Grandmaster Ben Finegold moved among the nearly dozen chessgames he was playing simultaneously at a chess carnival Sunday at the Missouri History Museum. Without pause, he would make his move and step to the next board as if it required no thought at all.
Players were left shaking their heads and saying, "Oh, I didn't see that" or sighing in exasperation. "That's what they all say," said Finegold, who works as a grandmaster-in-residence for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.
Grandmaster is the highest title a chess player can obtain, awarded the strongest players in the world. The St. Louis chess club is the only one in the nation to hire a full-time grandmaster to provide weekly lectures, lessons and camps for the community, said Alex Vergilesov, who coordinates the club's after-school program, evidence of the club's growing reputation as the best in the country.
"It's a great benefit we have in St. Louis," Vergilesov said.
The chess club hired Finegold, 41, more than a year ago. He came to St. Louis from Detroit. Finegold said it was a rare chance to do more than just compete in tournaments for prize money.
"I like teaching and playing and not doing the same thing over and over," he said. Ranked 17th in the U.S., Finegold plays top players as well as people who have never played chess before.
St. Louis also has another grandmaster: Hikaru Nakamura, a top-ranked player in the world who won an international tournament Sunday in the Netherlands. Nakamura moved to St. Louis nearly a year ago because of the city's chess scene, and he provides quarterly lectures.
The club was founded four years ago by retired businessman and philanthropist Rex Sinquefield. He helped the club grow into a million-dollar facility in the Central West End that will be hosting the U.S. Chess Championship for the third year in a row in April.
The club has more than 500 members and holds after-school programs in 19 schools across the area with its 12 part-time instructors.
At the carnival, Finegold played people of all skill levels, from children to grandparents. He even played three players with his back to their boards. Top players can easily play without seeing the pieces because they are able to maintain a mental model of their positions.
Despite Finegold's prowess, no one seemed embarrassed to go up against him. "It's more about learning," said Nick Huber, 17, of Maryland Heights. "By playing a grandmaster, you see how they play, and you can use those skills in later games."
Vergilesov said the carnival was one of the biggest promotional events the chess club has hosted and is another sign of its growing presence. "To have a simul (simultaneous chess games) going on in the Missouri History Museum is pretty big," Vergilesov said. The museum asked the club to host the carnival to help bring people to its Treasures of Napoleon exhibit. The famed emperor of France was an avid chess player.
Finegold joked that he enjoys events like the carnival because "I get to checkmate everybody." But seriously, he said, looking around the tables of eager players, "I like to see how many people play chess and enjoy it."