Wall Street brings Chess to Main Street

From the U.S. Chess Federation Website:

By AL Lawrence

Rex Sinquefield

Rex Sinquefield

Most of the fun has gone out of reading about the super-rich. “Wall Street versus Main Street” is a constant media mantra. We’re shown fund managers and investment bankers perp-walking or being grilled by a congressional subcommittee, shaming the greedy traders who brought all of us down with their short-term get-rich schemes.

There are understandable reasons for this billionaire-bashing. But Rex Sinquefield is a different kind of “Wall Street” success. And neither short-term nor greed are words that apply. He made his millions by founding a Santa Monica firm that structured solid, long-term investments in real companies. Now in retirement, he’s giving back big-time to his native Saint Louis—and is sponsoring his lifelong passion, chess.

A life right out of Dickens

Even the fortunate flush now roll only half as high as they did in mid-2007. Many American companies, facing the cycle of downturns and layoffs and further downturns, are shrinking from charitable contributions. In this context, chess benefactor Rex Sinquefield is remarkable. Truth is, Rex would be pretty remarkable in any context. In fact, Charles Dickens would have loved to write Sinquefield’s life story, which features the kind of tear-jerking life-challenges the novelist loved—a cleft palate, life in an orphanage, a difficult personal choice between the Church and business, and a broken back—just to list a few. Not to mention the rags-to-riches resolution.

Following his father’s death, little Rex moved from his protective home and family, a seven-year-old’s whole world, to a crowded, nun-strict orphanage in the northwest St. Louis suburb of Normandy. Some rise to meet adversity. Young Rex flourished, especially in competitive contexts, covering any personal pain with wisecracks and grins, not tears. Deciding early to become a priest but always interested in the stock market, he entered the seminary owning $200 of stock in Great Northern Paper. Three years later, he changed course, majoring in philosophy and business at St. Louis University.

After a hitch in the Vietnam-era army, he enrolled in the University of Chicago’s MBA program, where he studied under, among others, future Nobel Laureate Merton Miller. Rex went on in 1973 to pioneer the first passively managed indexing S&P 500 fund. An “index” fund is set up to reflect, not to try to out-perform, the market in general. It’s “passive” because an investor lets his savings ride—resisting the urge to constantly churn and change his picks. Thus he avoids the risks of guessing at the future fluctuations of individual corporations. The idea is, in a way, the opposite of the overly sophisticated and risky investment approaches often blamed for our current financial problems. Indexing funds became a staple for the growing sector of middleclass investors who had their own, non-financial jobs to worry about and wanted their savings to grow long-term—at the same time, the billions in funds provided a dependable source of working capital to American companies.

In 1981, Rex co-founded and, with his wife Jeanne, a Ph.D. in economics, ran his own company, Dimensional Fund Advisors. When he retired in 2005, he had helped many others to make money—and had made a lot himself. Now he is an important and eclectic benefactor—of the St. Louis Opera Theatre, its art museum, symphony, botanical gardens, and numerous other charitable causes. But his passion is chess. And that passion brought Wall Street to Main Street in St. Louis.

Sinquefield is a real chess enthusiast. He told me that once, years ago, he was on a trans-Pacific flight that happened to also be carrying Bobby Fischer and then-FIDE-president Florencio Campomanes. Rex instantly recognized Fischer, but Campo warned Sinquefield that Bobby was in a foul mood, not even talking to his traveling partner. “But you can try,” Campo said. Even when faced with the force that cracked the biggest egos, Sinquefield couldn’t pass up an opportunity to meet the greatest ever, and he knew his audience. He stopped by Fischer’s seat. “I hope you beat those commies,” he told Fischer. The champ came out of his pout. “I will,” Bobby said.

Rex Sinquefield, playing the Sicilian in a simul game against Jennifer Shahade. World Youth representative Margaret Hua looks on.

Rex Sinquefield, playing the Sicilian in a simul game against Jennifer Shahade. World Youth representative Margaret Hua looks on.

[to see a recent game, go here]

The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis

During a break from the recent Mid America Open, I went, with my longtime buddy, Nebraska chess-expert Gary Colvin, to visit the new club that Rex Sinquefield sponsors. I admit it was a bittersweet and sentimental journey. After catching chess fever while a sophomore at the University of Missouri, I joined the old Capablanca Chess Club, in the St. Louis suburbs. A key-club (adult members could enter the club any time of the day or night—a sensible arrangement in the three-shift industrial city that St. Louis was in the 1970s), the “Capa” Club served as an incubator of Midwest chess, nurturing a number of then-rare Missouri experts and masters. But when the Fischer bubble burst, the Capa club, like other chess clubs across America—after expanding into bigger and fancier quarters when Fischer beat Spassky—had to shutter its doors when Bobby refused to play again.

Not your grandfather’s chess club

The new club was organized in 2007 as a nonprofit organization, dedicated to introducing thousands of St. Louis children and adults to the benefits of chess, and to supporting existing school chess programs while encouraging new programs within the regular school curricula. Already the club has attracted more than 500 members and has been written about in both chess and non-chess media.

Since my familiarity with the St. Louis’ roadways peaked 35 years ago, I had to use my Verizon’s phone navigator to find the club’s address: 4657 Maryland Avenue, just east of the intersection of Euclid and Maryland. My first shock came on hearing the fembot-voice tell us “Your destination is ahead on the left.” The old Capa Club occupied the second story of a car dealership on a main but definitely unromantic intersection, across Big Bend Avenue from a White Castle and across Manchester from a Jack in the Box. (Did the side effects of those wee-hour junk-food forays keep me and my old gang from making norms?)

Outside the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis

Outside the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis

But now Gary and I found ourselves in a trendy dining section of St. Louis. In the unseasonably warm weather, couples were drinking lattes and families were snacking under umbrellas along the fashionable street. We could have been in Pasadena along the row of clubs on Colorado Boulevard, at the outdoor restaurants across from Lincoln Center on New York City’s Broadway, or walking along the bilingual bistros on the sidewalks along Sunset Drive in South Miami. No car dealership, no Jack in the Box. Could there really be a chess club here?

Out of the car and strolling down the café-lined avenue, seeing the restaurant tables change to stone chess benches with green-and-beige board tops, we knew we had arrived. But we had trouble accepting that a chess club—in a well appointed, two-story building of its own—was in the middle of this block of obviously prime real estate.

Once inside, we saw that chessboard had met boardroom. The worn chairs and cigar-stained tables of the old Capa Club were nowhere to be seen. If James Bond and Donald Trump were going to play some serious chess, this would be the place. The pictures tell the story.

Club executive director Tony Rich, who looks as if he runs a fitness center, not a chess club, heads a truly professional staff. We were given a friendly greeting at the reception desk (really, a reception desk!), and a tour of the three-level facility—the two above-ground floors and a lower level that features a small kitchen, lounge area, and a classroom for teaching chess. There are flat-screen monitors throughout the facility and even monitors available to show the outside passers-by the tournament action happening inside.

And there will be lots to show them this year. In May the site will host the U.S. Championship , and in October, the U.S. Women’s Championship. Meanwhile, there’s a full calendar of regional events as well, for both beginners and experienced tournament players.

I’m already making plans to be at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis in May. Check out the schedule of events here. I know a lot of us will be visiting this new and unique chess destination in upcoming years to see some of the most important chess events in North America.