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Neatolicious Fun Facts: Chess

Do you call that a game? Ha! Ha! No, thankee; life's too short for chess - Henry James Byron, in Our Boys (1875)

English playwright Henry James Byron's character aside, who doesn't love chess? Though Garry Kasparov once mentioned that "chess is mental torture," we'll keep this list of neatolicious facts about chess a fun read:

1. Chaturanga: the grandaddy of chess


The Hindu deity Krishna and his consort Radha playing chaturanga

Though there are various schools of thought, the version that is accepted by most as the forefather of chess is the 6th century Indian game of chaturanga (Sanskrit for "four divisions of military"). The name came from the battle formation of an army platoon: infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots - represented in the chess pieces of pawn, knight, bishop, and rook.

The game came to Persia in the 7th century and was renamed chatrang then shatranj. There, players started calling "Shah!" (Persian for "King!") when attacking the opponent's king, and "Shah mat!" (Persian for "the king is finished!") when they win. From these words, we get the words for "check" and "checkmate."

You can still play chaturanga, or a four-player chaturanga, if you want.

2. The Turk: 18th Century Chess-Playing Machine

In 1770, Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen created The Turk, a chess-playing automaton to impress the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. And impressive it was: The life-size "Turk" sat on top of a large cabinet with doors that opened to reveal complicated gears and cogs. Its mechanical hand would move the chess pieces as it played and it would even make various facial expressions.

The Turk was a chess genius: it beat skilled and "celebrity" opponents alike (even Benjamin Franklin played against The Turk when he was serving as the US ambassador to France, as well as Napoleon Bonaparte). It could also do complicated chess puzzles like the knight's tour (where the knight is moved around the chessboard, touching each square once and only once along the way).

After the Turk was lost in a fire, it was revealed that the whole thing was a hoax: a human chess master was inside the Turk directing its every move. Kempelen had even built in a sliding seat that allowed the man to avoid detection as the various doors are opened to reveal the fake machineries.

Link: Mechanical Turk: The True Story of the Chess Playing Machine That Fooled the World

3. Shannon number: the possible number of moves in chess

In 1950, information theorist Claude Shannon of Bell Telephone Laboratories wanted to find out whether a computer could be programmed to play chess.

He calculated the number of possible moves* in chess to be 10120, which became known as the Shannon number. By the way, that's more than the number of all atoms in the universe (estimated between 4x 1079 and 1081).

Shannon wrote that "a machine operating at the rate of one variation per micro-second would require over 1090 years to calculate the first move!" (Source)

*If you want to be technical, the number of possible positions after fifty-move rule is "just" 1043.

4. The shortest and longest games of chess

The quickest possible checkmate is called the Fool's mate or the two-move checkmate. It never happens in a real chess game, except with a really weak opponent (i.e. when playing a fool).

Though technically forfeits are games won with zero moves and there have been games drawn without any moves, the shortest recorded chess game was between German grandmaster Robert Hübner and then 19-year-old Kenneth Rogoff playing in the 1972 World Student Team Championship game. Hübner played one move and offered a draw to Rogoff, who accepted (as the story went, the arbiters insisted that some moves be played so the duo played a few non-sensical moves instead!). Rogoff, by the way, went on to become a Professor of Public Policy and Economics at Harvard University.

The longest game of chess (under modern time rule) was played by Ivan Nikolic and Goran Arsovic in Belgrade in 1989. The duo played for 20 hours and 15 minutes, ending in 269-move draw.

5. Simul: playing chess against multiple opponents at a time

Some people are so good at chess, they can play against more than one opponent at a given time. In 1922, World Champion José Raúl Capablanca played 103 opponents simultaneously and won 102 of the games (with 1 draw).

Some people are very good at chess, but not so good at simul. In 1951, International Master Robert Wade played 30 Russian schoolboys aged 14 and under - and lost 20 games and drawn the remaining 10!

The world record for simultaneous chess exhibition (or "simul" as chess lovers often call it) was just set in 2009 by Bulgarian Grandmaster Kiril Georgiev. He played 360 games for more than 14 hours. He won 284 games, drawn 70 and lost 6 games.

The neatest world record for simultaneous chess, hands down, was set by George "Kolty" Koltanowski in Edinburgh in 1937. He played 34 chess games simultaneously ... while blindfolded! He won 24 games and lost 10 over a period of 13 hours. In 1960, Koltanowski did one better: he played 56 chess games blindfolded (with only 10 seconds a move) ... and won 50 and drew 6! After the games were over, he could recite the complete moves from memory.

His wife Leah once said this about her husband's prodigious chess memory: "I don't know how he does it. He can't even remember to bring home a loaf of bread from the supermarket." (Source)

(Photo: Cleveland Public Library)

6. Why must I lose to this idiot?

Chess grandmaster and writer Aron Nimzowitsch, who has been called "perhaps the most brilliant theoretician and teacher in the history of the game," (he was a leading proponent of the hypermodern school of chess) liked to stand on his head and once broke a leg in a tournament.

When he learned that he had lost a chess game to Friedrich Saemisch, Nimzowitsch jumped up on the table and yelled "Why must I lose to this idiot?"

