Back in the early nineties, I became obsessed with chess. As a young child, I dreamed of becoming a grand-master (the highest accolade in the game), and then, ruling the world. Which is crazy, but that’s how my child-like brain worked. Although my dreams of world-domination would thankfully recede in adulthood, chess would remain a deeply fascinating sport.
And yes, chess is a sport. It doesn’t sit neatly within the Oxford Dictionary definition of sport, but it’s still a sport nonetheless. Or at the very least, it’s a mind sport (which sounds like something Spock would probably play in his spare time). The physicality of the game might be non-existent compared to more traditional sports, but the mental challenges posed by it are just as exhausting and challenging. Especially when you’re playing a person who doesn’t know how the rules…
Chess might appear to be a simple board game to those who don’t play it. But over time, the game has managed to transcend its board game roots to become a complex “sport of kings”. The earliest recorded form of chess was a 6th-century Indian game called chaturanga. Largely similar to the look of the game today, except you had elephants instead of bishops (there’s a joke about religion in there somewhere), it was a game based on military strategy. And such tactical, war-like thinking, became closely associated with chess throughout modern history.
The Soviet Union would use chess as a political pawn during the Cold War, as their chess players conquered the chequered-shaped world that lay before them. Every chess champion throughout this era was a comrade of the Union, and that riled the US government no end until an American named Bobby Fischer flipped the script that is. His win in 1972 against world champion Boris Spassky would propel the sport of chess into the public eye, more so than ever before.
Dubbed ‘the match of the century’, it came to epitomise the political tensions of the time, and a US victor was considered an ideological triumph for the west over communism. Millions of Americans celebrated by shouting “USA! USA!” at their TV sets, whilst waving little miniature flags with ‘chess’ and ‘capitalism’ written on them. At least, that’s how we’d like to imagine they celebrated anyway.
No longer just a fringe sport or a board game, chess was now considered a mainstream sporting event. During the nineties, legends like Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short became unexpected household names. The 1993 world final between the pair would even be televised live to an audience of millions on Channel 4. Chess was on the crest of a beautiful wave of popularity, but soon, the wave finally broke and rolled back.
As the new millennium approached, chess would disappear from our screens. With the end of the Cold War, the elements of political intrigue that helped propel its popularity in the decades before had now vanished from the sport. And the advent of new technology presented more problems for its popularity.
In 1997, Kasparov (the reigning world champion) lost to IBM’s Deep Blue computer. This wasn’t just a defeat for Kasparov though, it was a defeat for the sport itself. Because if a well-coded computer program could emerge victoriously, how might this belittle the achievements of the game’s real-life competitors? Imagine if the digital players in FIFA were able to play real football, and then beat their reality-based counterparts. The unique skills of Ronaldo and Messi would suddenly seem a lot less unique or special.
Chess appears to have fallen out of favour in modern culture, but the game hasn’t disappeared completely. Far from it, as a survey in 2012 revealed that over 6 million people in the UK still play chess and more than half are aged 18-34. This shouldn’t be too surprising though, as despite its absence as a mainstream sport, chess has always remained a part of the zeitgeist.
Today, more than ever, the tactical nuance of the game has found itself front and centre of popular culture. The plots of Game of Thrones and House of Cards play out like delicately poised chess matches. The nefarious plotting and devious sacrifices are what makes these shows so popular. And they’re all traits that are born from chess – the definitive “sport of kings”.