Enter the basement precincts of the U.S. Chess Center downtown and you'll find chess enthusiasts huddled anxiously over their boards, plotting their next moves. Opened in 1992 by executive director David Mehler, the center matches partners, organizes tournaments and offers camps and school programs for District children. It also houses a decidedly lo-fi museum.
The center's permanent exhibit of U.S. chess history including a Grandmasters' Hall of Fame boasting photographs, posters and informative placards detailing the lives of great American chessmen lines the perimeter of one expansive game room. Wall text explores the game's hazy origins, which some date to sixth-century India. Much later, when Spaniards brought chess to America, informal local networks of players mushroomed. Even Benjamin Franklin was an avid player: His essay, "The Morals of Chess," is reproduced here.
The center has played host to the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame, founded in 1986 in New Windsor, N.Y., since 1993. After selection by the U.S. Chess Federation's Executive Board, inductees' lives are synopsized and career highlights catalogued; photographs or etchings accompany each profile. The story of the Hall of Fame's early inductee, Paul Morphy, verges on tragedy: Crowned the second U.S. Chess Champion, Morphy's career flourished in the 1850s and '60s until he developed a debilitating paranoid disorder. Unable to play for the last 10 years of his life, he died in his bathtub at age 47.
Display cases brimming with trophies, whimsical chess sets and game timers dot the exhibition area. Archival editions of the American Chess Bulletin, some almost 100 years old, fill glass vitrines. But it's chess relics from the modern age that deliver the most amusement: The first commercial chess computer a tan, plastic antiquity dating from the mid-1970s stands a proud marker of the game's disco era.