People: The club that chess built in the Central West End


“Oh man, that is not gonna survive,” Amon Aziz exclaimed, slapping down his opponent, Chuck Pruitt’s clock. 

“Yup, I can’t make that,” Pruitt said, surrendering with a shrug. 

“I know you can’t, you’re playing me, Chuck,” Aziz said. 

The two players and their growing audience erupt with laughter. They call the score, 9-6, and reset the board. 

Amon Aziz makes a move in a chess match against his regular opponent, Chuck Pruitt. Photo by Zoe DeYoung.

Walk down Maryland Avenue in the Central West End on any nice day and you’ll hear Pruitt and Aziz trash-talking over games of blitz chess. The two are regulars of the Saint Louis Chess Club, a destination for chess players of all levels to practice their game. 

Chuck Pruitt of Florissant, Missouri, met Amon Aziz and a slew of other chess players at a St. Louis Bread Co. on Delmar Boulevard in 2003. News soon broke that multi-millionaire Rex Sinquefield was funding “[what] was going to be the best chess club in this country,” Pruitt said, noting that prior to the club’s opening, the St. Louis chess community was scattered. 

Aziz, owner of Pharoah’s Donuts, opened his store’s second location just a two-minute walk from the club. He said he seldom visited the Central West End before the Chess Club opened. 

“When the Chess Club moved to the Central West End, that allowed more people to come out with a reason other than just to get something to eat,” Aziz said. “When you get a crowd of people sitting out [and] enjoying themselves whether they’re eating, talking, [or] smoking a cigar, it is definitely a good vibe. And, you know, if we’re not competing, we’re having good conversation.”

The club offers classes with various grandmasters and tournaments like the Sinquefield Cup with big-name competitors. The indoor and outdoor boards make for a more accessible game, with players often waiting at a board for competition to walk up. 

“I’ve played people from different cultures there at the chess club. I mean, they may not even be able to speak English, or I can’t speak their language,” Aziz said. “Well, we have universal communication on that chess board.”

Because of this welcoming atmosphere, Pruitt prefers to call it a chess “center” rather than a chess “club”. 

“I don’t see any racism,” Pruitt said. “You can learn so much here.”

Tony Rich, executive director of the Saint Louis Chess Club, credits two things that broke

Chuck Pruitt laughs at a joke made by his opponent, Amon Aziz, outside the Saint Louis Chess Club. “At one point we were coming here every day. We would be here seven days a week,” Pruitt said. “But you know, you have a life you have to deal with.” Photo by Zoe DeYoung.

down the stereotype of chess as a stuffy, ‘country club’ game: “The Queen’s Gambit,” a television adaptation of the 1983 American novel by Walter Tevis, and Twitch, a streaming platform. Both have contributed to the popularization of the “casual” side of chess-playing.

Tevis’ novel was first reviewed by chess consultant, author and coach Bruce Pandolfini. Nearly 40 years later, he was asked to work closely with the cast and crew of the 2020 Netflix miniseries under the same name. 

“What I have perceived is that people will talk about the game a little bit more because of ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’” Pandolfini said. “So [chess] is in the air, you know, chess is on the front pages of newspapers and ads on television.”

This growing presence of casual chess in mainstream culture is visible upon visiting the Saint Louis Chess Club. The image of a stressed player, hunkered down with their hands on their face, is nowhere to be found.

 “When you watch those big events like the Sinquefield Cup, it’s so serious,” Rich said. “But step one foot inside the club on a Friday night or go hang out outside the club and watch the people playing chess there. Casual chess, which is 99% of what we all play, is nothing at all like that.”

This casual game does not come from a place of ignorance. Pruitt acknowledges the serious nature of the game for professional players who rely on chess as their significant source of income. 

Still, even high-level grandmaster players stop and watch the entertaining matches between Pruitt and Aziz. 

“They’re not watching that game because it’s elementary to them. But they will come and listen to us talk trash,” Pruitt said. “That way you got the serious side, but now you got to associate the fun side of chess.”

Even at the highest level of chess, Pandolfini sees the duality of casual and serious play.

“We tend to think that it’s a game where you have to go off, isolated, just studying on your own, you know, not interacting with people. It’s not so much that,” Pandolfini said. “Chess players are very social, the community is very close.”

A year’s membership to the Saint Louis Chess Club costs $100, a price Aziz and Pruitt agree is hard to beat. 

“One of the jokes that Pharaoh and I have is, ‘Where else could we go and have this much fun 12 hours a day, and only pay $100 a year?’ You know what that breaks up to per day? About 27 cents,” Pruitt said. “[I] come here, meet everybody from all over the world and have so much fun. That is just hard to measure. With the approval of my wife, I spend a lot of time down here. I just love it.”

SIDEBAR: Chess history runs deep in St. Louis

As the sun comes out on the corner of North Euclid and Maryland Avenue in the Central West End, so do avid chess admirers and enthusiasts, sparking unique opportunities for connection.

In the Central West End, visitors can learn the history of the game, master its basic mechanics from a tutor, challenge world-class competitors or play a casual game with friends.

St. Louis is no rookie to the chess scene. The city served as the second venue for the first World Chess Championship in 1886, and in 2014, Congress deemed it the chess capital of the nation. The city is also home to two nationally leading collegiate chess teams: Webster University and Saint Louis University.

However, it wasn’t until the Saint Louis Chess Club opened its doors in 2008 that the Central West End developed into the chess hotspot it is today. Chess fanatic and philanthropist Rex Sinquefield funded the club’s creation and the eventual relocation of the World Chess Hall of Fame directly across the street in 2011, along with the “official world’s largest chess piece” — a king piece  — certified by Guinness World Records.

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Joshua Wright (He/Him) is the News and Lifestyle editor for The Journal. He is a media studies major with a double minor in professional writing and scriptwriting. He loves storytelling, especially through writing, and writes across various disciplines, including journalism, entertainment, and advertising. His hobbies include watching movies, exploring the outdoors, and learning new things.