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Why Chess Is Not Earth-Bound
The first space-to-Earth chess game was played 50 years ago. Source: Sergey Karjakin via Twitter.

Why Chess Is Not Earth-Bound

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Imagine all the sporting events that can be played on only Earth—the list is almost endless. However, the top-10 sports worldwide in order—soccer, cricket, basketball, field hockey, tennis, volleyball, table tennis, baseball, American football, and golf—have their limitations.

One game is not earth-bound. Today is a fitting time to consider the distinctiveness of chess as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first chess game played beyond the Earth's atmosphere.


When Was Chess First Played In Space?

The story begins on June 1, 1970, when the Soyuz 9 mission was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, a spaceport in southern Kazakhstan. On June 9, eight days after the mission began, the two cosmonauts aboard the spacecraft teamed up to play a chess game against another team of two players on the ground.

Soyuz spacecraft
The first chess game beyond the Earth's atmosphere was played on the Soyuz 9 spacecraft. Source: Wikipedia.

Who Were The Players?

Playing from the Soyuz 9 spacecraft were cosmonauts Andrian Nikolayev and Vitaly Sevastyanov. The earth-bound opponents were Viktor Gorbakto, also a cosmonaut, and General Nikolai Kamanin, who was responsible for space training in the Soviet Union and was the head of cosmonauts from 1960 to 1971.

Soviet stamp honoring Andrian Nikolayev
Well before his chess-playing orbits in 1970, Nikolayev was honored by a Soviet stamp for his historic space mission in 1962. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Selected as a cosmonaut in 1960, Nikolayev consistently amazed Soviet doctors during medical testing with his ability to endure silence, isolation, and temperature extremes. With that aptitude, he was well-equipped to play chess in space. Even better suited for chess was Sevastyanov, who was president of the Soviet Union Chess Federation during 1977-1986 and 1988-1989. In 1985 he became a FIDE international arbiter, and in 1986 he received a FIDE honorary life membership.

Vitaly Sevastyanov
Vitaly Sevastyanov in 2002, many years after his cosmonaut days. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

How Was The Game Played?

Consider the weightlessness conditions of space: How can a chess set be used in that environment? For this mission, an engineer designed a special chessboard, now on display in the Museum of Russian Chess Federation, with notches and groves to keep the pieces from floating in the zero-gravity conditions. Magnetic pieces had been ruled out because they would interfere with onboard instruments.

Chess set used aboard Soyuz 9
The chess set used aboard Soyuz 9. Source: FIDE.

The game began as a Queen’s Gambit Accepted, and the cosmonauts played the white pieces. Moves were sent via radio when the spacecraft was passing over Moscow (unlike today when a commemorative game was played by orbiting cosmonauts using an iPad). The game lasted six hours (during orbits 141 to 144 of Earth) and ended in a draw after 35 moves.

What Was The Significance Of This Mission?

By lasting 424 hours (a few hours short of 18 days), the Soyuz 9 space flight broke a five-year endurance record held by the American Gemini 7. The record as the longest crewed flight by a solo spacecraft remains unbroken. As the cosmonaut team completed 288 orbits, they explored the effects of weightlessness and assessed the effectiveness of tasks performed in space by cosmonauts, both individually and as a team.

Soviet stamp celebrating the mission of Soyuz 9
The Soviet stamp that celebrates the mission of Soyuz 9 and its chess-playing cosmonauts. Source: Wikipedia.

Was playing a game of chess part of that assessment? Officially, the game was played on a day off for the crew. However, for chess lovers, the greatest significance of the mission is that the first chess game was played from beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

The scene on the ground
Pilot-cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky (left), in charge of the 1970 game coverage, assists Viktor Gorbatko (center) and Nikolai Kamanin. Source: FIDE.

Read in this Chess.com news article about the commemorative activities today, including the game that cosmonauts currently orbiting the globe played that was organized by the Moscow Museum of Cosmonautics, the Russian space agency Roscosmos, and the Russian Chess Federation.

Thanks for reading. What do you think? Is chess destined for future space travels?