This Saturday, Oct. 11 is National Chess Day -- though only unofficially, because nobody cares.
That’s not from a lack of continued effort on the part of chess players, however, as plenty have cared about such a recognized holiday dating all the way back to its inception in 1976.
During a time when American chess was witnessing explosive growth as part of the “Fischer boom,” a man named Bill Dodger set out as chairman of National Chess Day-76, a project within the U.S. Chess Federation. Dodger was a regional vice president. Beginning with a handwritten letter to South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, Dodger requested that President Gerald Ford proclaim a National Chess Day in October, stating that America harbored more than 30 million chess players and that ours was the only major nation in the world that had not honored the game; we hadn’t even issued a chess postage stamp.
While handwritten letters and 13-cent postage stamps will be saved as history lessons for another day, the everlasting red tape of our government is not a fresh storyline. Dodger was informed that it was not customary for the president to issue proclamations unless authorized to do so by Congress, a request that would need 218 sponsors before such a resolution could even be considered. Dodger quickly abandoned the idea.
He settled, however, with a request that President Ford at least acknowledge the cultural aspects of chess, and the president agreed. Ford followed up with a letter giving special recognition to “a game that generates challenge, intellectual stimulation and enjoyment for citizens of all ages.” He went on to declare Oct. 9, 1976 as the first official National Chess Day -- unofficially.
“It became my understanding that that was not an official proclamation,” said David Heiser, the president of the Renaissance Knights Chess Foundation in Chicago who researched the holiday’s origin through documentation provided by the Gerald R. Ford library. “The president just sort of recognized it, like the mayor of a city might recognize a day for chess. But that’s just recognizing it -- not proclaiming it. It didn’t make it into the same league as if Congress had passed a resolution on it.”
Flash-forward to 2010, when the USCF began to rekindle the idea of an official National Chess Day, which had unofficially upheld its significance since President Ford’s shout-out. USCF executive board member Mike Atkins spearheaded a full NCD program, offering tournament discounts and promotional assistance to clubs and players around the nation for becoming involved with the holiday.
Awareness efforts spread, and Atkins was able to recruit John Rockefeller, an active tournament director, certified chess coach -- and the son of Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. Led by Rockefeller, the Senate voted to officially recognize Oct. 9, 2010 as National Chess Day, following up on the second Saturday of October in 2011 and again in 2012. Last year, the Senate went big, declaring Oct. 7-13 as National Chess Week.
Oh, but that red tape.
“I was told that it would be close to impossible to get a joint proclamation from both the House and the Senate,” Atkins recalled. “That almost never happens, and they just weren’t going to put in the time and energy into something that was not going to work. The House was against doing those types of things.”
Forget proclamations, Atkins said that even simple annual recognition became after 2011, as evidenced by an L.A. Times front-pager that documented bickering over the financial burden of such frivolous commemorative resolutions -- with National Chess Day taking full brunt of the headline.
And now, with Rockefeller having retired his seat last year, eliminating the USCF’s go-to senatorial contact -- there will be no official National Chess Day in 2014.
And nobody cares. You win, Congress. You can keep your silly proclamations and your insufferable red tape. In an act of pure defiance, I will play chess with my son on Saturday. With us will be 30 million chess players around the nation, celebrating our holiday just as unofficially as we did in 1976. The USCF will promote this day as its biggest and best yet, with clubs all over the U.S. hosting specialized tournaments, organized fundraisers and promoting new ways to pull in new players.
Maybe, after nearly 40 years of this, Congress can instead take a few notes from us. We will keep our in-fighting limited to hushed tones, and we’ll still finish our day with handshake.
“As far as the USCF is concerned, within our own little world, it’s National Chess Day -- regardless of if any other official body recognizes it as that,” Atkins said. “The program when it started was offering free ads and free rated tournaments, and new members will continue to be attracted to chess because of it. It is our holiday, and it gets a little bit bigger each year.”
Brian Jerauld is the 2014 Chess Journalist of the Year, and the communications specialist for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. He is a 2001 graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism and has more than a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other ways to relax. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.