On Tuesday, USA Today published a story that outlined everything “hip and happening” in St. Louis.
Not surprisingly, the World Chess Hall of Fame got a nod. Wait. What? Not surprising, you say?
If the idea that chess is hip and happening is foreign to you, then I assume you still have the antiquated stereotype of the pocket protector-wearing übergeek ingrained in your mind.
But times they are a-changin’ my friends.
If you come by the Chess Club or World Chess Hall of Fame on any given night, you will see that chess appeals to a demographic as broad and varied as the city itself. And because of that widespread and growing interest, chess is, indeed, becoming quite hip and happening.
Since it relocated to St. Louis in 2011, the Hall of Fame has regularly presented innovative exhibits featuring eclectic artists and mediums. Each new installment brings a unique perspective that pushes the boundaries of how chess is interpreted and explores the game’s worldwide cultural significance.
Its current exhibit, A Queen Within: Adorned Archetypes, Fashion and Chess, has brought a steady flow of traffic to the Central West End and helped expose the game to an entirely new audience. Across the street, the Chess Club has had to expand its hours and programming to accommodate a growing membership base.
And that is happening not just in St. Louis. More and more, chess is becoming less of a fringe endeavor, and the perception that chess is cool is being adopted into mainstream media and culture.
The new World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, is the face of an iconic European fashion company, G-Star RAW, promoting the latest trends alongside well-known stars like Liv Tyler and Lily Cole.
The tagline for Brooklyn Castle, an award-winning documentary released in 2012, invites viewers to “imagine a school where the cool kids are the chess team.”
Chess is being featured in advertisements and major motion pictures with increasing regularity. All of this has a cumulative effect that is simultaneously helping to re-popularize the game and showcase its broad appeal.
Chess experienced a drastic surge in popularity following Bobby Fischer’s 1972 World Championship victory over Boris Spassky. The Cold War added a palpable layer of tension to that match, which will never be recreated, and the resulting “Fischer Boom” was the pinnacle of chess popularity in the U.S. But then Fischer fell off the map, and for many, the interest in the game did, too.
In the U.S., that interest is being rekindled thanks in part to countless grassroots supporters at the scholastic level, increased opportunities for the country’s top players, and organizations that work to bring new audiences to the chess table.
Representatives at the World Chess Hall of Fame understand that for chess to thrive, it’s vitally important to engage and interest a new following. In doing so, they’re doing more than furthering the message that chess can be hip and cool, they’re helping lead a cultural renaissance designed to help re-popularize the game to a more widespread audience.
Note: Mike Wilmering is a 2006 graduate of the University of Missouri at Columbia School of Journalism and serves as the communications specialist for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.