact, deploying this queen maneuver before pushing the d-pawn is also powerful for White.
13. ... Qa4
This queen-sortie, putting her in line at the pawn-eating buffet, is not a healthy diet for Black. It seems natural to try 13...Rfe8, but then White follows up with 14.Qg4+ Kh8 15.Bc4 f5 16.dxe6 Qxe6 17.Qh4 Qe7 18.Qh5 Bxg2 19.Rhg1 Rg8 20. Qxf5, with a substantial advantage.
14.dxe6 Qxa2 15.e7 Rfe8 16.Rd4
Position after 16.Rd4

I believe White’s should instead lock up his advantage here with 16. Qg4+ and 17. Qb4. After the text, Black may escape with 16. … c5!. There are many lines to examine—really a correspondence player’s paradise—, but note: 17.Rh4 Qa1+ 18.Kd2 Rad8+!! 19.exd8Q Rxd8+, when White could easily get himself mated!  Instead, Black collapses.
16...Qa1+ 17.Kd2 Qxb2 18.Qg4+ Kh8 19.Qh4 Be4 20.Qxe4 Rxe7 21.Qxa8+  1-0

I saw lots of interesting go-for-the-throat chess in the lower sections. Here’s an instructive position from Christopher Castellanos versus Steve Korenblat, both from Missouri, in the Under-1800 section:

Position after 14.h3

This position came from a Budapest Gambit, 3. … Ng4 variation. Here Black has a number of choices. Objectively, his best is 14. … Rg6, with a tricky, imbalanced and nearly equal position. After 15. Nd5, for example, Black can’t play 15. … Qxh3 because of 16. Nf4, but Black can continue his attack with 15. … f4, with what is most likely a winning position. Now White can’t play 16. Nf4, because Black uncorks 16. … Rxf4!, and if White retakes, Black will kill him with ... Qxh3. Instead, Black chose to move his other rook to the third rank, offering tempting bait that springs shut a crushing and not altogether obvious trap.
14. … Rff6?!
White should now play 15. Nd5, aiming for f4, exhale and enjoy an advantage, since Black has spoiled his chance to counter with … f4. But there is a black bishop just hanging there, after all.
15. Bxc5??
Avarice is a deadly sin. Here the consequences are suicidal and immediate.
15. …Rfg6 16. f4
Position after 16.f4

Nothing helps anyway.
16. … Rxg2+ 17. Kxg2 Qxh3+ 18. Kf2 Qh4+, White resigns to avoid mate in one.

Al Lawrence is the author of more than a dozen books on chess and science and is executive editor of GM Lev Alburt's Comprehensive Chess Course. His latest, with Alburt, is Chess Training Pocket Book II: 320 Key Positions.