The giant chess piece standing outside the World Chess Hall of Fame in the Central West End is in check.
At 20 feet tall, the wood king piece is officially the world’s largest, certified by Guinness World Records in 2018.
Unofficially, it no longer holds the title.
Last month, a chess club in France built a taller chess piece — a king that sits more than 20 feet, 6 inches high, made of hundreds of pieces of French wood. The Sautron Chess Club said it built the piece to commemorate the 20th International Open in the city.
At around the same time, staff at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis got Google alerts for the news about the bigger chess piece in France. They texted and emailed one another the news.
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“We have not received any sort of official notification that it’s been awarded to them or they have it,” chief curator Shannon Bailey said in a phone interview Friday. “We’re still claiming it.”
This isn’t the World Chess Hall of Fame’s first world’s-largest match. It first installed a giant piece in 2012, which beat the previous record holder in Sweden. The St. Louis king measured 14½ feet tall and 6 feet wide at the base. Sweden’s was merely a little over 13 feet.
The reign didn’t last long. In 2014, a bigger king piece at 16 feet, 7 inches tall and 6 feet, 8 inches at the base — made its debut in Kalmthout, Belgium. The hall of fame never got official word about its loss then, either.
So in 2018, the World Chess Hall of Fame unveiled the 20-foot piece to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the St. Louis Chess Club, along with a decade of hosting the U.S. Chess Championships here. It’s made of Sapele African hardwood and was assembled into oversize rough blocks and sculpted with woodworking tools. It’s 53 times the size of a standard “Champion Staunton” king piece.
The St. Louis piece holds the official title for now, at least until the Sautron Chess Club in France submits documentation to Guinness World Records, a process that could take months.
Bailey welcomes the attention and healthy competition (“Chess is a very competitive game,” she notes) and says the giant piece has helped bring more recognition to the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of mood you’re in when you walk outside,” she said. “It just makes you smile.”
People have taken wedding, prom, engagement and high school senior photos next to the piece. She notes that it’s funny watching people attempt to take selfies with it because the larger version is tough to fit in the frame. Staffers often pause their work and offer to take shots.
The hall of fame isn’t sure about its next move or plans to build an even bigger piece than the one in France. Workers have been busy putting together its next exhibit, its biggest yet, which opens Aug. 18 and runs through April. The exhibit, called “1972 Fischer/Spassky: The Match, Its Origin, and Influence,” celebrates the 50th anniversary of American Robert “Bobby” Fischer’s historic win over the Russian Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Chess Championship, which ended 24 years of Soviet dominance in chess.
The exhibit has over 500 artifacts, including pieces used in the third game, a replica of the tournament table made by the creators of the original, and books from Fischer’s library. The exhibit also explores American and Russian relations over time and what life was like in 1972. The official anniversary of the match is Sept. 1, and the hall of fame will host a cocktail celebration.
The St. Louis chess scene wouldn’t exist without Fischer’s influence, said Bailey, adding that many grandmasters and contributors started playing because of his 1972 win.
“All that greatness came out of one tournament,” she said.
And as for the giant chess piece, hall of fame officials are happy to use it to draw people into the galleries and, hopefully, the sport. They’ll claim their official status until further notice.
“I don’t know how big we have to go,” she said, laughing.