Would You Play Chess Against Ray Charles?
Ray Charles studies his next move. Image by Great Big Story.

Would You Play Chess Against Ray Charles?


Ray Charles (1930-2004) was one of America’s greatest singers, songwriters, composers, and musicians. Most people know of his musical genius. However, what is less well-known is Charles’ love of chess. Although he began losing his sight by age five and was blind by the age of seven, he thoroughly enjoyed playing a game of chess.

Charles' estate donated his chess set to the Smithsonian Institution. Photo by Smithsonian Institution.

His chess set was specially designed for blind players. The white squares are slightly raised, and the dark ones are lowered. To distinguish by touch, tops of white pieces are flattened, and those of black pieces are sharpened. In addition, all pieces are pegged, and the squares on the board are slotted to fit the pegs (much like a traveling set); thus, the pieces are less vulnerable to being moved or dislodged accidentally when touched for identification.

Ray Charles was on the cover of the September 2002 issue of Chess Life. Photo by The Chess Drum.

As Charles traveled between engagements, he often played games with other band members, friends, and interviewers. Charles even played (and lost) against GM Larry Evans, who interviewed him for an issue of Chess Life in 2002. Among the best-known games that Charles played were against friend and fellow musician Willie Nelson, whom Charles called his “chess partner” In a 1991 concert.

Willie Nelson describes playing "in the dark." Video by Great Big Story.

Nelson described Charles’ board this way: “His chess pieces were all the same color. They were all unpainted wood, you know. But he could feel of ‘em and tell what they were. So, needless to say, he kicked my ass about three games in a row.”

Charles’ chess set with his famed sunglasses, keyboard marked in Braille, and other memorabilia were donated in 2005 to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History where they are part of the museum’s collection of telling the story of America’s music. The set had earlier been on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.  

Chessboard was part of the exhibit “Ray Charles: ‘The Genius’” during 2005-2006 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Photo by Smithsonian Institution.

At the funeral for Charles, Willie Nelson recalled how he and Charles played chess and after a recent loss to Charles had asked, “Next time we play, can we turn the lights on?” (They had played in the dark. Although the set at the Smithsonian indicates that Nelson was exaggerating about the pieces being all the same color, perhaps they looked the same to him with no lights on in the room when they played.)

Would you play Ray Charles if he were still alive? I would but I would want the lights on.

Now, it's your turn. Would you be up to the challenge? Post your comments below. 😊

Note: Make sure that you read the comment posted below by batgirl (one of authors) about a chessboard created for blind players in the 19th century. (To see her articles, go to