By Dmitriy Belyavskiy
Chess is a wonderful, exciting and intellectual game, which has been around for almost 1,500 years, played around the world by different ages from schoolboys and schoolgirls to scientists, artists, and even “played” by politicians and world dictators.
History of chess does not keep the exact record where precisely this wonderful and intellectual game originated at first. Chess historians haven’t found any written proof yet that chess existed before the 7th century CE. However, some believe chess originated in India in about the 6th century CE and is said to have been the creation of an Indian philosopher who set out to invent a game symbolizing a battle between two Indian armies. He called his game chaturanga, which means army game. War was the chief means by which territory was annexed or rulers defeated in ancient India, so the newly developed game was very relevant.
There is no evidence as to when chess actually reached Europe, so historians put the date between 700 and 900, and the first contemporary evidence of the knowledge dates back to the year 1010 when the Count of Urgell left his rock-crystal chessmen to the Convent of St. Giles at Nimes (France). The early medieval times were the years of the Crusades and the church dominance and the looming 1215 Magna Carta, and because of these pious and liturgical times one of the chess pieces was called a “bishop.” The name of this piece, which moves diagonally, is still preserved.
Vikings brought chess to northwestern Europe, eventually spreading over the entire European continent. Just when you thought that Columbus discovered America, half a millennium before that, a Viking, Eriksson did a “discovered check”-one of the types of a check in chess-sailing by or even possibly setting foot in the New World. Vikings were brave, intelligent and explorative warriors constantly fighting wars and conquering new territories, and the chess game was the perfect imitation of their lives.
Both the rules of the game and the names and shapes of the pieces have changed over time. Still, we can find some resemblance, e.g. a piece that looks like a tower or castle called a Rook, and used to be called a castle about 500 years ago…And still, we have a special move called castling when a Rook and the King are switching places and this is the only time when a player can move two pieces at once. Nonetheless, by 1290 the differences had become so great that it was necessary to draw up a set of rules to govern play when players from different countries met. About 1500(!) innovations started to reappear, and it was not until 1900 that uniform rules were adopted throughout Europe. Today FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Echecs, World Chess Federation), founded in 1924, unites more than 150 countries.
The game was at one time the pastime of the nobility, but it gradually spread to the lower classes. It was played a lot in ghettos, and by the 16th century, it had become a recognized pastime for Jews on the Sabbath and other festivals. Jewish people throughout the millenniums have greatly appreciated and cherished intelligence and education, and chess was always to represent that. There is still an inside joke amongst the Jewish people, that every Jewish “kindale” (means a child in Yiddish) is an Albert Einstein and either has to be a violinist or a chess player, preferably both.
Knowledge of chess became an essential part of the equipment of the troubadour and traveling minstrel. This was during the Shakespearian and Cervantes times when manners, courting, and chivalry still existed. Imagine, instead of saying, “Hey babe, you wanna go out” you would say something like, “excuse me, my fair lady, would you care for a game of chess?” How sexy and orgasmic this is!
Eventually, chess became the game of intellectuals, as the first chess books were written and published, for instance by a great 18th-century chess player and theoretician, Philidor, who was also a prominent composer. Philidor considered both chess and music as art, and famously said, “The pawns are the soul of chess.”
Prominent chess players had been gathering in cafes in two major cities, Paris and London, which were considered the chess capitals of the world, and finally the very first international chess tournament was played in London in 1851. This was soon followed by the first chess world championship match when Wilhelm Steinitz defeated Johannesburg Zukertot in 1886, becoming the very first chess world champion.
By the late 19th century and early 20th-century chess became very popular around the world, thanks to the prominent grandmasters and the champions. They showed how intellectual the chess is, and its benefits to the brain. A good example, which illustrates just that, is chess and science. Many prominent musicians, chemists, physicists, naturalists, and indeed philosophers not only spend much of their spare time playing chess but also were fabulous and very strong chess players. A famous Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev was a strong chess player of the first category.
At the same time many chess champions and professional chess players (grandmasters) earned a doctoral degree. Emmanuel Lasker (1868-1941), the second world champion had a doctoral degree in math, Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946), the fourth world champion had a Ph.D. in law, Mikhail Botvinnik (1911-1995), the sixth world champion obtained his doctorate in math and cybernetics, and in 1949 he published a major work on electrical engineering called Regulation of Excitation and Static Stability of the Synchronic Machine. Garry Kasparov (1963- ), the 13th world champion was born on April 13th, lived in a building number 13, got admitted into a university on June 13th, and finally became the 13thworld champion. How about that for a superstition! Richard Reti (1889-1929) a famous Austro-Hungarian/Czechoslovakian (now the Czech Republic) grandmaster and a chess theoretician also studied math (obtaining later Ph.D.) and physics at Vienna University. He also set a blindfold simultaneous record by playing 29 games simultaneously in 1925 of which he won 20, drew 7 and lost 2. After he finished, the grandmaster left the building and forgot his briefcase. The grandmaster was chased down the street by one of the event organizers, telling him, “Doctor, you forgot your briefcase, here it is.” Reti at first became embarrassed and then exclaimed, “Thank you very much! Forgive me; I have such a bad memory!”
Most grandmasters were highly educated people, scholars, and also absent-minded geniuses, yet with a great sense of humor. While playing in the New York 1924 chess tournament, an Austrian grandmaster and one of the wittiest, Savielly Tartakower, visited the Bronx Zoo. There he became friends with a local orangutan, Susan, and the very next day dedicated the opening to his new friend, dubbing it as the “Orangutan Opening.”
