As the developer of some of the first index funds and the co-creator of a multibillion-dollar investment firm, Rex Sinquefield’s success in the business world was immense. After retiring in 2005 from his firm, Austin, Texas-based Dimensional Fund Advisors, Sinquefield returned to his hometown of St. Louis to tackle what he considers some of his most important work. In his roles as an activist and a philanthropist, he has brought a myriad of changes to St. Louis, much as his business career has changed the investment field.
Sinquefield has donated time and money to many organizations, including the St. Louis Art Museum, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, the Archdiocese of St. Louis’ Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation and the St. Louis Symphony. One of his biggest projects – and biggest successes – is guiding the city to become the epicenter of the competitive chess world.
Thanks to Sinquefield, the Central West End is home to the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, which is perhaps the best chess center in the world, and the World Chess Hall of Fame. A who’s who of tournament players have moved to St. Louis because of Sinquefield’s passion for and investment in chess. The club’s membership has topped 1,000, and traffic to its website reached nearly 500,000 during the past year.
I caught up with Sinquefield recently at the World Chess Hall of Fame to talk about his philanthropy and why he has committed so much time and money to chess. I was interested in learning more about his interest in chess and how he (almost) singlehandedly has changed the course of chess history.
As a boy, he says, he was fascinated by chess. When Sinquefeld was 13, his Uncle Fred taught him the game. “To his surprise, I beat him the second game we played, and from that point forward I was hooked,” Sinquefield says.
He played on the chess team at Bishop DuBourg High School and began playing in tournaments while in business school at the University of Chicago. “But I slowed down for many years because of family and kids, and came back to it when I had more time,” he says. “Now I have a chess lesson once a week from Jennifer Shahade, who is a two-time chess champion. I study and play online every day. Currently I’m playing 16 games at a time via computer. Sometimes I play speed chess, and other times I do ‘tactics.’”
He estimates he’s played thousands of games, but only 180 of them have been in tournaments.
“I love chess because it’s so beautiful,” he says. “It’s stimulating and so demanding. And the fact that it is one of four things that stave of dementia — chess, bridge, foreign language, and playing music – it’s good for me, too!”
His powers of concentration help him succeed, and not just in chess. “When I play, I don’t think about anything else,” he says. “Other players often do. I only focus on the game I am playing.” Chess is like life, he says, requiring good judgment, constant study and problem solving. And like life decisions, a chess player’s moves have consequences. “Tat’s why I think it is so important for schools to teach chess to children. I would like nothing more than to have chess taught in every school. “
With that in mind, the Chess Club and Scholastic Center employs more than 20 instructors who travel to more than 100 classrooms and community centers. “We even have a partnership with a judge in the juvenile courts who approached the Chess Club to teach at-risk kids the game of chess,” Sinquefield says. In addition, more than 70 children visit the Chess Club each Sunday to learn from grandmasters who teach at the club.
“I am most proud of the reception the club has received,” he said. “Our work is covered by media around the world, including being the cover story of more than one magazine. We’ve had visits from many famous players, including Anatoly Karpov, who was the world champion from 1975-‘85. Ironically, we wanted to show Karpov what we are doing for chess, but he came here in part because he always wanted to see the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.”
Sinquefield is working to create a match featuring six of the top players in the world. “We want to invent a specific event associated exclusively with the club and St. Louis,” he says.
When I asked, “What do you want people to know about you?” he responded quickly. “I don’t think about my legacy,” he said, adding that he hoped the Chess Club, World Chess Hall of Fame and Show Me Institute, which proposes solutions to state and local policy issues, would continue to thrive.
“My message is that individuals can make a big difference,” he says, whether through charity or by starting a business. “People shouldn’t underestimate their power to do good.”