From a cold war battle ground, to the hustlers of Washington square park, the game of chess has always been marvelled upon by the masses. With more than 600 million global players, ‘The Game of Kings’ has identified some of the world’s greatest minds.
The game was invented 1500 years ago in Asia and spread throughout Persia after the Arab conquest. ‘Checkmate’, which is the term announced when the game is over, comes from the Arab phrase, ‘shah-mat’, meaning the King is dead. The goal of capturing the opponents King then spread to Europe where it was exclusive to noblemen and the aristocracy. Peter Alfonsi, who was a 12th Century logician, suggested that good knowledge of the game was an essential facet of a strong Knight’s character.
The game was predominantly considered a royal pastime until the mid-19th century. The first recorded chess tournament was held in London in 1851, where German Adolf Anderssen took 1st place. This event was the catalyst for the departure of, ‘The Romantic Era’, where games were played quickly with little tactical consideration. A new breed of player started to emerge. Paul Morphy, who is considered one of the greatest minds of all time would play 8 opponents simultaneously, while blindfolded, beating them all. He was an eccentric man who developed chronic paranoia, but his ability to destroy his opponents only fuelled public interest towards him. He died from a stroke in 1884 aged 47.
Fast forward 100 years to the cold war. The geopolitical tension between democratic Western countries and communist Eastern countries was palpable. From the Korean war, to the space race, to the Cuban missile crisis, the pursuit of dominance between the east and the west was illustrated perfectly in 1972 in Reykjavik. The final of the chess world championships featured defending champion, Russian Grandmaster Boris Spassky, and new contender, American Bobby Fischer.
The pair were perhaps the greatest intellectuals their countries had to offer, the victor would surely be a national hero, given the political climate. The USSR had monopolized the game, winning each championship from 1948. Spassky was favoured to win over Fischer, who studied the game in solitude. It was dubbed, ‘The Match of the Century’. Spassky won the first two games after Fischer failed to show up for the second game. The format was best of 21 matches. Fischer would ultimately win 12.5 games to 8.5 games, bringing intellectual glory to the West. “It was Bobby Fischer who had, single-handedly, made the world recognize that chess on its highest level was as competitive as football, as thrilling as a duel to the death, as aesthetically satisfying as a fine work of art, as intellectually demanding as any form of human activity,” said New York Times columnist Harold C. Schon. Fischer’s genius eventually led to him to mental illness. He died aged 64 in 2008.
The intellectual battleground of chess has been fostered by just under 10% of the world’s population. The modern game is played predominantly online and is now taught in schools in countries such as Norway, Armenia and The United States, as knowledge of the game is related to the improvement of cognitive ability and problem solving. The game is now being played by people from all walks of life. From elite businessmen playing in high stakes online tournaments, to homeless people playing in city parks, the beauty of chess finds common ground for all. With more potential moves than atoms in the observable universe, it’s no wonder why chess has remained one of the world’s favourite pastimes.