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On Chess: A Senior Grandmaster In St. Louis

GM Joel Benjamin concentrates on his move during round 8 of the U.S. Senior Championships in 2019.
Crystal Fuller | St. Louis Chess Club
GM Joel Benjamin concentrates on his move during round 8 of the U.S. Senior Championships in 2019.

As a veteran grandmaster (GM), I’ve seen a lot of chess sponsors come and go.

When I first arrived in St. Louis for the St. Louis Chess Club’s inaugural event, the 2009 U.S. Championship, I could see right away that I was witnessing a unique development in American chess.

The St. Louis Chess Club was a beautiful, comfortable site for tournaments. The U.S. and U.S. Women’s Championships were in excellent hands, and a promising scholastic program was underway. 

But as impressed as I was with the creation of Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield from the outset, I could not have predicted the way the club would grow and extend their support in so many directions.

The club has become a leader in elite events, with many of the top players making frequent visits to St. Louis. The Sinquefield Cup is the best known, but by no means the only event of that type that you see here.

I most enjoyed the development of events that benefit players who may not be big stars yet. For years, the U.S. Junior was a shoestring event held in dingy hotels with no prize money.

Now, at the St. Louis Chess Club, it’s a first-class event befitting the high standard of play from our young international masters and GMs.

A new U.S. Girls Junior Championship provides wonderful opportunities to players who never had them before. International tournaments are now held seasonally for players who are looking to obtain international titles or increase their rating, as well as fuel their careers with a little prize money.

GM Joel Benjamin watches the Girls Junior field play in Round 5 of the 2019 championships.
Credit Crystal Fuller | St. Louis Chess Club
GM Joel Benjamin watches the Girls Junior field play in Round 5 of the 2019 championships.

I smiled as I saw all these developments, yet I felt a bit wistful that I could not participate more in the “Sinquefield Effect.” My peak years came before it all began here, and after a few years I could no longer compete with the new generation of strong GMs. I’m a long way from a junior, and round-robin tournaments are for current stars or up-and-coming hopefuls.

In 2018, the U.S. competed for the first time in the World Senior Team Championship, and we brought home the gold medal. I was encouraged almost to the point of tears; it seemed so long since I had a meaningful competition in which to play. I decided to reach out to the St. Louis Chess Club to see if it might be interested in supporting senior chess.

The first response was totally unexpected. I received an invitation to play in one of the “classic” round-robin internationals in November 2018. Even a “B” group is quite a strong tournament, and with excellent conditions, I couldn’t pass it up. But I was confused. Why would they invite an old man like me?

Tony Rich, executive director of the club, told me that my letter had gotten him thinking that players of my generation should be brought into the fold. While I didn’t play all that well, I was happy for the opportunity and the experience.

Then in 2019, I was thrilled to find out that the St. Louis Chess Club would hold the first U.S. Senior Invitational Championship that July. The conditions are always first rate here: accommodations, playing conditions, wonderful snacks during play (eat like a GM!). All with a generous prize fund.

It felt great just to be in the tournament and spend time with so many old friends. I was pretty disappointed that I didn’t make use of my opportunities to win the tournament, but someday I will.

We played alongside the U.S. Junior and U.S. Girls Junior Championships, which got me thinking it would be cool to play in a competition with my fellow seniors, rather than against them. Maybe we could take on a team of juniors. I know I would want to watch that, let alone play in it.

In any case, I think I can speak for my colleagues when I say, "We like it here and look forward to this tournament returning to the St. Louis Chess Club this summer."

For more information about upcoming tournaments and events, visit saintlouischessclub.org.

Joel Benjamin won the U.S. Open Championship in 1985 and secured his GM title in 1986. He won his first U.S. Championship in 1987 and then two more in 1997 and 2000. Joel was the youngest inductee into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in 2008. He is also a member of the St. Louis Chess Club, a partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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Joel Benjamin | St. Louis Chess Club