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A Brief History of Chess

I come from a family of game players. Every Christmas, Santa would bring us a new board game. One summer of my adolescence, the four of us spent practically every evening on the deck playing penny poker. Life didn't change that much when I went to college. “Game nights” were always a great excuse to have a gathering, whether it was an organized Bunco tournament or an impromptu round of Speed Scrabble.  But one game that never held my interest was chess.

Chess Chess: a game of strategy.

The primary reason I’ve avoided playing the game is probably the primary reason why many chess aficionados have such a fondness for the activity: it’s a game of strategy. That’s all chess is. Give me a game of trivia, where my useless knowledge of Academy Award winning movies will finally come in handy. I’ll even play games of chance, like Monopoly or Yahtzee, although whether I win or lose is of little concern (no one gets bragging rights in a game where the winner is determined by a roll of the dice). But chess…chess is a game about thinking ahead, about anticipating. And there are just other things I’d care to think about.

Such as…what makes chess the cultural phenomenon that it is?

In his book, The Immortal Game, David Shenk retells a myth about the origins of the game in a story featuring two Indian kings. The first king has his sage create a game symbolizing man’s dependence on destiny and fate, and a dice-based predecessor to backgammon is the result. The second king wanted a game “which would embrace his belief in free will and intelligence.” Thus, chess was born.

"The Immortal Game" David Shenk examines the global significance of chess.

This is just one of hundreds of myths handed down to describe the game’s origin (its creation has been attributed to the ancient mathematician Pythagoras, the Greek warrior Palamedes, and the Hebrew prophet Moses, just to name a few). The game that we now call chess probably began in fifth century Persia. It travelled across continents and through the ages, undergoing a few makeovers along the way; the modern version of chess was established in southern Europe during the fifteenth century. But the influence of chess in such diverse cultures and its ability to describe issues of war, art, math, and philosophy on the game board has remained intact.*

The actually rules of chess are less complicated than I had previously supposed. The set up is simply two players, a board with 64 squares of alternating colors (“light squares” and “dark squares”) and sixteen pieces for each player’s “army.” The ultimate goal of chess is to capture your opponent’s king. The players take turns moving their pieces and each piece has specific moves that it can or cannot make. There are a few special moves, but once you figure out what all your options are, chess becomes a game of learning strategies and tactics to defeat your opponent. 

As "chess mom" Joanna Nesbit has described, chess is a great game to get kids thinking critically and logically. Just as the ancient wise men of Persia used chess to teach philosophy, economics and even love, chess can teach life lessons to kids, whether they’re competing in tournaments or just playing for fun.

"The Kids' Book of Chess" This "how-to" book for beginners comes with a chess set.

David Macenulty has a series of books that focus on teaching tactics and strategies to kids, and The Kids’ Book of Chess is an illustrated book of rules, strategy and the history of chess. Many of these and other books about chess for kids are available through the Whatcom County Library System. And if your child would like to get involved with local youth chess tournaments, visit Northwest Washington Scholastic Chess.

As for me, despite its fabled history and noble intentions, I’d still rather read about chess than play it. But you go ahead and play without me. I’ll just keep myself entertained with a musical about the World Chess Championship and “Searching for Bobby Fischer.”

*Chess history and myths from The Immortal Game, Chapter 1

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Chess Season in the Northwest

Chess Season in the Northwest A chess tournament in Lynden, WA.

You might not be aware of this, but we are in the middle of chess tournament season. Yep, chess has a season, too. From November to April, you can find a number of tournaments in our area that will culminate with the state tournament, to be held this year in Redmond on April 26, 2008.

My eight-year-old son, Ty, plays chess and has become something of a regular at local tournaments. His first tourney was last year’s Lynden tournament, held at the Northwest Washington Fairgrounds in January. We heard about the tournament from an older boy at Ty’s school who also plays chess and thought Ty might be interested.

When my husband and I proposed the tournament to Ty, we were not so much interested in the competition as much as the possibility of Ty playing someone besides us. Anyone. Ty fell in love with chess at age four and has been playing us (mostly Dad now) ever since. At one point, he and I played every day.

