Odd Travel: The World Chess Hall of Fame

Chess anyone?

In 1923, Marcel Duchamp—considered by many to be one of the most important artists of the 20th century—famously abandoned his art career and devoted the rest of his life to chess. “I have come to the personal conclusion,” he said, “that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.” Duchamp was hardly the first artist to be smitten with chess, nor will he be the last, a fact driven home time and again at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis, where the surprisingly dynamic relationship between chess and art has energized an astonishing string of exhibits since it opened in September 2011, right across the street from the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. A recent visit unearthed more surprises, including chess’ remarkable impact on pop culture.

You know you’ve arrived at WCHOF—housed in a handsome, three-story, brick building in the city’s tony Central West End neighborhood—when you see the world’s largest chess piece, a king, looming in front of the museum and offering one of the best photo-ops in the city. Just inside and to the right, the Q Boutique answers all of those souvenir/gift-giving questions with wit and style. To the left, the museum states its mission directly on the wall: “…to educate visitors, fans, players and scholars by collecting, preserving, exhibiting and interpreting the game of chess and its continuing cultural and artistic influence.”

Straight ahead, the first-floor gallery beckons, and it is fairly seething with energy. For the current exhibit, “Screwed Moves,” the museum submitted its pristine walls to nine St. Louis artists who specialize in street art, and during the first few weeks, you could watch them at work riffing on their interpretation of chess, which can pretty fairly be summarized in one word: war.

Cleaving largely to a palette of red, black and white, the nine artists covered every inch of wall space with apocalyptic visions of explosions, soldiers, monsters, bombs, bullets, skulls and blood.

In fine street-art form, there are lots of bulging eyes, big teeth and bullets of sweat. Some patrons are repulsed, report museum staff, but most are fascinated, spending hours poring over every inch. I found it exhilarating.

On the second floor, “Everybody’s Game: Chess in Popular Culture” delivers on its promise with walls full of chess-influenced advertising and posters and display cases full of chess sets based on movies and TV shows like “The Simpsons,” “Star Wars” and “The Muppet Show.”

For the record, Marge Simpson, Miss Piggy and Princess Leia are all queens. But we already knew that.

On the third floor, part of which is permanently dedicated to the Chess Hall of Fame, “Power in Check: Chess and the American Presidency” includes some fascinating chess sets associated with presidents as well as information about which presidents played the game (Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln among them), those whose chess-playing proclivities remain a mystery (Tyler, Taylor and McKinley among others) and the singular case of Millard Fillmore, who played chess but did not recommend it. No photos allowed here, sorry.

Ever since the day, when I was in high school, that my 9-year-old brother beat me in chess without disturbing most of his pawns, I have never so much as touched a bishop. I haven’t played chess, either, but after this visit, that may have to change.

Open Tue-Wed 10 am-5 pm, Thu-Fri 10 am-6 pm, Sat 10 am-5 pm, Sun noon-5 pm. Admission is free. 4652 Maryland Ave., St. Louis, Mo., 314.367.9243. www.worldchesshof.org