Admit it: When you think of chess, an image immediately forms in your mind of two older men, possibly bearded, hunched over a board in a dimly-lit tournament hall. One of the players may be ominously declaring, “Check.” Make no mistake, though: This view is decidedly dated, and the United States Chess Federation (U.S. Chess) is working hard to permanently bury it as we work to show that chess is a game that welcomes anyone — regardless of gender, national origin, age or special circumstances.
This year, U.S. Chess is celebrating its 80th anniversary. The 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit organization, formed in 1939, has a mission to empower people, enrich lives and enhance communities through chess. To achieve this, U.S. Chess embraces all areas of the game beyond just the competitive aspect. Certainly, competition is a key component — in fact, we sanction almost two dozen national championships, most notably the U.S. and U.S. Women’s Championships just held in March at the St. Louis Chess Club.
But there are many ways to enjoy and utilize chess. Some people enjoy collecting chess sets for their intrinsic artistic value. One of the most active chess groups on Facebook is devoted to book collectors, with almost 20,000 members. There are players who have never attempted a traditional tournament game, but enjoy playing blitz, a form of speed chess in which the players only have five minutes each for the entire game.
U.S. Chess supports this entire spectrum. The interests of our almost 100,000 members are varied, and we work to support key programmatic initiatives, including:
- Women’s Chess: U.S. Chess just created the position of Women’s Program Director to bring more girls and women into the game (unaccountably, women represent only 14% of our membership). Jennifer Shahade, a name familiar to many in the St. Louis chess world, fills this role. We offer girls-only events (the girls tell us they want and like these!) and special girls’ rooms at our national scholastic events.
- Scholastics: Scholastic chess is booming and over half the members of U.S. Chess are now under 18. The 2019 National High School Championship in March set a record with 1,689 participants. We have many examples of chess serving as a key intervention tool for at-risk youth, especially academically.
- Seniors: We offer special events for players over the age of 50. It is well known that social connections are key to good health as individuals age, and chess offers a seamless network.
These examples represent only some of the larger areas. The organization continues to branch out and explore new program initiatives as we start our 81st year, including chess as a learning tool (the game teaches people to think critically); chess as a tool for social and emotional development (sportsmanship is core to the game); and chess as a rehabilitative tool (the game can be used as an intervention for a stroke victim, an individual with dementia, or someone with a traumatic brain injury).
There is an especially entertaining way to learn more about all of this in a visceral way as the World Chess Hall of Fame in the Central West End currently has an exhibit celebrating this anniversary year, titled US Chess: 80 Years—Promoting the Royal Game in America. It will be on view through Oct. 27. Have you ever seen a grandmaster playing chess while skydiving? This startling video created by U.S. Chess is just one of the exhibits on display.
Over 80 years, U.S. Chess has changed what it means to play chess and to be a chess player. You can help the organization achieve its programmatic goals through a tax-deductible gift by visiting uschess.org and clicking on the “Donate” button. The federation will use your gift to continue to lead the way.
Dan Lucas is the Senior Director of Strategic Communication for U.S. Chess and a past president of the Chess Journalists of America.