“The beauty of chess is it can be whatever you want it to be. It transcends language, age, race, religion, politics, gender, and socioeconomic background. Whatever your circumstances, anyone can enjoy a good fight to the death over the chess board.”
— Grandmaster Simon Williams
Only nerds play chess. Chess is for rich or old people. Men are better at chess than women. Chess players are introverted and socially backward. You must have a great memory and a high IQ to be any good at chess. These and other stereotypes discourage the curious from enjoying a game that is as accessible as any board game; promotes critical thinking, problem-solving, concentration, self-control, personal growth, confidence, and sportsmanship; and welcomes everyone of any age. Thanks to the pandemic and a Netflix series, chess enjoys many new fans these days.
Daniel Smith, president of the Columbia Chess Club, believes interest in chess has grown thanks to The Queen’s Gambit, the popular seven-episode Netflix show about Beth Harmon, a doe-eyed orphan and chess prodigy. The show illustrates how anyone from any socioeconomic background can rise to defeat the best players in the world. Daniel’s fellow Columbia Chess Club member and chess master Sam Copeland agrees. “So many people respond to the show,” says Sam. “It captures the psychological drama and does a good job of depicting the world of chess I enjoy.”
Daniel believes the increased interest in chess is also due to the extra time many people have because of the pandemic. “We have more time to invest in things we’ve always wanted to try,” he says. As the pandemic has allowed people to slow down to be able to sit and focus on special interests, many have chosen chess.
Today’s chess fans follow in centuries-old footsteps. Chaturanga, the precursor to chess, is an Indian game dating to 600 A.D. The game spread throughout Asia and into Europe and Africa, with the oldest recorded game mentioned in a 10th century manuscript. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art is home to a 12th century chess set discovered during a 1940s museum excavation near present day Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The popularity of chess grew and became a favorite of monarchs by the 15th century. Over time, boards, board pieces, and rules changed. Significant rule changes occurred in 1475 with the creation of the queen and the bishop. In 1849, an Englishman named Nathaniel Cook designed the chess set used today. It was approved by the reigning champion, Howard Staunton, and is referred to now as the Staunton design.
Chess competition, like the game itself, began long ago. The first official world championship took place in 1886 in the United States. Wilhelm Steinitz emerged victorious. In 1924, representatives of 15 countries met in Paris and established the Fédération Internationale des Échecs, or FIDE, which governs play and has 190 member countries. The FIDE established regular regional and international tournaments. It also created titles for different mastery levels using the Elo system, invented by Arpad Elo. Ranging from novice to super grandmaster, the levels measure the strength of a player based on their performance versus other players. To achieve international grandmaster status, you must lose and win thousands of matches. In addition to achieving an Elo rating of at least 2500, you must participate in three “norm” tournaments. A norm tournament consists of nine rounds with three or more grandmasters present from different countries, and it has a time control of at least 120 minutes. An international arbiter must be present to make rulings, and the player must have a 2600 Elo performance for the tournament. “Only .3 percent of the chess players in the world are grandmasters,” says Daniel. “It is very tough to achieve.”
As of September 2020, the FIDE recognized 1,721 grandmasters in the world. Of those, only 76 live in the United States. The reigning world chess champion is Magnus Carlsen, 30, of Norway, who has held the title since 2013. Known as one of the greatest chess players who has ever lived, he became a grandmaster at 13. That does not mean he cannot be beaten, however. Just recently on Jan. 24, 2021, Magnus was defeated by Andrey Esipenko, an 18-year-old Russian grandmaster. Magnus took the loss with grace. He was also able to laugh at himself, tweeting, “Had a very unpleasant experience at the playing hall today, felt like a swab was being shoved into my nostril and all the way inside my brain, causing a lot of pain. Covid test after the game was not that bad though.”
Fortunately for the tens of millions of other chess players in the world, you do not need to be an international grandmaster to enjoy chess. Sam, founder of Strategery: Chess and Games, loves that of the 1,000 kids Strategery has taught as of this past fall, some may not play competitively throughout their lives, but they have learned a skill that they will have forever. “At age 20 or 30, they will still be able to pick up chess again and play with a friend,” he says.
Daniel also teaches with Strategery, pronounced “stra-TEE-gery.” He loves that chess teaches confidence. Players learn to trust themselves, to be independent, to think independently. They also learn to accept the consequences of their actions. “When their opponent makes a move they don’t expect, they must control their emotions and concentrate on how to get themselves out of it,” says Daniel. “And when they’re winning, their concentration can lag, allowing the opponent to get back in the game. So, they learn that they can’t be overly confident, and when they’re down it’s not always as bad as it seems. These are good lessons they can apply elsewhere in life.”
Chess is a polite game, with rules that enforce civility and sportsmanship. It is customary to greet your opponent politely, shaking hands and introducing yourself. Boasting or taunting is not allowed. In fact, you cannot do anything that might distract your opponent. Tapping the table, exasperated sighs, or asking for or giving advice are all considered distractions and are against the rules. You should not argue with your opponent. Rather, consult with the tournament director or arbiter to resolve the situation. Outside materials such as notes, books, or computers cannot be used.