Courtesy of Chess fun for the whole family. (Photo courtesy of

But kids don’t have to have played chess for years to go to a tournament. They do need to know the rules, of course, but the local tournaments welcome and encourage all levels. Kids are placed in brackets according to age, sometimes as narrow as K-1, 2-3, and so on, sometimes as broad as K-4 and on up. Whatcom and Skagit County offer competitions for kids in grades K-12, with all-ages tournaments occurring approximately every two weeks in locations such as Sedro-Woolley, Lynden, Ferndale, and Bellingham.

At first glance, tournaments might seem overwhelming, but they’re family-friendly and welcoming to siblings who don’t play chess themselves. Some venues provide extra fun, such as a climbing wall, for between chess matches. The general atmosphere is festive and casual. Over this last year, Ty has befriended a number of kids his age, and he looks forward to seeing them when he signs up to play.

Ty’s knowledge of chess has taken a leap as a result of tournaments. He’s comfortable with tournament rules, and he’s learning some formal strategies, but more importantly, he has found a community of kids who love chess just as much as he does.

Do you have a child who loves to play chess? But how do you know if they are ready for a tournament? See Joanna's thoughts on the subject in Considerations Before Competing.

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International Celebrations at the WCM

Remember when you were a kid and you started to understand that there was a big world outside your neighborhood, your school, your town? That there were kids who lived millions of miles away, and when you had to go to bed at night, they were waking up for the start of a new day? I remember learning that and being in awe of the bigness of the world.

International Celebrations at the WCMKids can explore the world without leaving Bellingham.

The Whatcom Children’s Museum helps bring such global awareness to kids and their parents in a series known as International Celebrations. Museum employees organize four "parties" throughout the year, all focusing on a different country and/or culture that kids in Bellingham might not know much about.

“When we pick out a place or culture, we like to emphasize what life is like for children in that country because the kids can see all the differences and similarities between their own lives and the lives of children around the world,” Bev Wiltshire, Operations Manager at the WCM, said when I asked her about these special activities.

As with any festive event, food is a key ingredient in the International Celebrations; each event features a traditional food from that country. “Memories are evoked from food, and when kids try a new food, they’ll associate the taste and smell with a certain place," Bev explained. "This will help them to learn about and remember the places we’re celebrating. The snacks are a bit exotic for kids, but it’s usually something they’ll try at least once.”

Museum activities also include craft projects and music, sometimes by live entertainment. Parents get a packet of information about the country to take so kids can continue to learn about different parts of the world at home. The activities are always free and museum admission is often waived as well. “It’s a special gift that we like to do for museum visitors and supporters,” Bev told me.

There are lots of different ways that the Museum staff chooses locations to celebrate. “Bellingham has four sister cities, so sometimes we have contacts in those places that can help us with a special feature for the activity,” Bev said. In fall of 2007, the WCM organized a celebration in recognition of our sister city, Punta Arenas, Chile.

Ancient Egypt Pyramids, pharaohs and the Sphinx…the WCM celebrates cultures across space and time.

They also take suggestions and accept help from Museum patrons in planning celebrations. “It’s great if someone has a background in a country or culture so they can help us with ideas for the event,” Bev said. In helping to prepare a celebration of the Emerald Isle, a native of Ireland informed museum employees that corned beef and cabbage is not a common dish in Ireland; serving this meal on St. Patrick’s Day is only a tradition of Irish immigrants to North America and their descendents. “That’s why we enjoy these activities,” Bev said with a laugh. “Even the adults get to keep learning.”

The first International Celebration of 2008 was a little different this time around, as the Museum traveled back in time to the mysterious world of Ancient Egypt. Whether looking at the past or present, the idea for these activities is always the same. “We just want to share cultures with kids that they don’t know about. And ones that we can learn about too,” Bev added.

Contact the Whatcom Children’s Museum if you have a suggestion for an International Celebration location, or if you’d like more information about activities at the Museum.

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