ST. LOUIS • Abdul Shakoor was playing chess, but his mind was not on the game — at least not on his game.
Shakoor, 42, glanced down at his board, made a move and then shifted his attention back to what mattered most: his daughter’s match at the next table.
It was a recent Friday night at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center in the Central West End, and Shakoor was worried that Diamond, 11, had lost concentration.
To say that Shakoor, a single father, harbors lofty ambitions for Diamond is an understatement.
He compares her to a young Serena Williams. Or a female Tiger Woods.
“I have a feeling she is going to be a female world champion,” he said.
No U.S.-born woman has ever won a world title, and although Diamond is considered a strong player, she is not yet seen as phenom-type talent.
Shakoor, however, is convinced she will be. So much so, that in September, the two moved here from Columbus, Ohio, for St. Louis’ burgeoning chess scene.
“To be the best,” Shakoor said, “you have to be around the best.”
St. Louis is quietly drawing parents who want their children to succeed in the most cerebral of games.
Four years ago, that would have been difficult to imagine.
But since retired businessman Rex Sinquefield opened the chess club in 2008, the list of chess attractions here keeps getting longer. The area is now home to the U.S. Chess Championship, the World Chess Hall Fame, the country’s No. 1 ranked player — Hikaru Nakamura, and the nation’s top collegiate chess team at Webster University.
For aspiring players, there are a plethora of coaches and, perhaps more importantly, the chance to compete against some of the best in the country.
“It’s like any other sport, you have to play somebody better than yourself to improve,” said Laura Smith, a mother of five avid chess players.
Until spring 2011, Smith’s family lived in Lamar, Mo., a town of about 4,500, roughly 40 miles north of Joplin.
Smith was tired of shuttling her children back and forth to St. Louis for tournaments.
So when her husband, an electrical engineer with Verizon, received job offers in St. Louis and Kansas City, the choice seemed obvious.
“The Chess Club kind of put St. Louis over the top,” Smith said. The family now lives in Ellisville.
David Allen, a computer engineer in Cleveland, is considering moving to St. Louis with his sons, Jonathan, 15, and Jason, 16. Both are eying the chess program at Lindenwood University.
Allen said his boys could become some of the preeminent players in the country, and now is the time to hone their skills.
“As you get older, things get in the way,” he said.
Allen, also a chess aficionado, wants to improve his game. Twenty years ago, he was ranked in the top 100 players in the nation, he said.
Shakoor began mulling the move to St. Louis in July when he brought Diamond here for Webster Chess coach Susan Polgar’s Girls’ Invitational at the university.
For years, Shakoor has tirelessly promoted his daughter, sending out news releases about Diamond’s victories, plugging her on Twitter and hitting up strangers for funds so they could travel to the next tournament.
But were it not for a chance encounter, he might never have known about her existence.
Shakoor said he had a brief relationship with Diamond’s mother in Flint, Mich., then lost contact with her. He ran into her by accident several months later, and she showed him a photo of a baby girl.
“I said, ‘She’s beautiful,’ ” Shakoor said. “She said, ‘She’s your daughter.’ ”
Shakoor grew up in foster care, never knowing who his father was, and he didn’t want Diamond to share his experience. So he began taking care of her for six weeks at a time and eventually won custody of her.
Shakoor, who coached chess in Columbus, taught Diamond to play when she was 7.
It didn’t take long for him realize she had talent.
Diamond won four Columbus City Schools district championships in a row, along with several national chess tournaments. Soon she had surpassed his ability to coach her, which in part, prompted the move here.
“There was nothing else we could do there,” Diamond said.
When Shakoor first broached the possibility of leaving Columbus, Diamond was enthusiastic, saying, “Don’t you think we should start taking stuff off the walls?”
They drove to St. Louis in Shakoor’s 1989 Nissan Maxima to hunt for homes. With no money for a hotel, they slept in the car near a police station on Jefferson Avenue.
Shakoor took a job selling newspaper subscriptions and rented an apartment near downtown — the first floor of which is still absent of furniture except for a breakfast table topped with a chess board.
Fifty of Diamond’s trophies are neatly arranged in a living room corner. And at the bottom of the stairs lies a grid of 80 magazines displaying the faces of chess greats such as Nakamura, Polgar and Maurice Ashley, the first African-American Grand Master.
“We leave these out so every day she sees,” Shakoor said. “It becomes subliminally contagious.”
Mike Wilmering, the chess club spokesman, said his bosses were so impressed by the Shakoors’ commitment that the club agreed to sponsor their trip to the National Scholastic K-12 Championships held this week in Orlando, Fla.
“Her story is exactly what we envisioned,” when the club was founded, Wilmering said. “We want people in the chess world to look at St. Louis and say, ‘That’s where I want to be.’ ”
According to the U.S. Chess Federation, Diamond is ranked as the 77th best female player in the country under 13.
“She is a good player and getting better,” Wilmering said, adding that her rating — now at 1,381 — could quickly jump a few hundred points with a series of strong performances.
On that recent Friday at the chess club, Diamond squared off against 41-year-old Sean Malone.
The contest ended in a draw, but Malone was impressed.
“The moment I shook her hand, that firm handshake, I knew she wasn’t going to be a pushover,” Malone said.
Shakoor constantly whispered in his daughter’s ear between matches reminding her to focus and stay relaxed. Diamond never seemed the least bit irritated.
“He’s my wing man,” she said.