Even if you do not know anything about chess, most are familiar with the term “checkmate.” Saying “check” to indicate that the king is in danger, is optional, but considered polite, especially when playing with a less experienced opponent. “Checkmate” signals that the game is over. The term is believed to come from the Persian “shāh māt,” shāh meaning king, and māt meaning frozen or dead. Whether a win or a loss, one should react gracefully, thanking your opponent and not gloating after a win. Daniel suggests asking if the person would like to go over the game to discuss the moves so that each can learn.
“You haven’t lived until you’ve played with one of your kids for two or three hours, and then they tell you where you made a mistake,” he says with a laugh. He plays often with his sons, Calvin, 15, and Collin, 12, and his daughter, Cordelia, who is 5. “It’s all about self-improvement, at any age,” he says. Daniel advocates having a sparring partner. His is Bob Halliday. “Bob helped me improve my chess game more than anybody,” says Daniel.
In addition to playing chess, Daniel; his wife, Elizabeth Smith; and their children enjoy traveling to watch chess tournaments. They had the privilege of attending two world championship tournaments. The first was in 2016, when Magnus defeated Sergey Karjakin in New York City. The second was in London in 2018, when they saw Magnus beat Fabiano Caruana.
Sam loves the history of chess, including the fact that it has been played for a thousand years. Games that were played a hundred or more years ago still resonate today. Because each move in a chess game is recorded by the players, you are able to go back and reenact the moves. In Sam’s opinion, the greatest chess players include Garry Kasparov of Azerbaijan, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, and Bobby Fischer of the United States.
Daniel agrees. “All of their games, if you review why they make their moves, help you improve at chess,” he says.
Most people do not know one of Sam’s favorite players, Herman Steiner. Herman did a lot to promote the game of chess in the United States. He also founded the Hollywood Chess Group, frequented by stars such as Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. “He played beautiful chess games and helped found major tournaments,” says Sam.
Daniel’s favorite is José Raúl Capablanca, a Cuban who was world chess champion from 1921 to 1927. “His style made everything look really easy, and he didn’t have the internet to help him learn,” says Daniel. “It’s amazing how accurate he was against contemporaries.” Sam agrees, saying, “Capablanca’s games are frozen in amber. His brilliant ideas resonate through time in a wonderful way.”
Both Sam and Daniel advocate for children learning chess at an early age. Like languages, a person is better able to absorb chess when young. “When I’m first teaching a kid, I ask if they want to learn how a particular piece moves,” says Sam. “Almost always they say yes.” Then, he creates a little puzzle for them, perhaps with a rook and four pawns, and asks them how to capture all four pawns in four moves. “They quickly click into that. They react to the tangible nature of the board.”
As they get into the game, Daniel tells them not to get discouraged when they lose. “Figure out why you lost,” he advises. “There’s always something to be learned. You should learn something from every single game and try not to make the same mistakes.”
When a student wants to improve, Sam advises them, “You can play however you want, seriously or for fun or everywhere in between, but chess will always reward the desire to learn. If you solve more puzzles, you’ll be better and win more games. Practice, solve, and learn. You will get better every single day.”
One young chess player who comes to mind for Sam is his student Charlie Jordan. Charlie, aged 6, is a first grader at River Springs Elementary School who has been playing chess since she was 3 years old. Her father, Brandon Jordan, taught her to play. “I haven’t beat him yet,” says Charlie of her father. “That’s one of my goals.”
Charlie has bested many other players, however. She played in her first state championship at age 4. “I ran out to tell my daddy after I won my first game,” she says. “I was really excited!” Once, at age 5, she played in an all girls’ tournament, which included high school girls. She placed third and got a trophy. Charlie was preschool state champion, kindergarten state champion, and tied for fourth place in the K-third championship. She loves chess because she wins.
“I practice a lot and I play a lot of chess puzzles,” she says. “Chess puzzles are fun because they’re from games played by grandmasters. You have to calculate what you think the right answer is, then you play. If you’re correct, you get to move on to the next one!” In addition to her goal of beating her father, she has other, loftier ones. “I want to beat Coach Sam,” says Charlie. “And also I know it might take a while, but I want to be a grandmaster one day.” Charlie’s enthusiasm for chess is infectious.
Chess is more popular now than it has ever been. “The Queen’s Gambit only boosted interest in the game,” says Sam. “Today millions and millions of people are playing on Chess.com. That’s two to three times the number that were playing at the beginning of 2020. Adults are getting back into the game or learning for the first time.” While ordinarily the Columbia Chess Club meets on Thursdays at Fireflies Toys & Games on St. Andrews Road, the club is playing online during the pandemic. Other online options Daniel recommends include Chess.com, Lichess, Chessable, and Chess24. Chesskid.com, a sister website to Chess.com, has added security features that allow kids to play safely online.
“It’s wonderful to see a game with such a history still enjoyed today and to see it reach new audiences,” says Sam. Regardless of how or where one plays, be prepared to be enchanted. “Chess is such a rich game,” says Daniel. “It will draw you in.”