It was 8:30 on a Monday night, and the 2014 Sinquefield Cup -- the strongest chess tournament in history -- was over. The oppressive, tense atmosphere of “event mode” was gone, and the Club was no longer packed with giddy fans seeking autographs. The closing ceremony had finished up the night before, the shiny Cup had been hoisted by GM Fabiano Caruana and his transcendent performance. The excitement, for a fan like me, had already passed its zenith.
Finally, the Chess Club was returning back to its normal, relaxing state. Or so I thought.
Suddenly, through the door steps Caruana, himself - with a few of his Grandmaster friends: Two of the Sinquefield Cup commentators: Yasser Seirawan and Alejandro Ramirez; and three of the Sinquefield Cup super-elite: Levon Aronian, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave -- and the World Chess Champion, Magnus Carlsen.
And what were they here to do, strolling into the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis as it were the most natural thing in the world? The same thing any other member likes to do on a Monday night -- play some chess.
Specifically, they were looking for a game of Bughouse: A chess variant that pits two-man teams against each other, over two separate chess boards. Teammates are given opposite colors, so when a piece is captured from one board, it gets passed to your partner -- who can then place the extra piece onto the board as their move.
Sound complicated? Imagine watching the best in the world blast out moves at a frenetic pace, with only three minutes on their clocks.
Let me put this in perspective: This was as if, the day after the Superbowl, the star players from both teams and the announcers showed up at a local gym for a pickup game. This was the kind of thing I had never expected to see, yet I was seeing it. Or maybe it was more like staring -- wide-eyed, with a goofy, childlike grin plastered to my face.
Here were the best chess players in the world in their most natural, relaxed state. No money or title or rating points on the line -- only bragging rights. They were playing because, in their deepest core, they just love playing chess.
And, as I quickly discovered, these masters didn’t just have a love for chess, but a love for trash-talking, as well -- which seemed was as important to victory as playing good moves.
"C'mon baby, I won't hurt you," quipped Aronian as he dropped a knight onto the board.
"Don't worry," said Ramirez, reassuring his partner, Seirawan. "I'm killing him."
The crowd of spectators cackled uproariously at every barb, oohing and aahing at each aggressive move.
"No heavies!" cried Seirawan, a shorthand way of telling his partner not to trade Queens or Rooks -- another which would spell the end for the star commentator.
"Don't move!" said Aronian to his partner, Caruana. "Just let his time run, we're way ahead."
Way ahead, of course, meant fifteen seconds or so -- a lifetime in these circumstances -- and in a flash, the game was over. Aronian and Caruana were left giggling with victorious delight, watching the losers get up from their seats, only to be replaced by Carlsen and Vachier-Legrave. The dance began anew.
Carlsen is the World Champ, and Aronian has held the chess World’s No. 2 spot for years. Caruana had just completed a stunning performance at the 2014 Sinquefield Cup, scoring 8.5/10 undefeated, including seven consecutive wins in a row for an unprecedented 35-point rating increase. Even Seirawan, as a four-time U.S. Champion, is no slouch.
You might expect any one of these players to dominate but, as it turned out, no team could stay in their seats for very long. Such is the nature of bughouse: a wild competition where skill serves you well but, in the end, anything can happen.
This was the highlight of the Sinquefield Cup, for me. This was pure sport -- playing for play's sake. Their exuberance and childlike excitement infected me and the handful of members-turned-spectators, all of us amazed with our good fortune: That we happened to be here when these legends of chess just dropped in to play a few games, just as casually as if they did this every night.
They played non-stop until 10 pm -- closing time. I was the manager, and there are rules at the Chess Club. So what else could I do, besides treat them like any other member? I had to tell the World Chess Champion, the 2014 Sinquefield Cup Champion and their venerable comrades that they had to take the game elsewhere. And so they did, herded toward the front door with discussions of continuing a late-night session back at the hotel.
Come back anytime, gentlemen. We’ll be open tomorrow.