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On Chess: Roulette Chess and mural come to Hall of Fame

Thi article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 13, 2012 - On Thursday, Sept. 13, I’m headed to St. Louis for a special game of chess at the World Chess Hall of Fame’s Screwed Moves opening. The nine-person Screwed Arts Collective has taken over the first floor of the Hall of Fame and is creating a space-specific installation that draws on chess.  

“The artists are seeking to make the psychology of the chess player visible through their mark-making on the walls,” said curator Roseann Weiss, director of community arts program for the Regional Arts Commission, which previously commissioned work by the collective.

“Bound by rules and aggressively creating within those rules, they are mimicking the structure of the game within the chaos of the stimulated mind. They are embracing opposites; finding patterns; making moves,” she said. 

I don’t know what to expect, and that is what excites me most about it.  

One thing is set for certain: At 10 p.m., I will play a game of roulette chess against Yasser Seirawan, the acting resident Grandmaster at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, which is across the street from the Hall of Fame. Roulette chess is a variant I created a few years ago with artist and curator Larry List, partially inspired by artist and chess master Marcel Duchamp’s wish that "chess and chance meet in the middle."

You spin the wheel to determine which piece you move, so if an amateur attacks a grandmaster’s rook, and the wheel spins his way, he can capture it on his next move. In roulette chess, as in poker, a total newcomer can defeat a seasoned pro on a lucky day.

Although I don’t think anything can replace the equilibrium between tactics, strategy and the historical richness of chess, I’ve always enjoyed tinkering with variants and hybrids, especially if it helps bring attention to the game. I love adding circles into our linear game - from the spinning roulette chess wheel to hula chess, a fusion of abdominal exercise and quick chess.

Seirawan created a variant of his own, “Seirawan chess,” or “s-chess” for short, which introduces two new pieces onto the 64-square chessboard, the Hawk and the Elephant. At last year’s U.S. Championship, Seirawan showed a crowd of grandmasters some puzzles using the new pieces.

Rather than rely on years of fluency in the chess movements of knight, bishop, rook, queen and pawn, I had to strain to move the hawk around my brain. And I realized that this is what adults learning chess must feel like.

If you can’t come out to watch and play on Thursday, stop by anytime through Feb. 10. I predict that Screwed Moves makes you see the game, and the Hall of Fame, in a new way.

Jennifer Shahade is a two-time U.S. Women’s chess champion, author and editor of uschess.org/clo. She’s also on the board of the World Chess Hall of Fame. Find out more on jennifershahade.com and follow at twitter.com/jenshahade