When The Whole World Hated Chess

“Life’s too short for chess.” —Henry James Byron, Our Boys

In A Nutshell

Today, chess is one of those games that is reserved for those with the intellectual capacity to be able to handle the complicated nuances of the game. It’s math, it’s memorization, it’s strategy—all things that a lot of people don’t look for in a board game that, in the end, is as much effort as it is fun. That wasn’t always the case, though, and both the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church once condemned chess. In the mid-19th century, Scientific American also issued their official statement on the matter: It was a waste of time, and people would be much better off using their time to go dancing or getting some exercise.

The Whole Bushel

One of the curses of getting older is the ability to look back at the younger generation and condemn whatever new craze is gripping their minds as a waste of time and energy that can only lead to bad, bad things. We’ve seen it perhaps most recently with the condemnation of violent video games. Well, it turns out that Grand Theft Auto has a lot more in common with chess than you might think.

In 1061, the Bishop of Ostia wrote a pretty scathing letter to Pope Alexander II in which he condemned the heinous, mind-blowingly sinful actions of a bishop of Florence. The accused bishop had committed the ghastly sin of spending a (presumably) quiet night in, playing chess.

Clearly, such a scandalous situation required immediate rectification, and chess was added to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, just to make it clear that playing chess wasn’t something that the Church allowed.

The Russian Orthodox Church was also pretty strict in its anti-chess stance, mostly because it could be seen as a form of gambling. In addition to wagering on who was going to win the game, there was also a popular variant of chess that required the rolling of dice to be done in order to determine which piece was going to be moved next. Church officials found playing chess were dismissed in disgrace, even though it was popular pretty much everywhere else.

And it wasn’t just the church that was pretty dead set against chess—at one point, the scientific community had a beef with the game, too.

In the middle of the 19th century, Europe and America was being swept with something of a chess fever. In part, it was encouraged by the popularity of the game with America’s founding fathers, and in part it was due to the massively impressive victories won by an American player in Europe.

And Scientific American was having none of it.

In 1859, they ran an article denouncing chess as the downfall of young minds and bodies that they firmly thought that it was. They apologized for the participation of some of their own scientists in this senseless waste of time, condemning its popularity as a sure sign that the nation was on the verge of an intellectual decline. Clearly, chess was not as dependent on intellect as was thought, as Napoleon often got beat by a grocer and men like Shakespeare and Milton certainly never stooped so low as to waste their valuable intellects playing chess.

Those that rose to the top of the chess world, the magazine says, certainly had a gift for it—and were usually lacking in other ways, quite ordinary at best. There was no point to chess, no redeeming factors, and those that play it would be better off getting out and getting some fresh air. They suggest that rather than playing chess, people should walk in the woods, go dancing, or try some gymnastics, because not only is chess a massive waste of time, but being good at it shouldn’t be considered anything approaching a useful skill or anything to brag about. How times have changed.

Show Me The Proof

Scientific American: Vol. 1—No. 1
The Merels Board Enigma, by Marisa Uberti
The Culture of Russian Chess
Smithsonian: 19th Century Concern Trolling: Chess Is “a Mere Amusement of a Very Inferior Character”