One person can make a big difference, which can be a good or bad thing.
St. Louis has become an unlikely world capital of chess thanks to the constant urging and philanthropy of Rex Sinquefield, who was raised in an orphanage after his father’s death and grew fabulously wealthy via index funds. His largesse extends beyond the cerebral game of kings and pawns, however, as the megarich Missouri man has also poured millions into promoting a staunch right-wing economic agenda. To some he’s a hero and to others a mixed blessing.
Much of this has to do with one man. Rex Sinquefield, a grey-haired man in his early 70s, is sitting in the audience watching the US Chess Championship. He’s in his shorts, wearing a baseball cap, and fuelling his concentration with glass after glass of Diet Coke. Sinquefield is a rich man, and he likes chess. He likes it so much he’s put tens of millions of dollars into the game. No, he’s not partially responsible for the renaissance in American chess, former US champion Yasser Seirawan corrects me – he’s entirely responsible.
The scale of Sinquefield’s wealth is unknown. He claims, a bit implausibly, that he himself has no idea. Unlike other super-rich, he’s not one to brag about his bank account, though it’s widely assumed he’s a billionaire. The money comes from a career in finance – he created some of the first index funds, funds that are cheap to run because they simply track the performance of a stock-market index.
In Missouri, Rex is a deeply contentious figure, a looming giant of local politics -Tyrannosaurus Rex, he’s been called. He pushes a radical free-market agenda and wants to abolish the state income tax. He’s funded right-wing think tanks and backed selected candidates to the tune of $40m (£28m) – no-one in the state has ever given more. Missouri is the only state in the United States which has no limits to campaign donations, a freedom Sinquefield has exploited to the full. Laura Swinford of Progress Missouri, an advocacy organisation, believes his power in politics is pernicious: “I think we would all throw ticker-tape parades down the centre of the city if he would only focus on chess and his charitable donations,” she says.
But Sinquefield says his political donations are small change compared to the sums he has spent on chess and other charities.•