Backroads

Train travelers play an intense game of chess in 1906. The board game’s popularity in Bell County is as apparent as black-and-white and as old as the county itself. Personal accounts of settlers arriving in Bell County in the 1850s include inventories of their households including chess boards and pieces. Early Belton newspapers regularly covered chess games.

It was a battle of the county seats — Bell County versus Walker County. The adversaries were lined up, ready for encounters on the dappled field. It was a battle to the finish — aggressive, intense, cerebral — but thankfully with no blood loss.

In the late 1850s, Huntsville citizens attempted to one-upmanship Belton as the chess center of Texas by honoring a prodigy of the game.

The COVID-19 pandemic is making us pawns of our own seclusion, just the right opportunity for an unhurried game of chess. While everybody else is hunkered down scrolling through Facebook’s endless verbiage, some are gamboling about with gambits, conquering castles and capturing queens.

An ancient game rising again, chess is the perfect antidote to quarantine boredom.

Aficionado Wayne Sampson of Belton said he enjoys playing because “nothing is ever the same.” Even though he’s hindered from person-to-person games, the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor adjunct professor continues to enjoy online play.

No matter the venue, chess has more than 100,000 different variations, making it impossible to predict. It’s a game of strategy and psychology involving psyching the opponent into a defensive game.

Chess could possibly be the cure for the quarantine — especially when fidgets take over, according to Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, reigning World Chess Champion, World Rapid Chess Champion and World Blitz Chess Champion. “I believe that chess can combat many challenges we face today: fractured attention, indecisiveness and a shortage of grit and discipline brought on by too much screen time. I believe we should look to an ancient cure: the two-tone chessboard and its 32 pieces.”

The board game’s popularity in Bell County is as apparent as black-and-white and as old as the county itself. Personal accounts of settlers arriving in Bell County in the 1850s include inventories of their households including chess boards and pieces. Early Belton newspapers in the 1850s advertised sales of chessmen made of ivory, ebony, rosewood, boxwood and bone.

The chess superstar of the time was Paul Morphy (1837-1884), known as “the pride and sorrow of chess.” Twentieth-century master Bobby Fischer ranked him among the ten greatest players of all time, and described him as “perhaps the most accurate player who ever lived.”

Born in New Orleans, Morphy as a young boy taught himself and, within a couple of years, was winning large tournament purses.

Texas newspapers reported on his games and escapades, just as sportswriters cover teams nowadays. Nineteenth-century Bell County newspapers were no different. The Belton Independent in September 1858 reported on Morphy’s landmark victory over a Hungarian world-champion master after a 20-hour game. The Independent said it was detailing the game “for the gratification of our chess-loving friends.”

As Morphy’s blitzing genius grew, the Belton Independent eagerly reported his each move and victory.

Belton citizens by summer 1857 organized the Morphy Chess Club to honor their hero; the Belton Independent ran regular updates of games, winners and tournaments. Morphy wrote about the Belton club in a March 1858 letter, obviously flattered over the honor of having a Texas club named for him.

However by February 1859, the Huntsville Item reported that the Walker County seat had organized a similar Morphy Chess Club, touting it was “the first institution of the kind in Texas.” The Belton Independent editors were indignant, quickly counter-attacking via its news pages that Belton checkmated Huntsville long before.

Morphy’s prowess took him to prestigious tournaments in Europe and South America, where he captured acclaim like he captured kings. By 1861, when the Civil War began, he left the game to practice law in New Orleans. Despite appeals from his admirers, Morphy never returned to the game and died from a stroke at the age 47.

The game’s popularity didn’t waiver after his death. Belton’s Morphy Club continued to meet.

Chess clubs began shortly after Temple’s founding. The Temple Times reported in March 1888 that young men were flocking to a new “first-class chess club room, equal to any in the state fitted up with billiard and pool tables, chess and checkerboards.”

The interest continued. The Temple Daily Telegram in June 1908 encouraged more chess playing “since it is a mind-developer such as no other game known of has ever proven to be.” In 1920, a Telegram medical columnist advised readers to play chess for good mental health.

Chess’ current appeal may dwindle but never dies. Fort Hood had active chess clubs and tournaments for decades that attracted Killeen-area veterans and civilians. When Fort Hood deployed troops to the first Iraq War, the Fort Hood Chess Club dissolved. A few faithful in town regrouped and continued to meet in local restaurants until this year’s coronavirus quarantine.

For Sampson and others, chess holds endless fascination with its variety and opportunity to learn new approaches. “My first exposure to chess was (when I was) about five years of age in an outhouse where there was a chess book with figurine notation, like a secret code, that was used for toilet paper. Those strange pages intrigued me,” Sampson said. “I really didn’t start playing until I was in my 40s. I bought a $2 set, a lazy Susan and a book on how to play chess. I glued the cardboard chess board on the lazy Susan. I could rotate the board on the lazy Susan and play both sides.”

Before the COVID-19 quarantines, Sampson and several more were meeting in a Temple diner. The Temple Club is affiliated with the U.S. Chess Federation and the Texas Chess Association. Now, they are online.

Chess remains eternal. “Chess is about remaining nimble, taking your cues from your opponent and revising your strategy in order to win,” said champion Magnus Carlsen.