The World Chess Hall of Fame: A World Record-Breaking Museum
St. Louis is a city where it can be hard to stand out with its many sports teams, museums, and attractions. But one unique exhibit looks at the players, history, and art of humanity’s 1400-year-old pastime, the game of chess.
The World Chess Hall of Fame, much like the game that it so masterfully displays and promotes, has a rich and storied history. This history begins nearly 40 years ago in 1986 when the United States Chess Federation formed the hall of fame, as a way to recognize the game’s many skilled players. A small museum was created for the hall of fame just two short years later, displaying a small collection of eclectic artifacts celebrating the hall of fame members, within the confines of the basement of the United States Chess Federation’s upstate New York Headquarters.
Seeing the exciting potential of this exhibit, the U.S. Chess Trust, a charity devoted to teaching and promoting the game, purchased the collection, and in 1992, moved it to a new building in the nation’s capital, Washington D.C. The exhibit in Washington accrued several more interesting pieces, such as the World Chess Championship trophy won by the United States’ chess team in 1993. The exhibit also offered the opportunity for its visitors to play against a chess computer, which was not as common and advanced as they are today.
This arrangement was not to be permanent, as just a few years later in 2001, the exhibition was moved to Miami, Florida, where it was housed in the impressive, several million-dollar headquarters of Excalibur Electronics Corporation, a pioneering company in the field of chess artificial intelligence. With this move, it also received a new name, the World Chess Hall of Fame, and Sidney Samole Museum, derived from Excalibur Electronics’ founder, Sidney Samole.
Archival press from this period implies that this museum was popular and prestigious, and generally well-received, with Orlando Sentinel writer Maya Bell describing it as follows, “The museum is to chess lovers what the Baseball Hall of Fame or the Football Hall of Fame is to sports fans -- a shrine where visitors can soak up every facet of the mental sport now headed for the Olympics.”
Despite its apparent popularity, this iteration of the exhibit was closed in 2009 for unknown reasons, after just 8 years. But this minor setback would not prove to be the end of the World Chess Hall of Fame’s decades-long story.
In September of 2011, the exhibit, now called simply, the World Chess Hall of Fame, was relocated to a charming and historic home in St. Louis’ upscale Central West End district, purposefully just across the street from the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. According to the organization behind the World Chess Hall of Fame, St. Louis was chosen as the next home for the museum, due to the city’s vibrant and burgeoning chess community, which continues to grow to this day.
In the years since the move to St. Louis, the World Chess Hall of Fame has displayed the many artifacts it has accrued over the years, as well as temporary exhibits displaying pieces made by important chess figures and artists, including the world-famous Yoko Ono.
In 2018, the museum added a new piece for the record books, literally. A 20-foot-tall sculpture of a king chess piece made of Sapele, a beautiful wood native to Africa, that now holds the Guinness world record for the world's largest chess piece. The piece stands guard outside the museum’s front entrance and is a popular photo opportunity. As an interesting side note, you do not even need to visit the museum to see the world’s largest piece, as it is documented by a 24/7 live camera feed which can be viewed on their website.
As of May of 2022, the current exhibit on display at this unique local is Mind, Art, Experience: 10 Years of Chess & Culture in St. Louis, which is open through July 17th. This massive exhibit, spanning all three floors and all three galleries of the building, seeks to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their arrival in St. Louis, the longest period of time they have spent in one city, with all sorts of chess artifacts, and chess-inspired art.
Also on exhibit as of the time of my writing of this article, are their featured chess sets of 2022. Which focuses on these unique chess sets, and their historic, aesthetic, and symbolic qualities. Included among the sets featured is the Saitek Kasparov Alchemist. This set is a quirky late 90’s chess computer designed as a teaching aid and named after the famous chess grandmaster and World Chess Hall of Fame inductee, Garry Kasparov.
Aside from its permanent collection and temporary displays, the World Chess Hall of Fame also hosts many events throughout the year. These events vary from tours of the exhibits with their curator to musical performances held within their unique building. The upcoming events are too numerous to describe, but a complete list, as well as a detailed calendar, can be found in the programming section of their website.
Though offering as much as and maybe more than your typical museum, the World Chess Hall of Fame boasts completely free admission, but donations from those who can afford it are encouraged. In lieu of donations, they also have an interesting gift shop, filled with many chess-themed souvenirs. Since the World Chess Hall of Fame is a nonprofit organization, purchases made here are tax-free, and the proceeds go towards their operational costs.
With free admission, scores of great exhibits, and a short distance from forest park, the World Chess Hall of Fame makes for a great weekend trip with something for everyone, even those who are not chess players themselves. But, with so many interesting chess exhibits, and compelling chess-related art, one might be willing to learn after their visit.
For more information, you can visit their website, www.worldchesshof.org, or visit the museum at 4652 Maryland Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri.