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St. Louis welcomes World Chess Hall of Fame

First published in the West End Word, Sept. 9, 2011

By Eileen P. Duggan

Photo by Diana Linsley

The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis got a big boost in its mission to educate St. Louisans about the game when the World Chess Hall of Fame opened across the street at 4652 Maryland Ave. in the city’s Central West End.

The World Chess Hall of Fame and Museum opened to the public on Sept. 9, 2011. The event included the opening of an art exhibit, “Out of the Box: Artists Play Chess” featuring installations by Yoko Ono, Tom Friedman, Liliya Lifánova and other artists.

As part of the celebration, the Boys Scouts of America launched its new Chess Merit Badge with a street festival — including a human chess game — on Sept. 10 on Maryland Avenue.

The three-story museum occupies a former medical office building, a 15,900-square-foot space that includes visiting exhibits; a display of unique chess sets from the collection of George and Vivian Dean; displays celebrating U.S. and world chess champions; and historical artifacts such as books, photographs and chess sets.

The exhibit “Out of the Box,” running through Feb. 12, 2012, extended its opening events to Sept. 13, when Guido van der Werve, pianist Matthew Bengtson and members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performed Werve’s composition for his “chess piano.” The exhibit also includes “Play it By Trust,” an all-white chess set, including table and chairs, by Yoko Ono. Ono’s chess set, which was first exhibited in 1966, functions as a metaphor for the futility of war and extends the artist’s interest in the expressive potential of chance.

The U.S. Chess Federation chose St. Louis as the new location of its Hall of Fame based on the success of the Chess Club since it opened in 2008. The museum’s permanent collection was moved to St. Louis from Miami in June 2010, said Shannon Bailey, vice president of exhibitions and curatorial affairs at the World Chess Hall of Fame.

The Chess Club and the Hall of Fame are separate entities but work in partnership to further their common missions.

The local firm Arcturis designed the building, incorporating design elements from the Chess Club’s 6,000-square foot, three-story space at 4657 Maryland Ave. Not surprisingly, the color scheme is black and white but includes accents common to both buildings such as green stripes on stairs.

The not-for-profit Hall of Fame’s mission is to educate visitors, fans, players and scholars by collecting, preserving, exhibiting and interpreting the game of chess and its cultural significance. Its educational mission is much the same as that of its partner across the street.

The Chess Club, also a not-for-profit educational organization, strives to teach the game, increase the awareness of the educational value of chess, and promote its programs through educational outreach.

Although the Chess Club hosts a number of high-profile events such as the U.S. Chess Championship, the U.S. Women’s Championship and the U.S. Junior Closed Championship — known as the Triple Crown of chess — the club’s daily focus is on education.

The club holds more then 100 classes annually for kids and beginner/intermediate players. Resident Grandmaster Ben Feingold gives a free weekly lecture (described as part stand-up comedy) for members, a free children’s class on Sundays and private lessons.

More than 50 K-12 schools participate in after-school chess programs taught by a bevy of Chess Club instructors schooled in chess. The participating districts include Illinois districts as well as St. Louis Public Schools, Riverview, Normandy, Pattonville, Parkway, Hazelwood, Kirkwood, Webster Groves and Mehlville plus charter and parochial schools.

The one-hour classes are held one or two times a week for six to 12 weeks. After the sessions, the Chess Club donates the boards and pieces to the schools, said Alex Vergilesov, scholastics coordinator at the club. More than 500 students participated in the after-school program in 2010 and the club expects more than 800 this year, Vergilesov said.

“Chess has grown virally,” Vergilesov said. Despite all the high-tech gizmos and games available to kids, the centuries-old, low-tech game of chess has only increased in popularity in the past 10 years, he said. Through internet technology, information about chess has become easily accessible and people can even play chess online.

“The internet exposes more people to the game,” said Mike Wilmering, communications specialist for the Chess Club. “After people get interested online, they want to go to over-the-board playing.”

Besides, “technology has provided a lot of great things for teaching chess, some great resources for teachers,” Vergilesov said.

Several studies have found many educational benefits of chess, including: reinforcement of math concepts; cognitive development through activities that support critical thinking, concentration, memory, logic and analysis; positive reinforcement; and learning the concepts of commitment, consequences, cooperative behavior and sportsmanship.

“Chess is like sneaking vegetables into their ice cream,” Wilmering said.
The club’s educational program recently started a new class at the Miriam School, which serves children with learning disabilities.

The Chess Club also offers classes for all ages in the classrooms on the second and third floors of the club. The club will teach anyone from age 5 and up and has even had student as young as 4, Vergilesov said.

But isn’t chess just for brainy members of the well-to-do leisure class?

“That’s the mindset we have to counter,” Wilmering said. “Chess is not just for one type of person. Chess is a great equalizer. People can feel the competition of a sport without the physical exertion.”

Memberships are affordable, he said. For $5 a month or $30 a year, full-time students under 21 can buy a membership that allows them to play chess, use the lending library, attend lectures and get discounted entry fees and merchandise. The over-21 crowd can join for $12 a month or $80 a year, and families of any size can get an annual membership for $120.

A daily pass is $3 a day, $1 for under-21 visitors. The club’s wireless internet is popular with parents of students attending classes as well as college students who drop in to study, Wilmering said.

“We want to make the space as accessible as possible,” he said.

The Chess Club of St. Louis was founded in 2007 with the help of donations by Rex Sinquefield, a retired executive who has many cultural and political interests. Sinquefield also purchased in September 2009 the building at 4652 Maryland Ave. and financed the renovation for the World Chess Hall of Fame.

In 2009, 2010 and 2011, Sinquefield received the U.S. Chess Federation’s Gold Koltanowski Award, given to the person who does the most to further chess in the U.S. each year. Under the leadership of Executive Director Tony Rich, the club was named by the USCF as “Chess Club of the Year” in 2010, and St. Louis was awarded the title of “Chess City of the Year” in 2009 and 2011.

The Chess Club is open Tuesday through Sunday. For information call 314-361-CHESS (2437) or visit www.saintlouschessclub.org.

The World Chess Hall of Fame is open after 10 a.m. Wednesday through Sunday, closing at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 5 p.m. the other days. Admission is free, but a donation of $3 for individuals, $5 for families is suggested. For information call 314-367-WCHF (9243) or visit www.worldchesshof.org.

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