Astronomy and Chess

by Bill Wall


In 1854, Paul Morphy took an interest in astronomy.  While at Spring Hill College, he was a member of the Philomatic Society (an association of persons who love sciences) and delivered an astronomy lecture on the discovery of Neptune, which occurred in 1846 by astronomer Johann Galle in Berlin.


In 1866, Viktor Knorre defeated Johannes Zukertort in a match in Breslau.  The Knorre variation in the Two Knights Defense and the Ruy Lopez is named after him.  He later became Professor of Astronomy in Berlin, Director of the Berlin Observatory, and discovered four asteroids.


In the early 1900s, future astrophysicist Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) was a member of the Cambridge University Chess Club.  He is famous for his work regarding the theory of relativity and the natural limit to the luminosity of stars.


In 1905, famous astronomer Eugene Antoniadi  tied for 1st in a Paris tournament.  In 1907, he tied for first place (6 wins, 1 loss)  with Frank Marshall, ahead of Tartakower  He took 3rd place in a Paris tournament in 1917.  Antoniadi was famous for his maps of Mars, proving that the “canals” of Mars were optical illusions.


In the 1930s, future English astronomer and astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) was an avid chess player who attended Cambridge, was a member of its chess club, and played chess against Oxford .  Hoyle is most famous for coining the word “Big Bang" theory (which he rejected for the “steady state” theory).


In the 1960s, General Nikolai Kamanin (1908-1982) was Chief of Cosmonaut Training and an avid chess player.  He described playing chess with cosmonauts in his diary.


On June 9, 1970, cosmonauts Vitaly Sevastyanov (1935-2010) and Andrian Nikolayev played chess against their ground control while on board Soyuz 9.  It was the first time chess was played in space.  The mission, and the chess game, was commemorated in a stamp issued shortly after the mission was completed.


In 1977, Sevastyanov became president of the Soviet Union Chess Federation.  He served as its president from 1977 to 1986 and from 1988 to 1989.


In 1986, the Mir Soviet space station became operational.  It stayed operational until 2001.  In April 1999, one of the cosmonauts brought along the Fritz 6 chess software (and a Siemens Scenic notebook computer) so that cosmonauts could play chess against Fritz while in space.  The chess program was requested by cosmonaut Sergei Andeyev, a chess player, who was aboard Mir.  He spent 747 days in space through three tours of duty aboard Mir, and wanted to play chess.  Cosmonauts were discouraged to play chess against each other while on board, just in case a loss would affect the cosmonaut and take it out on the other cosmonaut.


In June 2008, mission specialist astronaut Dr. Gregory Chamitoff  brought a Velcro chessboard ( a magnetic chess set would have interfered with some electronics on board) with him on the space shuttle.  In August 2008, he played a chess match against Houston Mission Control and won two games against ground control while playing chess on the International Space Station (ISS).  At one point, a rook did not stick to the Velcro board and floated away.  It was later found in one of the airflow return filters in the US Laboratory on the ISS.


From September 29, 2008, to October 9, 2008, NASA and the U.S. Chess Federation (USCF) hosted the first Earth vs. space match, played by the public and Chamitoff during the STS-124 space shuttle mission.  Earth won the match thanks to the chess players at Stevenson Elementary School in Bellevue, Washington, who suggested several moves and the public voted on the moves. 

In  August- September 2009, Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang played chess while in space against readers of a Swedish newspaper (Dagens Nyheter).  He lost the game, but when he returned to Earth, he received a Rybka program signed by five world chess champions (Kasparov, Karpov, Kramnik, Spassky, and Anand).


From May 16 to June 1, 2011, an Earth vs. Space Match was held between earth members and two crew members (Mission Specialist Greg Chamitoff and Pilot Greg Johnson) of STS 134 on the Endeavour Space Shuttle to the International Space Station.  It was sponsored by NASA and the USCF (match director was Hal Bogner).  The mission, and the game, lasted 16 days.  The public voted on the moves made via Facebook and Twitter.


There have been 523 people in space.  Astronauts/cosmonauts who play(ed) chess: 

Michael P. Anderson (1959-2003 – killed in the space shuttle Columbia disaster, STS-107), Sergei Avdeyev (three Soyuz missions), Guy Bluford (STS-8, STS-61-A, STS-39, STS-53), Mark N. Brown (STS-28, STS-48),  (Greg Chamitoff (STS-124, STS-134), Catherine Coleman (STS-73 and STS-93 ), Dirk Frimout (STS-45), Christer Fuglesang (STS-116, STS-128), Yuri Gagarin (1934-1968 – 1st person in space), Viktor Gorbatko (Soyuz 7, 24, 37), Michael Hoffpauir (Gregory H. Johnson (STS-123, STS-134) , Dmitri Kondrayiev (Soyuz TMA-20), John Lounge (1946-2011 – STS-51-I, STS-26, STS-35), William McCool (1961-2003, killed in the space shuttle Columbia disaster STS-107), Michael McKay Story Musgrave (6 Shuttle missions), Andriyan Nikolayev (1929-2004, Vostok 3 and Soyuz 9), Yuri Onufrienko (Mir, STS-108), Donald Pettit (STS-113, STS-126), Vitaly Sevastyanov (1935-2010, Souuz 9 and 18), Sergei Zalyotine (Soyuz TM-30 and TM-34).


Astronomers who play(ed) chess:

Sverre Aarath (1934- ), Eugene Antonaidi (1870-1944), Arthur Eddington (1882-1944), Arpad Elo (1903-1992), Wulff-Dieter Heintz (1930-2006), Fred Hoyle (1915-2001), Viktor Knorre (1840-1919), Patrick Moore (1923- ), Simon Newcomb (1835-1909),, Richard Proctor (1837-1888), Victor Regener (1913-2006), Carl Sagan (1934-1996), Heinrich Schumacher (1780-1850)


Chess players who have/had an interest in astronomy:

Viswanathan Anand, Hans Moritz Bruehl , Paul Morphy, Dr. John Nunn, David Levy, Wolfgang Pauly (1876-1934 – chess problemist and credited with the discovery of a comet), Fred Reinfeld (wrote a book on astronomy)