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On Chess: 18th And Olive: Historical Site Of The First World Chess Championship

A banner on the Butler Brothers Building on the corner of 18th and Olive Street in St. Louis commemorates the city's historical ties to the chess world.
Austin Fuller
World Chess Hall of Fame
A banner on the Butler Brothers Building on the corner of 18th and Olive streets in St. Louis commemorates the city's historical ties to the chess world.

On Aug. 9, 2018, 132 years after the first World Chess Championship, the World Chess Hall of Fame unveiled a commemorative banner for the site of games six through nine held in St. Louis. The banner was displayed on the Butler Brothers Building on the corner of 18th and Olive streets and presented by 2018 World Chess Champion Challenger Fabiano Caruana and two U.S. Chess Hall of Fame inductees, Maurice Ashley and Yasser Seirawan. Chess has been an integral part of St. Louis’s history for much longer than many people know.

The 1886 championship between Wilhelm Steinitz and Johannes Zukertort was the first official World Chess Championship. From 1886 through 1948, World Chess Championships were arranged between the competitors. The competitors would decide when and where the matches would take place. The first World Chess Championship took place over 11 games in three different cities. The 1886 Championship began in New York City, where the first five games were played, followed by games six to nine in St. Louis, and ending with games nine to 11 in New Orleans. Steinitz persuaded Zukertort to begin the Championship in his new home in the United States, New York City. New Orleans was chosen as the final stop to honor its hometown chess legend Paul Morphy, who passed away a few years earlier in 1884.

St. Louis was selected as the second stop because it was just as much a thriving capital for chess in 1886 as today, thanks to Max Judd, who was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in 2019. In the late 1800s, Judd was one of the country's top chess players and placed St. Louis on the map for chess. According to an article in the Missouri Republican, the games in St. Louis would be “cabled to all parts of the globe,” advertising St. Louis as a chess destination. The St. Louis Chess, Checker, and Whist Club, founded by Judd, sponsored the St. Louis games in 1886 at Harmonie Hall. The grand hall was designed for the Harmonie Club by St. Louis architectural icon Isaac S. Taylor in 1883. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the building was equipped with club rooms, private dining rooms, billiards, two bowling alleys and “the largest private hall in the city.” The hall could hold 600 people, making it large enough to hold spectators for the match. The building itself was designed in the American Renaissance style, described as being decorated with “richly ornamented walls and ceilings.” The lavish decor included French mirrors, Turkish sofas and richly carved Mexican mahogany furniture. With such a luxurious building, the Harmonie Social Club was able to host events in its many rooms, including an annual ball for club members only. The spectacle of the Harmonie Club was an opulent setting for the historic match. Unfortunately, 20 years later, Harmonie Hall was demolished and replaced with the Butler Brothers Building in 1906.

The history of chess in St. Louis spans more than a century. The city has had notable chess events throughout its history. Chess legends have come from all over the world to St. Louis and have competed here ever since. The St. Louis chess legacy continues with chess grandmasters who live and play here, helping to grow the community at St. Louis Chess Club and the World Chess Hall of Fame.

Brittany Jasin is an artist based in St. Louis. She currently works as a gallery attendant at the World Chess Hall of Fame. Jasin assists with daily operations as well as installation and research projects with the museum staff.