The game of chess has a rich and somewhat elusive history. Where did it come from? Who invented it? Perhaps most intriguingly: What makes it so special? Why has it continued to exist when other games have not?
St. Louis has a deep connection to the chess community. Home to the World Chess Hall of Fame, it is hosting the Sinquefield Cup Aug. 4-16 and recently held the U.S. Junior Closed Championships for the seventh consecutive year.
On Tuesday, St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh was joined in studio by Tony Rich, the executive director of the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center, to discuss St. Louis’ relationship with chess. We also spoke with David Shenk, author of “The Immortal Game: A History of Chess,” about the origins and intellectual benefits of the game. A resident of New York, Shenk attested to St. Louis’s role in the international chess scene.
“St. Louis is famous even to us New Yorkers, and you could go probably anywhere in the world if you’re talking about chess and people will have heard of it,” he said.
From this conversation, we found seven ways the “immortal game” has solidified a place for itself in human history.
1. Chess was most likely created by merchants traveling the Silk Road 1500 years ago.
Our knowledge of the first 100 years of the game’s history is murky at best. What we do know is that it was probably invented over time by merchants traveling along the Silk Road.
After this formative period, the game of chess stayed virtually the same for over a millennium.
“As of about 1400 years ago when it was adopted by Persia from India, it was very, very close to the current game,” Shenk said.
2. The only major change to the game was made during medieval times when the queen became the strongest piece.
“The queen used to be basically the chief of staff and much less powerful,” Shenk said. “In medieval times in Europe, the queen actually for known political reasons became the most powerful piece on the board.”
3. Chess gave the U.S. a major win during the Cold War.
Russia’s centuries-old relationship with chess created a unique battlefield during the Cold War.
“Chess has been used politically many, many times over its 1400 years of history,” Shenk explained.
During the Cold War, Russia deployed its fleet of chess masters to compete against – and humiliate – the United States. In the historic 1972 world championship tournament, legendary American chess player Bobby Fischer beat defending champion Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union.
“It brought the world’s attention to the game and really was this signal moment where Russians were humiliated at a game that they had so dominated for such a long time,” said Shenk.
4. Success at the game does not require innate skill or natural talent, contrary to popular opinion.
Shenk and Rich agreed that anyone who is willing to invest the time and energy necessary for serious practice can become an excellent chess player.
5. It teaches us to think about the world in a representational way.
Chess is more than just a game; it is an outlet for teaching young people life skills in a fun, engaging way, said Rich.
“It’s a game first and foremost, so it’s an easy way to hide your vegetables in your ice cream,” he explained. “You’re able to teach students and adults these really complex topics like how to problem-solve, how to plan ahead … understanding that an action right now might have consequences down the road as well.”
6. Practicing chess may help students perform better in school.
“We’ve seen students that participate in chess programs have improved attendance, improved behavior, and better test scores directly attributable to chess,” said Rich.
7. Chess can be considered sport, science and art.
The debate among chess enthusiasts as to whether the game is a sport, a science or an art has continued for centuries. In fact, chess is one of 26 activities that have applied for inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games. For Shenk and Rich, chess belongs to all three categories.
It is a sport because it requires the physical and mental conditioning of an athlete. It is a science because success is often based on careful research and strategy. It is art because players who are equally-matched have an opportunity to create something beautiful through the meticulous arrangement and re-arrangement of pieces like instruments in an orchestra or paint strokes on a canvas.
“I think the great American chess player Grandmaster Gata Kamsky probably said it most eloquently when he said, ‘Two chess players sitting at a board are like two conductors sitting in front of their symphonies,’” said Rich. “When those two conductors are able to make that one game – able to produce this one thing that is in harmony and beautiful and sounds great together, that is what beauty in chess is.”
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.