One of the greatest chess players ever, a Polish grandmaster, Akiba Rubinstein, who sadly never became the world champion, once played in a tournament and was extremely preoccupied with the upcoming game. He left his hotel room thinking about the game, went to a local restaurant, ordered a three-course dinner, ate it, paid the bill, and left the restaurant, still thinking about the upcoming game. Then he took a walk around a lake still thinking about the upcoming game. After that, he came back to the very same restaurant, ordered the very same three-course dinner, ate it to complete astonishment of a waiter, paid for it, and left the restaurant, absolutely oblivious that he did exactly the same thing 30 minutes ago, still thinking about the game.
Regrettably, for the first half of the 20th century most chess players struggled financially unless they were born into a wealthy family. Chess was financially unappreciated, and the better part of chess players was forced to play exhibition games, simultaneous display games to entertain the crown in order to make the ends meet. A very few were lucky in finding Maecenas, i.e. generous patrons of art, including chess, who would fund their living expenses, tournaments, and even matches for the chess crown. Before 1948 a challenger for the chess crown must have provided with a $10,000 prize money, while the chess champion had a luxury not just go for the prize money but to pick and choose whether he wants a convenient opponent or just go for a real challenge. $10,000 was a lot of money back then.
Dawid Janowski, a Polish/French grandmaster, and once a challenger for the chess crown in 1910 had had a Maecenas for a long time. Janowski had a very ill-temper, and also was an inveterate gambler. Once, after winning a tournament in Monte Carlo in 1901, he lost all the prize money-a few thousand dollars-he just won in a casino at the roulette wheel. Janowski due to his bad temper managed to fall out with his Maecenas when the latter asked the grandmaster for a game of the chess and the former replied that he doesn’t play with tailor’s dummies. Dawid Janowski died in poverty from tuberculosis in 1927. Many prominent and famous chess players of the first half of the 20th century shared this very ill fate, dying in poverty as paupers or dying in mental asylums and/or suffering from schizophrenia, including the American master, the greatest chess master of his era, Paul Morphy, as well as Akiba Rubenstein and the first world champion Wilhelm Steinitz. It was not until the 1950s when the Chess Federation established international chess rules and laws, including the format for the qualifying matches, and the match for the chess crown. Still, financially chess was greatly unappreciated. As of today, compared to other sports and arts, chess players make such a minuscule amount from $20,000 to $100,000 a year, and sometimes even less, in addition to paying their own expenses and accommodation fees. The match for the chess crown only has a fund of only $2.5-3 million divided between the winner and the loser in the ratio of 60 to 40.
After the end of WWII and the beginning of the Cold War chess became a very powerful political and ideological weapon between the USA and the evil Russia/USSR. It seemed like Russia had hegemony over chess since the end of WWII, spending a fortune on it, paying a fortune to the soviet champions. In the Soviet Union, this manifested in receiving a 5-room apartment in an elite neighborhood, a car, a dacha (a country cottage), an ability to attain good food, and also availability to travel abroad and buy Western products.
It was only until a young prodigy Robert Fisher stormed and climbed at the very top of the “Chess Olympus.”
Not only was he was defeating and eliminating his opponents, but he was also simply humiliating them. Finally, at the peak of his form in 1972, Fisher defeated Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland and became the 11th world champion. This was an extremely heavy blow for the soviets especially when the blow came from the Americans. So they threw all their dark forces, evil, and conspiracy to return the chess crown back to the “evil empire.” To make a long story short, the late Bobby Fisher was stripped from the chess title and a new soviet chess player, a very mediocre and talentless, Anatoly Karpov was crowned as a new champion…Viktor Korchnoi, a soviet Jew grandmaster and Soviet Champion in 1960, 1962 and 1964 was persecuted a lot for being Jewish and for refusal to help Karpov defeating Bobby Fisher. Korchnoi secretly fled to Switzerland, becoming a dissident, and played Karpov twice in 1978 and 1981 becoming the challenger for the World Championship, but lost twice because he was pressured and blackmailed by the Soviet authorities since he still had his family in the USSR…
Nowadays, chess is still greatly marginalized and unappreciated both intellectually and financially. The 13th world champion Gary Kasparov, just like Bobby Fisher grieved and lamented that chess isn’t paid much, let alone that compared to other sports it is very minuscule. Kasparov argued that boxers, who entertain the crowd by throwing punches are paid 20-30 million dollars, and the chess players, who use their brain cells, and the grey matter for 5-6 hours, merely are paid anything. Kasparov tried to sign a contract with General Motors to boost chess popularity. However, with no avail; after the contract had expired, GM refused to extend it. Sadly, many chess players nowadays, choose something else, terminating their chess careers, because chess won’t provide and put food on the table. As a very young man in 1999 at the Chess World Championship in Las Vegas, I had an opportunity to talk to Valery Salov, who was once ranked the third best chess player in the world, in the mid-90s. He told me that he was going to retire from chess because it didn’t provide for his family as he was struggling financially. He added that realistically only 10 best players in the world can survive playing chess professionally
So, what is chess? Is it an art, sport, a great tool for education and improvement of one’s counting abilities, or merely a game that played and enjoyed by millions? The answer might not be an orthodox one, however, should not be a shocking either. Chess is everything! Most important chess is an art, as the fourth chess world champion Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946) once noticed. Indeed chess is an art of titans, which helps to develop memory, mathematical and analytical skills, sense of responsibility, perseverance, and improves problem-solving, critical thinking, scientific method, and approach.
Chess is an amazing game and sport of beauty, art, and intelligence. Whether one is playing blindfolded, solving chess problems, showing great endurance by playing a 6-hour chess game in a chess tournament or simply playing a pastime easy game with a friend, he or she is exercising and improving memory, math, calculation, analytical skills, and most important critical thinking. So perhaps next time when parents watch their children playing video games, watching Star Wars or something like that, or even playing outside with a baseball, football or basketball, maybe they should consider chess. It won’t hurt!