‘Who knew?” That’s the phrase I used over and over as I toured the World Chess Hall of Fame. I spent about an hour walking around the three story museum that was once a private residence in the Central West End neighborhood near Forest Park in Saint Louis, Missouri.
Some estimates put the number of Chess players worldwide at over 600 million. Of course, there’s no way to actually prove that. It’s not as though you’re required to carry a card in your wallet if you play. However it’s not surprising if that number is accurate. Just in the few days I’ve worked on this piece – I’ve had friends and co-workers admit that they are “closeted” Chess players – and I’d have never guessed.
One of the rewarding parts of doing a website like this is learning about misconceptions people have about any number of topics. For example, a trip to the National Quilt Museum last Fall gave me a completely different point of view on people that quilt. Visits to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and NASCAR Hall of Fame changed my mind about people that drive race cars and the fans that watch them. The game of Chess and the people that love it are in a constant battle against those that are simply too stubborn to learn what it’s all about.
As I began my afternoon of Chess across the street at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, I reminded the staff more than once that I knew nothing about the game. And yes, the club by some alignment of the stars coincidence is located directly across the street from the Hall of Fame. (The club was actually there first for anyone keeping score at home.)
Starting with a blank slate in terms of what I knew, it was intriguing to learn some Chess history and discover just how long it’s been around. Most experts will tell you Chess has been around since at least 650 AD in some form, maybe earlier. More than once, I was told that you can learn to play in about 5 minutes. That completely stunned me as I always assumed learning to play Chess would be like learning a new language or how to play an instrument. Turns out I can be musically inept and barely speak my native language and still – even I could learn the game of Chess.
It also turns out that Chess is still a big deal. While ESPN may not provide wall to wall coverage of matches around the world – it’s easy to find coverage on the internet and thousands of people tune in to watch. The U.S. National Chess Championship is held in Saint Louis and both the club and Hall of Fame attract worldwide attention from top notch players and fans.
First opened in 2008, the Chess Club in Saint Louis offers affordable memberships to a wide variety of players that can show up and play games against anyone of any age. During my visit – young girls were on the third floor of this renovated 1897 building playing what appeared to be an intense yet friendly match-up. A dozen people looked on as the two girls quickly moved their pieces around the board. I still have no idea what the hell was going on – but I couldn’t stop watching. Age, race, skill level – none of it matters as all are welcome here and all types do in fact show up.
Chess may have hit its peak a half decade ago during the era of Bobby Fischer. Fischer, who coincidentally grew up here in Saint Louis was known as a brilliant competitor and what we might call in today’s lingo: a massive diva. During my visit, the World Chess Hall of Fame was set to unveil a new exhibit about the life of Bobby Fischer. His notes, his books, even one of his chess boards were part of a collection of artifacts paying tribute to the greatest Chess player of all time. It’s a fascinating tale of a man that was incredibly smart while also incredibly difficult. Several films have been made to feature this complicated character including a 2011 documentary called Bobby Fischer Against the World . A 2014 film starring Tobey McGuire called Pawn Sacrifice will tell the story of a legendary match-up against Russian Chess star Boris Spassky.
So what does someone get out of visiting either of these two institutions if you don’t play Chess? For starters – it’s never too late to learn. The Chess Club of Saint Louis for example, offers classes and even tournaments for starters. Much like poker, players of all skill levels can enter tournaments to compete against one another for prizes. If you are a fan of art – the Chess Hall of Fame has some very worthwhile displays and an award winning gift shop to boot. The people running both of these places couldn’t have been nicer and without a doubt – eroded any stereotype about Chess players I may have had walking in the front door.
If nothing else – swing by and have your photo taken at the World’s Tallest Chess Piece. It’s no surprise that the piece is a “King” that stands 14.5 feet tall and weighs 2,280 pounds.