ST. LOUIS • In a scene reminiscent of a free-agent signing ceremony, one of the world’s top chess players stood amid a small crowd at the St. Louis Chess Club, a few feet from where his performance last year left commentators searching for superlatives.
But instead of outmaneuvering opponents, Fabiano Caruana was shaking hands with local dignitaries and making small talk over cocktails.
A spoon clinking against crystal interrupted the chatter.
The announcement — that Caruana, the world’s No. 5 player, is moving to St. Louis — seemed almost inevitable in light of the 23-year-old’s declaration in May that he was switching allegiances from the Italian to the U.S. Chess Federation.
The Miami-born Caruana’s transfer gives the American team its first real shot in decades at winning a gold medal at the World Chess Olympiad, and has prompted claims that multimillionaire Rex Sinquefield, the nation’s most prominent patron of chess, is buying foreign players.
At a reception last month, a few dozen people gathered in the Central West End at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis to welcome Caruana, the newest addition to the city’s acclaimed chess scene.
Last year, at the Sinquefield Cup — named after the retired businessman — Caruana delivered arguably the greatest performance in chess history, winning seven matches in a row against the highest-rated players.
The annual tournament, which begins on Sunday, is now part of the Grand Chess Tour, and includes stints in Norway and London.
Caruana’s commanding 2014 victory helped propel him to the No. 2 spot in the world behind Norway’s Magnus Carlsen and set off months of speculation about his homecoming — and money being offered for him to return.
The conjecture smacked of Cold War intrigue, with a wealthy American wooing players in an attempt to best the Russians and Chinese.
“That’s right,” quipped Jon Stewart, former host of “The Daily Show,” this past spring. “The United States is buying up nerds, nerd mercenaries.”
Sinquefield denies such assertions. Caruana has declined to discuss specifics of his agreement with the Chess Club. But in an email last week, Adolivio Capece, press officer for the Italian Chess Federation, described a meeting in Rome in December with Caruana and his parents while a bidding war was underway.
According to Capece, Caruana was offered 200,000 euros — about $227,000, in today’s currency rates — a year by the Americans, while Italy was only willing to put up 100,000 euros. The former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, a small oil-rich nation on the Caspian Sea north of Iran, had bid as much as 400,000 euros, Capece said, but that offer seemed less certain than the others.
Caruana said that Capece’s figures are incorrect and that the Italian offer was closer to 80,000 euros.
“He’s allowed to say what he wants,” Caruana said. “But he has no information.”
For his part, Sinquefield said that the Chess Club was providing Caruana with only a modest stipend, and denied that he was the individual who, according to an article published in the New York Times in March, had offered Caruana “a large sum to switch federations.”
INVESTING IN CHESS
Sinquefield, who has pushed for lower taxes in Missouri, including the elimination of the St. Louis earnings tax, has donated at least $37 million to state candidates and causes since 2005.
For the past eight years, he has spent a considerable amount of money promoting chess in the United States. He was also involved in Garry Kasparov’s unsuccessful campaign to become the president of FIDE, the governing body of international chess.
Because the money is private, it’s impossible to put a figure on Sinquefield’s chess contributions.
Regardless of how Caruana got here, his presence on the U.S. team makes it a top contender — if not the favorite — in next year’s Chess Olympiad in Azerbaijan.
The last time a U.S. team won the tournament was 1976, and that victory came with an asterisk, as players for the former Soviet Union boycotted the contest. Before that, the United States hadn’t won since 1937.
Next year, the U.S. will field a team with three of the world’s top 10 players — Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So. All three have St. Louis ties.
So rose to national prominence as a member of Webster University’s collegiate chess team. He is ranked No. 9 and now lives in Minnesota. He transferred from the Philippines to the U.S. Chess Federation last year — but without the same hoopla. He has said that playing for the United States will allow him to receive better training and compete at a higher level.
Nakamura, who moved to St. Louis in 2010, is the highest-ranked American, at No. 4, but he has never beaten Carlsen.
His move gives the U.S. perhaps the best shot at retaking the World Championship, something that no American has done since Bobby Fischer defeated Soviet Boris Spassky more than 40 years ago.
A CHESS PRODIGY
Caruana spent much of his early childhood in New York City. He discovered chess in an after-school program at age 5, and soon caught the eye of chess coach Bruce Pandolfini.
By age 8, Caruana was the highest-ranked player in the country under 11 years of age. He and Pandolfini were pictured in a 2001 issue of The New Yorker magazine, holding umbrellas and playing chess in a park in the rain.
