On Chess: How Sports Illustrated familiarized chess for a broad audience | St. Louis Public Radio

On Chess: How Sports Illustrated familiarized chess for a broad audience

May 17, 2018

The U.S. and U.S. Women’s Chess Championships recently concluded at the St. Louis Chess Club. During the tournament, the Chess Club played host to a number of journalists from publications from around the world. Many of the articles resulting from these visits will become part of the World Chess Hall of Fame’s  collection of periodicals related to chess history.

Many of these publications are chess-centered periodicals such as Chess Life, Chess Review, American Chess Bulletin and New in Chess. However, the collection also contains many magazines that show chess’s broad appeal. Among these are general interest magazines like LIFE and Sports Illustrated, which translate the events of the game to a wider audience.

Fans of chess sometimes discuss whether chess is a game, an art, a sport or some combination of the three. Since at least 1958, Sports Illustrated has published stories about the game and its most famous personalities alongside articles about football, basketball and other sports. Some even contain references to these other sports. Take for example “The Forward Pass vs. the Line Plunge,” published on Nov. 3, 1958. The article covers the events of the 1958 Chess Olympiad in Munich, Germany. The title of the article may have been inspired by a quote within by grandmaster Arthur Bisguier, in which he states that the American team chose to change its strategy to focus on getting four wins, “like a football team that has only decided to pass.”

Though Sports Illustrated has published stories about a variety of chess topics, such as the history of the Marshall Chess Club, computer chess and scholastic chess, many of the issues in the Hall of Fame’s collection pertain to World Chess Championships and Bobby Fischer’s rise to the top of the American chess scene in the 1960s and '70s.

Some of the articles were penned by author and staff writer Robert Cantwell. Others were written by prominent players of the day, like grandmasters Robert Byrne, William Lombardy and Fischer, who used his article as a forum to discuss challenges that non-Soviet players faced when competing against players from the Soviet Union.

While Byrne laid out the stakes of the 1972 World Chess Championship match between challenger Fischer and reigning champion Soviet player Boris Spassky, Lombardy wrote about his experience as Fischer’s second in the match. Like many other stories in the magazine, Lombardy (perhaps constrained by his agreement not to annotate any of Fischer’s games from the match) focused more on the larger-than-life personalities and Cold War tensions of the match than the moves of the games.

Fischer, however, was far from the only player to receive a profile in Sports Illustrated. He was one of two players to grace the cover. The other was 1959 and 1966 U.S. Women’s Chess Champion, Lisa Lane. Cantwell’s feature about Lane told the story about how she had come to the game after experiencing a personal tragedy.

Cantwell also profiled 2013 U.S. Chess Hall of Fame inductee Jacqueline Piatigorsky in a feature that declared, “In Chess, Piatigorsky is tops.” The article discussed both her career as a chess player and her work organizing the Piatigorsky Cup, the strongest chess tournament held on American soil until the Sinquefield Cup.

The tense World Chess Championship matches between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov as well as the career of U.S. Chess Hall of Fame inductee and St. Louis Chess Club commentator Yasser Seirawan also formed the basis for Sports Illustrated features.

These stories about figures in the American and international chess communities helped to familiarize the game to a wider audience. When grandmaster Fabiano Caruana, the first American to compete in a unified World Chess Championship since 1972, fights for chess’s highest title later this year, the Hall of Fame will have a chance to continue to add to its collection of articles documenting chess history.

Emily Allred is the associate curator at the World Chess Hall of Fame.