Friday, September 9, 2011 / 6:21 AM
In J.C. Hallman’s 2004 book, The Chess Artist, the author tells the true tale of controversial millionaire Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who built an entire city devoted to the glories of the game of chess in Kalmykia, the remote former Soviet republic in which he also served as president for 17 years, up until 2010.
Ilyumzhinov, no mere dilettante, also serves as the president of prestigious competitive-chess organization FIDE. While leading Kalmykia, he made chess compulsory in all primary schools, and was infamous for devoting resources that might have been used to better the lot of penurious commoners to erecting grand edifices designed to host global chess tournaments.
His story has an amusing parallel in that of Rex Sinquefield, the wealthy local who, in the past several years, has quietly turned the sleepy city of St. Louis into perhaps the most important destination-city for the competitive chess player.
His Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis is a genuinely posh, three-level building in the heart of one of St. Louis’ most desirable zones of real estate, with every bell and whistle a chess player, from novice to grandmaster, could desire. The hushed upper floor has served as the site of the most exalted U.S. and world championship tourneys, with big prize money for the winners offered by Sinquefield. Video screens that display important games happening online in real time fill the building. The facility also features chess classes, programs for educators, and a gift shop.
Now, directly across Maryland Avenue, Sinquefield is prepared to open yet another magnet for the serious chess lover, the relocated World Chess Hall of Fame. Again, no expense has been spared.
The 16,000-square foot space is divided into three levels. The first floor welcomes visitors with Out of the Box: Artists Play Chess, consisting of large-scale chess-themed art, much of it by famous types (Yoko Ono, Tom Friedman, Barbara Kruger, etc.). A giant, arresting piece consisting of a huge board and 32 dun-colored militaristic uniforms hanging down from the ceiling confronts the viewer as soon as he enters the space. (It’s Liliya Lifánova’s Anatomy is Destiny, The Wardrobe: Game in Waiting, 2009.)
On Sept. 13, a bizarre performance involving a chessboard that plays musical tones as the pieces land on the various squares will be staged in the gallery. It will involve members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra riffing on the notes as they’re played. It’s called Number Twelve: Chess Piano Concert in Three Movements, and it’s the folie of contemporary Dutch artist Guido van der Werve (the St. Louis Art Museum will post a video of the performance). Hopefully it will go down something like this.
The second floor offers Chess Masterpieces: Highlights from the Dr. George and Vivian Dean Collection, featuring some of the world’s oldest, rarest, and most valuable chess sets. There are two astronomically valuable Faberge chess sets here that should probably be protected with electric eyes and lasers.
The third floor houses the actual World Chess Hall of Fame. There are plaques on two walls, one for Americans, and the other for the rest of the globe, honoring the greatest chess competitors (and related types) in history. Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov, Paul Morphy, Fred Reinfeld, Boris Spassky, and even Benjamin Franklin, who wrote of his love for chess, are saluted here. (The group is overwhelmingly male, but there are two women.) The room also houses rare artifacts from the Hall’s permanent collection, including trophies, books, photos, and chess sets.
The curators plan to rotate all the exhibits to keep things fresh. In the spring of ’12, the second floor will host what should be an intriguing collection of ‘70s-era photos of noted abrasive nutjob/genius Bobby Fischer, taken by a confidante, photographer Harry Benson.
The opening of the Hall coincides with what should be a fascinating experiment. For years the chess world has held separate championships for men and women. Sinquefield’s new Kings vs. Queens Tournament finally breaks the gender barrier, pitting five of the world’s top male players against five of the world’s top female players. The field includes names which may be familiar to even the casual fan – the formidable Judit Polgar and Anatoly Karpov are both coming to town for this one.
For chess fanatics, the plush new facility is heavenly, and for the rest of us, it’s a curiosity worth exploring.
An unconfirmed source informs SLM that the WCHoF’s permanent collection may include an original prop from “Star Trek,” Mr. Spock’s multi-level Vulcan chess set. If this were true, and the Hall chose to display it, they could salute two brainy, fetish subcultures -- chess and Trek -- at once.
The World Chess Hall of Fame (4652 Maryland Avenue, 314-367-WCHF) celebrates its Grand Opening at 10 a.m. Friday, Sept. 9.
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