Caruana’s father, Lou, a retired real estate manager and computer consultant, devoted himself to overseeing his son’s career. He believed that for his son to flourish he needed competition found only on another continent.
When Caruana was 12 years old, the family moved to Spain so the prodigy could study under a series of renowned instructors.
Despite what the family had risked for his career, Caruana said he never felt pressure because it.
“There was always the option, if things didn’t work out with chess, to go back to a more normal life,” he said.
Caruana, whose mother is Italian, holds dual citizenship but has never lived in Italy. However, he began playing for the Italian Chess Federation in 2005. As he made a name for himself, the organization supported him financially.
“It was a different time back then,” he said. “The chess scene in the U.S. wasn’t nearly as strong.”
Over the next few years, that began to change.
A RECORD STREAK
In St. Louis, Sinquefield was assembling a chess campus at the corner of Maryland and Euclid avenues. In 2008, he opened the Chess Club, a three-floor building outfitted with flat-screen TVs, decorated in black and white, with green accents and Parisian-style furniture, reflecting both the colors and traditional nature of the game.
The club brought the U.S. Chess Championships to town, along with the World Chess Hall of Fame. In 2012, the club financed the construction of the world’s largest chess piece — standing 14.5 feet high and weighing 2,280 pounds — placing it outside the Hall of Fame.
Then, in 2013, the Chess Club established the Sinquefield Cup with a hefty $170,000 prize fund, attracting the world’s top four players. That field was eclipsed the next year when the tournament included the world’s top six players and a prize fund of $315,000.
Caruana won his first match, then another and another. All told, he amassed seven victories in a row — including one against Carlsen.
The history of chess has seen longer streaks, but never against such highly rated players.
Before the tournament ended, discussions between the Chess Club and Caruana’s manager had begun, said Joy Bray, general manager for the club who had several email exchanges with Caruana’s father about his son’s return to the United States.
Transfers between chess federations are uncommon, but not unheard of. In 2009, Ukrainian-born Sergey Karjakin — now ranked No. 13 in the world — began playing for Russia.
Ben Finegold, a live commentator for the Chess Club who also runs camps and occasionally serves as resident grandmaster, said it no longer made sense for Fabiano to play for Italy. The competition was lacking, Finegold said, and the team’s chances of winning an Olympiad were virtually nonexistent.
“They are not even a top 20 country,” Finegold said
Finegold dismissed the idea that finances motivated Caruana’s transfer, or that the U.S. Chess Federation and St. Louis Chess Club were conniving to recruit foreign players.
“He’s born in America, lived in America, played chess in America,” Finegold said. “To say that we stole him from Italy doesn’t make any sense … The story is the opposite of what’s true … All the grandmasters in the world know about this club. This is where you want to come.”
Although it’s difficult to argue about the Chess Club’s clout, word spread earlier this year that the U.S. Chess Federation had created a “player opportunity” fund. Jean Hoffman, the federation’s executive director, said the fund’s intent was not to recruit foreign players but to “enable players committed to playing and promoting chess in the United States to more readily transfer between federations.”
Transfer fees for top players can be pricey. Caruana was required to pay 50,000 euros to the Italian Chess Federation. He said he paid the money himself.
Hoffman said the fund had yet to pay out any money nor had the application process been set. In February, Hoffman moved to St. Louis to create a satellite office for the Tennessee-based federation.
Sinquefield, in an interview, joked that “Bobby Fischer is moving to St. Louis, too.” (Fischer died in 2008.)
Sinquefield seems eager to deflect credit for the renaissance in U.S. chess and downplays his role in Fabiano’s move.
Asked about the sense of personal accomplishment he would feel if the Americans won a gold medal, he said: “Very little.”
At a reception for Caruana on the second floor of the Chess Club last month, he chatted with St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, while servers passed wasabi-flavored hors d’oeuvres.
He wore a striped shirt and plaid navy blazer perfectly tailored to his slight frame, along with his trademark black-rimmed glasses that accentuated his dark hair and eyes. His pleasant demeanor and well-rounded chess play provide a sharp contrast to Nakamura, who is well-known for his moodiness, risky and aggressive style, and audacious remarks.
Among the few dozen people who had gathered to welcome another chess superstar to the city, someone called out for Caruana to “say something” to the crowd after he had been introduced.
For a moment, Caruana appeared unsure of his next move.
Then, as if to spare him from the awkwardness of impromptu speech, Sinquefield intervened:
“He usually says checkmate.”