ST. LOUIS • The silent crowd. The immobile competitors. The five-minute gaps between plays.
If the 2015 U.S. Chess Championships, which begin this week at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, don’t sound like the stuff of dramatic broadcasts, you’re not thinking like Maurice Ashley.
Ashley, the first African-American grandmaster, delivers chess match commentary with gusto befitting a goal-line football play:
“The next move could decide the match. Sixteen-year-old Kayden Troff, playing in just his second national championship, facing Hikaru Nakamura, the top-ranked player in the country.
“Troff reaches for his bishop — but that’s a move that analysts and computers say could prove fatal ...”
Taking a cue from televised poker, the chess club’s billionaire founder, Rex Sinquefield, has made the next move to bring attention to his pet pastime.
In time for this year’s $250,000 national championships, which run through April 14, Sinquefield had a state-of-the-art television studio installed at the facility, 4657 Maryland Avenue, to televise the matches.
He brought in Ashley, 49, of New York, to lead a team of commentators covering two dozen of the nation’s leading players, including Nakamura and Troff, Ray Robson, Irina Krush, Tatev Abrahamyan, Sam Shankland, Alisa Melekhina and Sabina Foisor.
“We’ll be working out of a brand-spanking-new, ESPN-type set, and it’s gorgeous,” Ashley said Tuesday. “It’s really going to enhance the programs.”
The new studio is equipped with 20 cameras. Some players will wear high-definition personal cameras for close-ups of their moves.
Commentators will follow up to 12 matches at a time in the round-robin tournament, cutting away to capture moves as they occur while filling in time between plays with analysis of the matches and playing styles.
Ashley has made a career of chess by coaching and lecturing on it, writing books and developing a mobile app for players. (He counts actor Will Smith among his former students. “Extremely smart, very studious and absolutely aggressive: He wants to take your head off,” Ashley said.)
Teaching the game to inner-city youths in Manhattan and Brooklyn helped prepare Ashley for broadcasting chess matches.
“I’m talking to kids who are fans of basketball and football about chess and exciting them,” said Ashley, himself a devoted fan of the NBA’s Knicks and the NFL’s Giants. “I’ve coached national champions from Harlem; if you talk to them like it’s calculus, they will tune you out immediately. You have to bring the competitive tension of the game to them, the psychological drama.”
That’s the broadcast approach taken by Ashley and fellow commentators Jennifer Shahade, a two-time women’s national champion and author of the acclaimed book, “Chess Bitch,” and Yasser Seirawan, a four-time national champion.
“We try to get into the mind of each player to help people connect to the game who may not be totally familiar with chess,” Ashley said.
“Less than two minutes left on the clock. The pressure is showing here in the nervous countenance of young Kayden Troff, a chess prodigy out of West Jordan, Utah.
“The clock ticks as Troff’s hand freezes above his bishop ...”
In addition to the $250,000 in total prizes that will go to the overall and women’s champion, a $64,000 prize will be awarded to any player who duplicates Bobby Fischer’s perfect game.
The annual Sinquefield Cup, played here in August and including international players, awards a $100,000 first prize. “Rex (Sinquefield) has helped the game enormously with prize money that gives great players the incentive to travel to St. Louis for championships like this,” Ashley said.
There was never much prize money at stake when Ashley competed. He retired from competitive play 10 years ago.
He said, “An older chess player can’t physically compete with the younger players.
“People think chess is purely mental, but in matches that last four or five hours, you can’t imagine the physical drain and the tension. Your brain is feeling pain. Your nervous system is on high alert.”
“And now, Troff has pulled his hand back. He’s just seen that his move would have been a deadly mistake.
“Just 45 seconds left. Will he make the play to save the game?”
For schedule, ticket and other 2015 U.S. Chess Championship information, go to uschesschamps.com.