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On Chess: A Journey Through Chess And Space

Greg Chamitoff plays chess in the Harmony Node of the International Space Station on July 19, 2008.
St. Louis Chess Club
Greg Chamitoff plays chess in the Harmony Node of the International Space Station on July 19, 2008.

Of all imaginable things that could have happened during my time in space, I had no idea that a chess match would be the most historic.

Officially, in the battle of the first-ever public Earth vs. space chess match, the winner was Earth, but this is not the whole story. In fact, this was not the first game. Even more, the winner may or may not be Earth. How could this be? Well, the unofficial story is a little more intriguing and a lot more amusing.

Before my own first mission, I was a CapCom in NASA’s Mission Control, the voice speaking to the crew onboard the International Space Station (ISS). I was curious about the informal games that I saw several crews play with those of us on the ground.

The purpose was to boost morale for the team and to have some sort of engagement beyond the daily grind of executing procedures and solving problems. Of course, being involved in a spaceflight mission is, and was, exciting stuff. But as with anything else, the tasks of the day, in and of themselves, were simply that — tasks.

They created little opportunity for rapport between the crew and the ground. At some point, the games began, and they were typically simple and silly things, like guessing games and Trivial Pursuit. I distinctly recall sitting on-console in Mission Control thinking, “When I fly, it’s going to be a real game. A serious game. A chess game!”

As my turn to fly on ISS Expedition 17 approached, I began shopping for a chess set that I could adapt for zero gravity. I found the perfect set — a plastic-coated metallic board with magnetic pieces. I was in business.

That is, until NASA saw this strange personal item on my manifest list with magnets.

“No magnets allowed,” they said. “It could interfere with electronic devices onboard.”

This was just a few weeks before launch, and I panicked. Quarantine was a week away, so it was a busy time, and there was little time to purchase and receive something else. My solution, of course, was Velcro!

I bought a cheap set of plastic pieces and packaged them with Velcro sheets. One of my first and most important tasks in space was to cut out circular pieces of Velcro and attach them to the bottom of 32 chess pieces. It worked! I had a zero gravity chess set and was ready to challenge Mission Control to a game.

As part of an ISS program, the first Earth vs. space chess game was naturally going to be a round-the-world engagement with all the primary mission control centers involved:

  • Houston
  • Huntsville
  • Moscow
  • Montreal
  • Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany
  • Tsukuba, Japan
  • Toulouse, France

The arrangement was that each control center would make a move in turn without kibitzing between control centers. Little did I know that NASA organized a small tiger team of enthusiastic chess players to assure that NASA won. The first game didn’t go well—for Earth, that is!
Taking turns between countries to move ended up being a serious handicap. So much so that I later heard that Moscow was politely furious with Japan for losing the game. They demanded a Russian-only rematch, which resulted in multiple ongoing simultaneous games with each country. Playing one game was easy enough, but six simultaneous games was a stretch. After all, the mission planners didn’t allocate time in the schedule for chess!

Before these games could finish, however, a few special folks on planet Earth invented a bigger bolder version of Earth vs. space chess, that would engage the public. The U.S. Chess Federation and the NASA Public Affairs Office created a public game in which anyone on Earth could vote for their favorite moves.

A team of exceptional chess experts was selected to advise. They were the third grade national chess champions from Stevenson Elementary School in Bellevue, Washington. After each move from space, the students would analyze the game, pick a handful of top moves and post them online for public voting. This game did go well.

It was a very exciting game, with many twists and turns, but ultimately Earth was victorious. There is a deeper meaning to this victory. If the third grade team beat me, and I beat Mission Control, then the inescapable conclusion is that the third grade team is smarter than Mission Control. Right?

This was all so fun and inspiring that we did it again three years later during the last mission of Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-134). It was a fast-paced game with space represented by Box and Taz (my crewmate Gregory Johnson and myself).

Being a much shorter mission, the game was completed on the ground on Sept. 10, 2011, during the inaugural ceremony of the Boy Scouts of America chess merit badge, which was spearheaded by Jeanne Sinquefield. With grandmasters leading the charge, scouts acted out the game on a life-size board in the streets of St. Louis.

Trailing by a pawn that was sacrificed for an upper hand on the offensive that Box and I maintained for much of the game, Earth vs. space ultimately came to a stalemate. It seems that another rematch is in order during a future mission. Perhaps next time, space will be represented by a female moon-walking Eagle Scout.

By the way, ISS Expedition 17 and Space Shuttle STS-134 were spectacular missions that helped pave the way for future exploration of our solar system. For more information, click here. Special thanks to Hal Bogner (US Chess Federation) and Kelly Humphries (NASA) for making this all possible, and to the St. Louis Chess Club, World Chess Hall of Fame and Boy Scouts of America for their roles in the Earth vs. space chess competition.

More information about the author's space missions along with Star Wars, Star Trek and other pop-cultured-themed chess sets can be found in the World Chess Hall of Fame’s newest exhibition, Ground Control: A Journey Through Chess and Space, on view Nov. 7, 2019, through April 26, 2020.

Gregory Chamitoff served as a NASA astronaut for 15 years, including Shuttle Missions STS-124, 126, 134 and Space Station long-duration missions Expedition 17 and 18. He has lived and worked in space for almost 200 days as a flight engineer, science officer and mission specialist.  He is also a member of the St. Louis Chess Club, a partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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