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Montego Bay - Sports Illustrated. Photo by Toni Frissell, February 18, 1957.

Three Cheers for Chess

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This Saturday, October 14, marks National Chess Day, an annual celebration of a storied game that has found its way into our psyches via multiple avenues, such as from TV’s “The Queen’s Gambit,” through technological innovations, or in depictions of the game as one for all walks of life.

In 1979, U.S. News & World Report featured the Boris Diplomat in their “New Products” series. The Boris Diplomat was a portable chess computer that made it possible to practice the game on the go, no human opponent needed.

A person's hand rests on the buttons of a small device covered in the top right corner with tiny chess pieces.
[Hand on a “Boris Diplomat” electronic computer chessboard]. Photo by Marion S. Trikosko, 14 February 1979.
Photographer Toni Frissell framed this couple wearing stylish leisure clothes around a chessboard laid on an equally stylish sofa. Shot on assignment for Sports Illustrated in 1957, we can imagine the woman’s fixed gaze, trained on the game, behind those spectacular shades.

Two people sit on an armless sofa playing chess on a small game board.
Montego Bay – Sports Illustrated. Photo by Toni Frissell, February 18, 1957.

Thought to have originated in India, chess has traversed the world to become the fixation of tournaments and a streetside fascination for urban players en plein air.

The First American Chess Congress was held in 1857, where the best players competed in a tournament. This image situates the winner, Paul Morphy (seated at the table on the right), and the runner-up, Louis Paulsen (facing Morphy on the left), in a mock staging of their final match.

A group of men gathers around two seated men playing chess.
[First American Chess Congress held in New York City, November 1857]. Salted paper print, 1857.
In this photograph from Carol M. Highsmith, players in San Francisco sit at tables along Market Street and make use of portable chess sets. The two men in the foreground get the shared benefits of sun and mental stimulation.

Two men sit playing chess at a table outdoors. Other players are visible behind them.
Chess players on Market Street in San Francisco. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012.

Though historical images seem to suggest a gentleman’s game—with many featuring furrow-browed men lost in concentration—women, too, have been smitten by chess. And adults aren’t the only ones!

From 1907 to 1920, Eveline Allen Burgess was the reigning U.S. women’s chess champion. In this 1914 portrait for the Bain News Service, Burgess looks off to her right, perhaps contemplating her chess prowess.

Eveline Allen Burgess looks slightly to her right while posing for a photographic portrait.
Mrs. S.R. Burgess. Photo by Bain News Service, 1914 June 24.

In this photograph from 1942, a group of children are gathered around two boys playing chess on a diminutive board. It seems early in the game, as it appears that no pieces have yet been captured.

A group of children stands around a table where two boys are playing a game of chess.
Brooklyn, New York. Red Hook housing project. Boys playing chess at the community center. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1942 June.

While the boundaries of chess continue bending to human ingenuity and advancements in AI chess programs, the essence of the game remains the same—the movement of pieces, through intellect and intuition, around the board to best an equally adept opponent. Something to celebrate, indeed.

Two men sit facing each other at a table inlaid with a chess board and covered with game pieces.
J.H. Smythe Jr. & Whitaker. Photo by Bain News Service, ca. 1915.

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