Historically Speaking: The Game of Queens and Grandmasters

Chess has captivated minds for 1,500 years, surviving religious condemnation, Napoleonic exile and even the Russian Revolution

The Wall Street Journal

April 15, 2022

Fifty years ago, the American chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer played the reigning world champion Boris Spassky at the “Match of the Century” in Reykjavik, Iceland. The Cold War was at its height, and the Soviets had held the title since 1948. More was riding on the competition than just the prize money.


The press portrayed the Fischer-Spassky match as a duel between the East and the West. But for the West to win, Fischer had to play, and the temperamental chess genius wouldn’t agree to the terms. He boycotted the opening ceremony on July 1, 1972, prompting then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger to call Fischer and tell him that it was his patriotic duty to go out there and play. Fischer relented—and won, using the Queen’s Gambit in game 9 (a move made famous by the Netflix series about a fictional woman chess player).

The Fischer-Spassky match reignited global enthusiasm for a 1,500-year-old game. From its probable origins in India around the 6th century, the basic idea of chess spread rapidly across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Religious authorities initially condemned the game; even so, the ability to play became an indispensable part of courtly culture.

Chess was a slow-moving game until the 1470s, when new rules were introduced that made it faster and more aggressive. The most important changes were greater mobility for the bishops and the transformation of the queen into the most powerful piece on the board. The instigator remains unknown, although the tradition seems to have started in Spain, inspired, perhaps, by Queen Isabella who ruled jointly with King Ferdinand.

The game captivated some of the greatest minds of the Renaissance. Around 1500, the Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli, known as the Father of Accounting, analyzed more than 100 plays and strategies in “De ludo schaccorum” (On the Game of Chess). The hand of Leonardo da Vinci has been detected in some of the illustrations in the only known copy of the book.

Although called the “game of kings,” chess was equally popular with generals. But, as a frustrated Napoleon discovered, triumph on the battlefield was no guarantee of success on the board. Nevertheless, during his exile on St. Helena, Napoleon played so often that one of the more enterprising escape attempts by his supporters involved hidden plans inside an ivory chess set.


London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 inspired the British chess master Howard Staunton, who gave his name to the first standardized chess pieces, to organize the first international chess tournament. Travel delays meant that none of the great Russian players were able to participate, despite the country’s enthusiasm for the game. In a letter to his wife, Russia’s greatest poet Alexander Pushkin declared, “[Chess] is a must for any well-organized family.” It was one of the few bourgeois pastimes to survive the Revolution unscathed.

The Russians regained the world title after the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match. However, in the 1990s they faced a new challenger that wasn’t a country but a computer. Grandmaster Garry Kasparov easily defeated IBM’s Deep Blue in 1996, only to suffer a shock defeat in 1997. Mr. Kasparov even questioned whether the opposition had played fair. Six years later, he agreed to a showdown at The FIDE Man Versus Machine World Chess Championship, against the new and improved Deep Junior. The 2003 match was a draw, leaving chess the winner.

Historically Speaking: Overcoming the Labor of Calculation

Inventors tried many times over the centuries to build an effective portable calculator—but no one succeeded until John Merryman.

The Wall Street Journal, April 5, 2019


The world owes a debt of gratitude to Jerry Merryman, who died on Feb. 27 at the age of 86. It was Merryman who, in 1965, worked with two other engineers at Texas Instruments to invent the world’s first pocket calculator. Today we all carry powerful calculators on our smartphones, but Merryman was the first to solve a problem that had plagued mathematicians at least since Gottfried Leibniz, one of the creators of calculus in the 17th century, who observed: “It is unworthy of excellent men to lose hours like slaves in the labor of calculation, which could safely be relegated to anyone else if machines were used.”

In ancient times, the only alternative to mental arithmetic was the abacus, with its simple square frame, wooden rods and movable beads. Most civilizations, including the Romans, Chinese, Indians and Aztecs, had their own version—from counting boards for keeping track of sums to more sophisticated designs that could calculate square roots.

We know of just one counting machine from antiquity that was more complex. The 2nd-century B.C. Antikythera Mechanism, discovered in 1901 in the remains of an ancient Greek shipwreck, was a 30-geared bronze calculator that is believed to have been used to track the movement of the heavens. Despite its ingenious construction, the Antikythera had a limited range of capabilities: It could calculate dates and constellations and little else.

In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci drew up designs for a mechanical calculating device that consisted of 13 “digit-registering” wheels. In 1967, IBM commissioned the Italian scholar and engineer Roberto Guatelli to build a replica based on the sketches. Guatelli believed that Leonardo had invented the first calculator, but other experts disagreed. In any case, it turned out that the metal wheels would have generated so much friction that the frame would probably have caught fire.

Technological advances in clockmaking helped the French mathematician and inventor Blaise Pascal to build the first working mechanical calculator, called the Pascaline, in 1644. It wasn’t a fire hazard, and it could add and subtract. But the Pascaline was very expensive to make, fragile in the extreme, and far too limited to be really useful. Pascal only made 50 in his lifetime, of which less than 10 survive today.

Perhaps the greatest calculator never to see the light of day was designed by Charles Babbage in the early 19th century. He actually designed two machines—the Difference Engine, which could perform arithmetic, and the Analytical Engine, which was theoretically capable of a range of functions from direct multiplication to parallel processing. Ada, Countess of Lovelace, the daughter of the poet Lord Byron, made important contributions to the development of Babbage’s Analytical Engine. According to the historian Walter Isaacson, Lovelace realized that any process based on logical symbols could be used to represent entities other than quantity—the same principle used in modern computing.

Unfortunately, despite many years and thousands of pounds of government funding, Babbage only ever managed to build a small prototype of the Difference Engine. Even for most of the 20th century, his dream of a portable calculator stayed a dream, while the go-to instrument for doing large sums remained the slide rule. It took Merryman’s invention to allow us all to become “excellent men” and leave the labor of calculation to the machines.