Friday, August 16, 2013

Chess by Radio

For reasons unknown, playing chess over the radio was a dream of early radio men, and has become a tradition ever since. This probably has roots in the much older tradition of playing chess games by mail. The website Chesshistory.com notes some highlights here. In 1946 there even was a set of cold war inspired British Vs. Soviet chess matches by radio [source]. These followed a less publicized set of USA Vs. Soviet chess matches by radio in 1945. These were so significant that Ernst Klein recorded the event in a book, The Anglo-Soviet Radio Chess Match in 1947. That huge East Vs. West radio chess match was followed by hundreds of small ones, and many at colleges and universities including a radio match between the Denver Chess Club and the Pueblo Chess Clubs. Chess Life & Review Magazine stated in 1974 "...this year radio matches have really arrived on the campus."

So let's begin at the beginning. Chess was played by telegraph on December 5th, 1844. That source on that early date is none other than a letter from Samuel Morse to lawyer Louis McLanec. The players were selected from competing chess clubs to represent their respective cities of  Washington D.C and Baltimore. A total of seven games were played and Washington emerging victorious. This was followed by a British chess match over telegraph in 1845 between Howard Staunton and a Professor Wheatstone.  In 1858 they intended to repeat their publicity event over the transatlantic cable but the cable failed and was not replaced until 1866. It's popularity was such that in 1890 Edwyn Anthony wrote a telegraphic chess code to ease move transmission. [source] Games such as these were played by telegraph until the early 1930s. The book Chess and Machine Intuition by George Atkinson is a great source on this topic. More here.

It's easy in this era to find news of chess lessons, chess news on the radio but chess games were still more common on the telegraph. In 1923 British Chess Magazine praises the reading of a paper on chess strategy with the sentence "This is the first occasion in the history of chess that the medium of broadcasting has been used to popularize the subject." It may or may not have been the first but it was certainly very early. The Steinitz Papers record a similar broadcast on 'North German Radio' in 1925. But between these two events was the broadcast of an actual chess match on American college radio. It is almost certainly the first radio broadcast of a chess match.

1150 WABQ-AM was the station of  the Haverford College Radio Club. The club had only of 15 members, but managed to communicate by radio with students as far afield as London. A 1924 issue of the Haverford College Record even described a Radio Club's chess match with the College of the City of New York, as the "first intercollegiate game." While that may be a bald assertion, the early date gives the claim significant credence.  More here. The radio chess continued, and peaked possibly as late as the early 1970s. The Ham-oriented magazine Amateur Radio, continued to record similar but less notable chess events as late as 1985.