The Central West End will soon have one of the ritziest chess clubs in the country, if not the world.

The 6,000-square-foot, three-story Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis opens July 17, taking up a shop front at 4657 Maryland Avenue. Chess Club Executive Director Tony Rich said he hopes the highly visible space will lure people in off the street, and that the carefully designed interior could make it a potential venue for future national tournaments.

In the past, local chess players have relied on a series of ad-hoc arrangements, typically meeting in libraries and coffee shops. A club with which Rich was involved met at Barnes & Noble in Crestwood, but it was ousted when the store did some remodeling. The group then moved to Borders in Sunset Hills, but it was soon taking up too much room in the café and again was asked to leave.

When chess players have had space, “it has been borrowed space,” Rich said.

The Delmar Loop also has something of a chess scene, with pick-up games at the Market in the Loop and the Bread Company across the road. “It is a testament to the will of the chess players to play outside” in extreme heat or cold, Rich sad.

Now players will have a place they can call their own. The prospect of the club’s opening has created “a real buzz” within the chess community, and 70 members have signed up before the club has opened its doors, Rich said.

Members will pay $80 a year to use the club or $120 for a family. There are reduced rates for students, as well as daily and monthly passes. First-time users do not have to pay a fee.

State of the art

Although a chess club is something of an unusual use for a building, especially one in such a desirable location, passersby will have no doubt about what is going on inside.

Seven stone chess tables will be placed on the street outside and in the main windows there will be four plasma-screen TVs displaying information about upcoming club events.

As one enters the building, a ground-floor waiting area for players’ families segues into a playing area, a space that will most closely resemble the casual feel of cafes where one can play pick-up games. Lively variants, such as blitz chess, and group games are encouraged.

But the classroom and library downstairs, and the tournament space upstairs, indicate this is also a venue aimed at serious players of the game.Club members will be able to check out chess-related books and DVDs from the library for free, as well as find a quiet corner to sit down and study.

The classroom is flexible enough to handle both straight lectures and more interactive workshops, and if the club were to snag a major event, this space could be used for a live link-up with a game in progress upstairs, with commentary given in the classroom by a chess expert.

The tournament space can hold 70 players and includes flat-screen TVs that can display results and pairings for ongoing tournaments.

The color scheme of the building is black and white, a reference to the appearance of a chess board, but there are swatches of gold, chocolate and green to add warmth to the look.

“I am so used to saying it is going to be beautiful, but it’s really there now,” Rich said, speaking shortly before the grand opening.Perhaps the most unusual visual touch will be the four art installations — recreations of famous chess games by Diane Thater.

A video artist, Thater has recreated games in such a way that the image is tightly focused on the players’ hands, while the board, which sits on a table draped in black cloth, appears to be floating.

Partnerships with schools

That’s the chess-club side of things. What about the scholastic aspect of the name?

Anecdotally, there’s a lot of evidence that playing chess improves kids’ analytical skills and attendance and behavior at school, Rich said.

Currently five public schools in the city of the St. Louis are using the program, and “we want to help them expand that,” Rich said.

The chess club also aims to do what it can to build and strengthen conventional after-school chess clubs.The club is governed by a four-person board of directors, one of whom is Rex Sinquefield, a CWE resident who has largely bankrolled the new club.

Sinquefield’s name is familiar in political circles for his hefty contributions to candidates, but his generosity extends to chess because of his interest in education and his personal passion for the ancient game.

“We hope to introduce the game of chess to thousands of youngsters and adults throughout the St. Louis area, and to help people benefit from themental strength and discipline which the game fosters among players,” he said.

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Chess Daily News from Susan Polgar
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