The United States team that will compete in the World Team Chess Championship next month in Armenia stands no real chance of winning. It is not sending its three best players, and even if it were, it does not have enough talent to compete with the stacked teams from Russia and China.
But one does not have to be born in a country to represent it in international competition, and so an official program and a clandestine effort are underway to recruit top players from other countries to switch their allegiance to the United States. Such transfers have happened in the past, but never in an organized manner.
If the new efforts are successful, the U.S. team could be radically altered by the time the Chess Olympiad, the most prestigious team competition in chess, is held next year in Azerbaijan. By then, the U.S. could even be the favorite to win the gold medal, something it has not done in decades.
The most important contribution to remaking the team may be an endeavor that has the whiff of a Cold War-era plot: a private overture to a top foreign grandmaster, tens of thousands of dollars in payments to secure his eligibility, and a rich American benefactor intent on overtaking the Russians and the Chinese in the game he loves.
Similar campaigns to obtain the national allegiance of top prospects are not uncommon in the Olympic movement and international soccer, but they are virtually unprecedented in the more cerebral world of top-level chess.
The secret effort involves trying to persuade Fabiano Caruana, the No. 2 player in the world, to switch to playing for the U.S. from Italy. Last September, while playing in an elite tournament in St. Louis, Caruana said he was approached and offered a large sum to switch federations. Caruana, who was born in Miami and has dual U.S. and Italian citizenship, said he had turned down the offer, for now.
Caruana would not say who approached him, but the offer came after he won the Sinquefield Cup, obliterating an impressive field that included the world champion, Magnus Carlsen of Norway. The tournament is named for Rex Sinquefield, a retired financier active in Missouri politics who has become the primary benefactor of chess in the United States.
Sinquefield provided the $315,000 prize fund for the event, as he also does for the U.S. Championship, which for seven consecutive years has been held at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, which he financed and built.
In an interview, Sinquefield said, "I can’t add anything," to Caruana’s statement that he had been recruited.
Sinquefield is uncomfortable talking about the role he has played supporting chess financially, though he acknowledged that his investments have benefited the chess community in St. Louis and across the country. But, he said, it was not part of some grand scheme.
"I am the admiring beneficiary of what is happening," he said.
If it would help the U.S. team, Sinquefield said, he would not be opposed to recruiting foreign players, mentioning as an example that if he overheard Carlsen say that he wanted to switch federations he would not hesitate to try to persuade him to pick the United States.
"It’s funny how these things happen," he said.
Switching federations, particularly for an elite player, is not simple. A grandmaster, for example, and the federation he would like to play for must apply to the World Chess Federation, the game’s governing body, for permission, then pay a fee of up to 5,000 euros ($5,400) if the player is to be allowed to represent his new country immediately. If the player has not been a resident of his new country for two years, an additional compensation fee to the player’s old federation is required — as much as 50,000 euros for a player of Caruana’s caliber.
Consequently, transfers of elite players are rare. In the last 15 years, there have been only two involving players ranked in the world’s top 20: Sergey Karjakin, a Ukrainian-born player ranked No. 12 who now plays for Russia, and Wesley So, the world No. 8, who switched last year to the United States from the Philippines.
So’s decision was an unexpected boon for the U.S. team. In an interview, he said that he had not been recruited but had made the decision for personal and professional reasons. He also said he was not unmindful of how his decision might be received.
"In my opinion, Rex Sinquefield would prefer if I play for the United States," So said. He added that it was his dream to play in the Sinquefield Cup.
So moved to the United States in 2012 to attend Webster University in St. Louis, which has assembled one of the premier college chess teams in the country.
He said he decided last June, after his sophomore year, that he wanted to switch federations, but the rules governing transfers prevented him from playing for the U.S. during the August 2014 Chess Olympiad in Tromso, Norway. After he won the $100,000 first prize in the Millionaire Chess Challenge in Las Vegas in September, So said that he paid the transfer fee out of his own pocket and immediately became eligible to represent the U.S.
He will not be playing in the World Team Championships, however, because he is competing in an elite tournament in Azerbaijan that is scheduled at the same time. But he said he was eager about the possibility of representing the United States in next year’s Chess Olympiad.
So and Hikaru Nakamura, America’s top player, would give the U.S. a formidable 1-2 punch. Nakamura has won two elite tournaments this year — the Gibraltar Chess Festival and the Zurich Chess Challenge — and his world ranking is a career-best No. 3.
But teams in the biggest international competitions need five players (four regulars and one reserve), and after Nakamura and So, there is a drop-off among U.S. talent, at least when compared with the Russian and Chinese teams, which can field entire rosters of players ranked in the top 40 in the world. The current No. 3 in the United States is Gata Kamsky, who is No. 61 in the world.
It is partly with that mind that the U.S. Chess Federation recently created a player opportunity committee and a charitable fund to help recruit and pay the fees of foreign players interested in moving to the United States, and why adding Caruana to the American stable would be a coup.
Reached by email, Gianpietro Pagnoncelli, the president of the Italian Chess Federation, wrote, "If Fabiano is really interested in switching federations, I can only feel sorry about that." But he also cleared the path, saying that the Italian federation would not oppose such a decision.
Randy Bauer, a member of the executive board of the U.S. federation, said the committee and the fund were part of an effort to promote the game by raising its profile in the United States. "Certainly, if we have a team that wins a gold medal against Russia and China, that will help," Bauer said. "The United States loves winners."
The federation may not have far to look to find recruits. Like So, many of them already live in the U.S. and play for one of the elite college chess programs, which have expanded and become more competitive in recent years.
Jim Stallings, the longtime director of the chess program at the University of Texas at Dallas, said that while the U.S. is producing more homegrown grandmasters than it once did, there are still not enough of them.
"By virtue of the fact that there are not that many strong players in the United States," he said, "we have to go out and recruit foreign players."
Some of those college recruits have subsequently switched their allegiance, including Alejandro Ramirez (formerly of Costa Rica), Timur Gareev (Uzbekistan) and Fidel Corrales Jimenez (Cuba). Yaroslav Zherebukh, a grandmaster originally from Ukraine who is a sophomore at Texas Tech, has just finished transferring, according to Al Lawrence, the director of the program there.
But no matter who else the United States recruited, it would not have the impact of landing Caruana. That will not happen this year, Caruana said, but "it is open for the future."