Check Mate


My father taught me how to play chess when I was seven years old.  He had a beautiful heavy wooden chess board and I loved taking the magical pieces out of their velvet-covered black box. In the beginning, I know he let me win to give me some success and enjoyment; but I also know that later on, I did start to win by my own skill.

Chess is a game of strategy and analytical thinking. One must think always ahead in order to be successful. It also involves and is founded on a number of mathematical concepts. I believe, as do many others, that it has a powerful influence on the development of reasoning and critical thinking skills. As David Shenk observes in his book, The Immortal Game: a History of Chess, the evidence of the far-reaching power of chess is evident in the ardency of, “the determination of its orthodox enemies to stamp it out- as long ago as a ruling in 655 by Caliph Ali Ben Abu-Talib (the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law), and as recently as decrees by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1981, the Taliban in 1996, and the Iraqi clergy in post-Saddam Iraq”.

According to the United States Chess Federation, the game originated in India around 600 A.D., then called Chataruna, and made its way to Europe by 1000 A.D.  By 1500, chess underwent a transformation into the form we are all familiar with including the shift to making the Queen, who had previously been the weakest piece, the most powerful piece on the board … something I find quite fascinating from a socio-political standpoint! The bishop also developed into the long-range piece that we all play today.

Benjamin Franklin also praised chess for its social and political benefits. Chess remained a popular interest in the United States for many years but surged with interest in the early 1970s due to the success of American chess prodigy, and currently the only American World Chess Champion, Bobby Fischer.

I hope chess sees a resurgence of interest. I find it to be a wonderful and fascinating game. If you are already a chess player or interested in getting started, check out the chess resources here at OWL:

The newly published biography, Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness by Frank Brady, examines the complexity of Bobby Fischer from his humble beginnings to his superstardom. Believed to be the most famous person in the world at one point, he then vanished at the height of his fame refusing million-dollar endorsements but the unusual nature of his life and decisions don’t stop there. This is a fascinating, fast-paced read!

The U.S. Chess Federation’s Official Rules of Chess compiled by the U.S. Chess Federation will answer any rule question you have on chess and get you started playing if you are new to the game.

In The Kings of New York, author Michael Weinreb follows for one  year America’s top high school chess team from the Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn. From the geniuses to the oddballs, Weinreb follows the team from practices to tournaments uncovering the personalities that make up the team and the history of chess along the way.

As I mentioned earlier, The Immortal Game: a History of Chess by David Shenk looks at the history of chess and examines, “how 32 carved pieces on a board illuminated our understanding of war, art, science and the human brain”.

Harold Schonberg in his classic Grandmasters of Chess looks at the men who altered the game in significant ways. Schonberg says that what makes a good chess player are “vast memory, imagination, intuition, technique, a healthy body, relative youth, a high degree of visual imagery, and the unyielding determination to win…”

And who can resist chess as a theme for fictional writing? Not two of my favorite fictional detectives, Columbo and Nero Wolfe!

In the second season of Columbo, Laurence Harvey plays a chess player who murders his opponent in order to keep his chess title in The Most Dangerous Match. As always, Columbo delivers with a riveting mystery that hooks you in immediately and keeps you there with each “Uh, one more thing”.

Rex Stout, my favorite author, uses chess as a backdrop to his superbly written and page-turning mystery Gambit, starring private detectives Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Originally published in 1962, Wolfe takes on a case to clear a man accused of poisoning the top chess player during a multiple-board chess match.  The title refers to a strategy in chess, called a gambit, wherein a minor piece, or pieces, usually a pawn, is offered in exchange for a favorable position. It’s a wonderful book!

~Ann Marie

Ann Marie is the Library Director for the Oliver Wolcott Library and someone who enjoys the quiet intellectual challenge of a good board game.

One thought on “Check Mate

  1. What I like about chess is that it is a game that can be played over many days, with the board set up in a corner of the house, waiting the next player’s turn. And I did love Gambit and The Most Dangerous Match!

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