Remembering The Passion Of Ray Charles For Chess
Ray Charles was on the cover of the September 2002 issue of Chess Life. Photo: USChess.

Remembering The Passion Of Ray Charles For Chess

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Would you be willing to play Ray Charles, if he were still alive, in a game of chess? Yes, the famous American musician who was blind. On this date when he was born 90 years ago, it’s a great time to commemorate his passion for chess. In an interview with columnist GM Larry Evans in Chess Life, Charles says: “I love to play chess.”


Ray Charles playing chess on an airplane
Charles often played chess on planes as he traveled between engagements. Photo: The Ray Charles Foundation.

When Did Ray Charles Learn To Play Chess?

Born in 1930, the famous musician didn’t learn to play chess until 1965 when he was in a rehabilitation program near Los Angeles. His doctor at the clinic taught him the game. When fighting insomnia, Charles would often play chess throughout the night with other patients. About one of them, he said: “We’d sit up late at night, and he beat the hell out of me, but I learned. See, you always learn when people beat you ‘cause you pay attention and find out why.”

I love to play chess.
—Ray Charles

Then for decades, Charles played games with band members and other performers, such as fellow musician Willie Nelson, whom in 1991 Charles called his “chess partner.” What Charles loved about chess is that winning is not a matter of luck, but rather of skill. He once observed: “We start with the same pieces in the same places. You’ve got to outwit, outthink, and outmaneuver the other person.”

Ray Charles with chess set while traveling
Protecting his chessboard, Charles transfers from his tour bus to his tour plane in 1966. Photo: Bill Ray via Pinterest.

What Chess Set Did Ray Charles Use?

Charles, who began losing his sight by age five and was blind by the age of seven, used a set that was created specifically for visually impaired chess players. The design was invented in 1848 by William Wood in England. To distinguish pieces by touch, tops of white ones are flattened (or rounded), and those of black ones are sharpened (or have points). All pieces are pegged, and the squares on the board are slotted to fit the pegs (much like a traveling set). In addition, the white squares are slightly raised, and the dark ones are lowered.

Chess set of Ray Charles
Charles’ specially designed chess set now on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Photo: Jenni Fuchs via Flickr.

GM Larry Evans vs. Ray Charles

Evans was fascinated with Charles’ ability to play chess. After watching Charles play chess on a TV program, Evans pursued opportunities to interview him for several months and finally succeeded in 2002. During the interview, Charles said that he had followed the Fischer-Spassky match in 1972 “as close as I could,” as the following game was played on Charles’ special set.

After losing twice to Evans, Charles was told by his manager: “You just lost to a five-time U.S. champion. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.” What did Charles learn from the match? He said: “I can see why you should castle early and not lose time by moving the same piece twice in the opening.”

Ray Charles vs. GM Larry Evans
Ray Charles plays GM Larry Evans in 2002 during an interview. Photo: Chess Life.

The interview was published in the September 2002 issue of Chess Life. Every time the grandmaster made a move, Charles would run both hands over the board to feel the new position. As he explained to Evans: “I play with my hands.”

Charles uses his hands as he plays a game of chess.
Charles uses both hands to feel how the board position has changed in a game in December 1981. Photo: Neal Preston via Pinterest.

Read more about Ray Charles and his love of chess, including a game Nelson had to play in the dark, in my earlier post. Comments posted to it by @batgirl include historical information about early chess designs for blind players (including a letter by Wood, the inventor) and resources for visually impaired players.

I play with my hands.
—Ray Charles

Do you ever listen to music by Charles when you’re playing Puzzle Rush? If not, try this playlist and see if it doesn’t help you achieve a new record.

Now it’s your turn. Do you admire visually impaired players or have you competed against them? Did you know that Charles was such an avid chess player?