By Katie DeFonzo, HAI Archivist
I was surprised when I recently learned that chess – a game that my father and grandfather taught me to play when I was about eight years old – has not one but two days set aside in its honor. National Chess Day is celebrated next month, while today, September 1, has been designated American Chess Day. For players in the modern-day United States, earlier forms of this game of strategy would be distinct in significant ways but by no means unrecognizable.
One legend says that the game of chess was first conceived more than fifteen hundred years ago in India by a philosopher tasked with informing the Queen that her son and only heir had been assassinated – essentially, checkmated. What historian David Shenk has concluded with certainty is that chess allowed “intellectuals to explore and present a wide array of complex ideas in a visual and compelling way” that constituted “medieval presentation software.” The game spread westward through Persia, thriving in both the Islamic Empire centered around Baghdad and in former eastern territories of Rome. Despite numerous attempts by various monarchs and other officials to restrict or outlaw the game, it eventually made its ways to the farthest edges of Europe and even the New World, in part through Muslim strongholds in Spain. As the game became more standardized over time, chess metaphors could be effectively used to reflect and discuss the social and political changes that were transforming society.
Benjamin Franklin is perhaps the most famous American to have taken an interest in chess. In The Morals of Chess, he considered how this game (as well as countless other aspects of everyday life) might teach a person deeper life lessons. It remained at once a kind of diversion and a way for prominent members of society to form lasting relationships that could have real consequences on world events. The first international tournament was played in 1851.
Years later during the Cold War, Soviet chess players dominated the international scene: this makes it easy to understand why, in 1976 (in time for the bicentennial), President Ford agreed to formally acknowledge October 9 as National Chess Day. The origins of American Chess Day seem murkier. What is clear is that advances in technology have allowed people from around the world to sharpen their game by challenging computers or playing virtually with others whom they might not otherwise have met. Chess matches have featured in a long list of television shows and popular films, and the release of Netflix’s miniseries The Queen’s Gambit (2020) has helped inspire a new generation of men and women to take up the game.
“For life is a kind of chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events…we learn by chess the habit of not being discouraged by present bad appearances [sic] in the state of our affairs, the habit of hoping for a favourable change, and that of persevering in the search of resources. The game is so full of events, there is such a variety of turns in it…that one is encouraged to continue the contest to the last…” – Benjamin Franklin
Work Consulted: Shenk, David. The Immortal Game: A History of Chess. New York: Souvenir Press, 2008.