The line went out the door as hundreds walked up and waited, posters and pictures in hand, to see the superstars of their favorite game.
Four of the best players — including the top two ranked in the world — are meeting this week in St. Louis for a tournament, but Sunday was for the fans.
They woke up early and some traveled hours to relish the opportunity for autographs, a handshake, maybe even a passing word or two as they stood before them, in awe.
It wasn’t about football or baseball, but chess — the game that is increasingly putting St. Louis on the map among its followers.
The top players, or grandmasters, as they’re called — Magnus Carlsen, Levon Aronian, Hikaru Nakamura and Gata Kamsky — will begin a tournament today named for wealthy financier Rex Sinquefield and centered around his Central West End chess club.
Sunday’s fan event nearby at Lester’s Restaurant kicked off the tournament that runs through Sunday. It will feature live commentary while the players compete for a $70,000 prize for the winner. Even the player coming in last will earn $20,000.
For Ed Gonsalves, 49, of Rhode Island, chess has made St. Louis a destination. He has used his vacation time from the Postal Service to watch the national championship games here, and returned this week. He was one of the first in line to see the players, even though he has meet Nakamura before.
“It’s a beautiful club and a beautiful city,” Gonsalves said.
Nakamura, 25, moved to St. Louis in 2010 for chess after Sinquefield opened his Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis near Euclid and Maryland avenues in hopes of making the game more popular. Chess experts think Nakamura, rated No. 7 in the world, is the United States’ best hope at recapturing the world chess championship title. The last U.S. player to do so was Bobby Fischer, who won the title in 1972.
But it was Carlsen, a Norwegian ranked No. 1 in the world, who drew the attention of many fans on Sunday. In November, he will take on the reigning world champion of chess in India.
“He’s the best!” said Liam Goddard, 7, who was excitedly jumping around his family’s table at Lester’s before they got in line to see the players. Liam recently won his age group at a tournament at the chess club. The Goddards watched a piece about Carlsen on TV and were blown away to hear that he could play 10 people at a time with his back turned from the boards, or “blindfolded.”
At 22, Carlsen breaks the mold for what might be a stereotypical chess player. He was one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people this year, and also named one of the sexiest men of 2013 by Cosmopolitan UK. He’s even done some modeling.
“He’s hip, he’s fashionable, he’s smart,” said Mike Wilmering, spokesman for the chess club. “He’s really doing some amazing things for chess.”
Liam and his brother Sean, 5, were more reserved when it was their turn to walk up and meet all four of the players. They’re hoping to be as good as you someday, their mom told the chess celebrities.
“Everybody say ‘Grandmaster!'” said their dad, Chris Goddard as they smiled for a photo.
Carlsen and the other players said they are thankful for the fans, and hope that the opportunities to meet them are good for the game.
“I’m hoping it can inspire some people, because chess is a great learning tool,” Carlsen said.
Charlie Pitt, 9, starting playing chess on a computer and then joined a club at his school in the Parkway district.
“It helps me focus a lot, and it keeps me thinking,” said Charlie, holding his autographed picture of Carlsen and a poster with the others’ signatures on it. He said he was going to hang both in his room.
On the other side of Lester’s, football fans were engrossed in watching games on the first Sunday of the NFL season. Kimberly Danilczyk, in a New Orleans Saints jersey, said although chess and football are very different, she could understand the fans’ excitement.
“If one of my teams came in right now, I’d probably lose it,” she said.
Hailey Gilchrist, 10, came with her dad and brother from Marion, Ill. for the event. She admitted when she got up the table she felt a bit overwhelmed.
“I’m kind of shy,” she said.
Not everyone was as quiet. A group of Armenian families from St. Louis wore the country’s flag and Armenia T-shirts outside while chanting for their country’s player, Aronian.
“The whole chess world is very excited about what’s happening in St. Louis,” he said as signed chess boards. “We want to bring the game to people, and it’s helping to make it popular.”