Incidentally, Nimzowitsch also carried around a card that proclaimed him to be "Candidate for the World Championship of Chess and Crown Prince of the Chess World." (Source)

7. Chess Boxing

Garry Kasparov once famously said that "chess is mental torture," so perhaps it's only natural that someone decided to connect it with physical torture. In 1992, cartoonist Enki Bilal thought of the idea of combining chess with boxing for his comic book Froid Equateur.

In 2001, Dutch artist Iepe Rubingh decided to bring chess boxing to reality. In Rubingh's version, opponents alternate between playing rounds of chess and boxing. While the idea is a bit strange, chess boxing has grown into a somewhat popular sport. It even has a governing body, the World Chess Boxing organization (motto: "Fighting is done in the ring and wars are waged on the board.") and world championship games (the first one in 2003 was won by Rubingh himself).

Both players have to be skilled at chess and boxing as you can either win by checkmate or knockout.

Here's a clip of Iepe the Joker vs. Luis the Lawyer at the very first world chess boxing championship in Amsterdam:


[YouTube Clip, fun starts at 1:40 | Here's part 2]

8. Bobby Fisher: the greatest - and craziest - chess player that ever lived


17-year-old Bobby Fisher playing against world champion Mikhail Tal in 1960.

Bobby Fisher is considered by many to be one of the greatest players (if not the greatest) in the history of chess. And while there's no denying that the man's brilliant (he became the youngest-ever junior champion at the age of 13 and a grandmaster at 15), what made Bobby Fisher fascinating was his craziness and paranoia.

Rene Chun of The Atlantic wrote an interesting article titled Bobby Fisher's Pathetic Endgame that offers a glimpse into the strange (and sad) world of the chess genius:

In 1977, after a bitter falling-out that led Fischer to claim that the [Worldwide Church of God] was taking its orders from a "satanical secret world government," he cut all ties with the Church. Then he crawled even further into his own netherworld. He began dressing like a hobo. He took up residence in seedy hotels. He began worrying about the purity of his bodily fluids. He bought great quantities of exotic herbal potions, which he carried in a suitcase, to stave off the toxins he feared might be secretly put in his food and water by Soviet agents. According to a 1985 article in Sports Illustrated, Fischer medicated himself with such esoteric remedies as Mexican rattlesnake pills ("good for general health") and Chinese healthy-brain pills ("good for headaches"). His suitcase also contained a large orange-juice squeezer and lots and lots of vitamins. He always kept the suitcase locked, even when he was staying with friends. "If the Commies come to poison me, I don't want to make it easy for them," he explained to a friend. Perhaps the most telling sign of his rapid mental deterioration was that he insisted on having all his dental fillings removed. "If somebody took a filling out and put in an electronic device, he could influence your thinking," Fischer confided to a friend. "I don't want anything artificial in my head."

9. Star Trek Tri-D Chess

Amongst the many chess variants out there, the most famous is probably the three-dimensional chess or Tri-D chess seen in Star Trek TV episodes and movies.

The original Star Trek prop was cobbled using boards from 3-D checkers and 3-D tic tac toe. The rules of the game was never explained in the storyline (beyond the famous "Queen to Queen's Level Three" line by Scottie for transporter clearance in TOS: Whom Gods Destroy), but in 1976, programmer and Star Trek fan Andrew Bartmess developed what is now the standard rules for playing Tri-D chess.

For more chess variants, check out The Chess Variant Pages

10. Man vs. Machine: Deep Blue Beat World Champion Garry Kasparov

It had been the dream of computer scientists everywhere to program a chess-playing computer that could win against a human chess genius. In 1985, doctoral students Feng-hsiung Hsu, Murray Campbell and Thomas Anantharaman came up with a computer that evolved into Deep Thought, the first chess-playing computer of a serious caliber. (Yes, it was named after the computer in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker Guide to the Galaxy - the very same on that returned "42" as the answer to life, the universe, and everything).

Deep Thought evolved further into Deep Blue, a massively parallel, RS/6000 SP-based IBM computer system. And on February 10, 1996, it happened: Deep Blue defeated the reigning world champion Garry Kasparov in a chess game. Kasparov bounced back and won the next 3 games and drawn the remaining two, thus beating the machine.

But victory for humans didn't last long. In 1997, an upgraded Deep Blue (nicknamed "Deeper Blue") with a capability of evaluating 200 million positions per second (vs 3 chess positions per second for its opponent), defeated Kasparov 3½–2½ in a rematch. Kasparov, however, maintained that IBM cheated and demanded another rematch. IBM, however, declined and dismantled Deep Blue.


Phew, C is done! I'm sure there's a lot more fun facts about chess, so if you know of any, please add them to the comments. And what shall we do for "D"?

See also our previous Neatolicious Fun Facts: Apple, and Beer.


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It is amazing how often people who dress the set for movies don't know how to properly set up a chess board. (Black square in the top right). It would be really cool to see an article on all the film scenes that got it wrong.
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Bobby Fischer and Anatoly Karpov are actually the subject of a musical written in the 70s, by Tim Rice and a member of ABBA. It's just called 'Chess' and is a wonderful show.

More trivia!
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