In 1877, Memphis didn’t have trolleys. It had no elevators. Memphis didn’t even have a single bridge that crossed the Mississippi River – but it did have a Chess Club.
Established on June 9, 1877 by Dr. Dudley Saunders, the Memphis Chess Club is the oldest Chess Club this side of the Rocky Mountains. For their first 143 years, they bounced around various locations in the city – office buildings, churches, a few YMCAs. That all changed in October of 2020 when local businessman, Casey Hill, and National Chess Master, Alex King, teamed up to open the Memphis Chess Club’s first brick and mortar location in downtown (195 Madison – The Pressbox Building, next to AutoZone Park).
The Memphis Chess Club offers chess lessons and competition for every age and level player, as well as, a wonderful cafe featuring delicious pizzas and sandwiches, locally baked pastries, an impressive beer and wine list, along with nearly every imaginable combination of coffee drink. This unconventional mix of a thriving chess club and a vibrant cafe makes the Memphis Chess Club a true ‘can’t miss’ for locals and tourists alike.
After less than two years, the Memphis Chess Club has been named “Top 10 New Restaurants – 2022” by Memphis Magazine and “Chess Club of the Year” by the US Chess Federation. Considering that the original goal was to develop a business that featured great chess and great food, receiving both of these prestigious awards in the same year was deeply gratifying for the entire team. But, according to Mike Shuey, the new General Manager, they are just warming up.
Chess in Memphis? Who knew?
Unless you are immersed in the community, it would be easy to miss the fact that Memphis has been home to a significant amount of chess history. Dr. Saunders put Memphis on the chess map in 1877 and it didn’t take long for it to gain local and national attention. This can be directly attributed to a number of notable characters with remarkable skills.
In the early 1900, it was a brother and sister duo making a splash in the chess world: Bradford and Rosa Jefferson. Bradford won the Memphis City Championship in 1904, 1906, and again in 1909 and then – every single year – for the next 46 years! He also found time to win the US Open Chess Championship in 1913 and 1914. He was widely recognized as one of the top players in the world in the early twentieth century.
Rosa Jefferson edited the Chess column for the Commercial Appeal for 30 years, won countless Women’s Chess tournaments and regularly defeated highly respected male players. One of her more notable wins was against Dr. Emmanuel Lasker, a heralded touring Master level chess player. After winning the match, Ms. Jefferson was quoted, “When I played Dr. Lasker, there were 15 or 20 people standing around waiting to see the lamb, which was me, led to the slaughter… but Dr. Lasker’s hands shook so [intensely] toward the last of the game that the pawns rattled.” She went on, “Perhaps he accepted the challenge just to take me down for my audacity and put me in the corner. But what he may have considered a ‘pink tea’ performance turned out to be, for him, three hours of strenuous life.”
Rosa Jefferson was also an avid proponent of introducing chess into the public schools as an educational tool. She also publicly advocated for the desegregation of the game.
Both Bradford and Rosa were extraordinary chess players. They were the grandchildren of Silas Jefferson, who had come from Virginia with such an appreciation of the game of kings and queens that he taught the children how to play with a chess set he had carved out of potatoes.
While these are just two of hundreds of notable players to come out of the Bluff City, the Memphis Chess Club decided to name their mezzanine level in honor of these two outstanding members and contributors to Memphis’ history.
Chess in Memphis Today
“Chess is just more fun than other games. You have to think ahead or you are going to lose.” explained young Pranav Rajnarayanan when asked why he enjoys chess. Pranav is one of the newest members of the Memphis Chess Club and an enthusiastic newcomer to chess. His mother, Sarada Vissapragada said, “We were very surprised. We never thought he would engage with chess like this, but he started playing online during the pandemic and loved it. The Memphis Chess Club has given him a chance to learn and challenge himself against other players at his level and we couldn’t be happier.”
Pranav’s father, Raj, said, “Pranav set a goal of winning one game during a tournament. And, he did it his first time out! He was so proud and it was great to see people discussing his game. This is obviously much more than he can get just by playing online.” Smiling, he continued, “we expect to be spending a lot of time here, which is just fine with us. We like it here.”
Between tournament rounds, Caleb Steele explained why he finds chess so appealing. “Chess is a game that has stood the test of time and it is a great mental exercise. I like the simple mechanics of the game and how it spins up into a beautifully complex game.” This Electrical Engineer loves visiting the Memphis Chess Club to unwind and develop his skills. Steele hopes to build up his ranking and get comfortable enough to travel to other cities to compete in larger events.
Far away from the chess action on the mezzanine level sat Arya Newberry, a student at the Southern College of Optometry, busily working away on her laptop. When asked what she likes about the Memphis Chess Club she quickly said, “Oh, I don’t play chess. I like it here because the food is good and cheap, the chairs are comfortable, and they are open late. I come here to study all the time. I love it.”
Gearing up for his next match, Graham Horobetz, National Master (2200+ rating) explained what makes the Memphis Chess Club unique. “I have played all over the country and I really enjoy the mix of the high level chess being right next to the more casual cafe feel.” He continued, “The Memphis Chess Club does a really nice job of being open to newcomers and to regulars, as well as, National level players and I think it has a lot to do with the environment they have worked hard to develop.”
Based in the Memphis area, Horobetz got his start in the Memphis Chess Club in 2007. He believes, “… that the Memphis Chess Club can continue to grow and become a distinct destination for the chess community, not only regionally, but nationally. I think the club being awarded ‘Chess Club of the Year’ by the US Chess Federation in only their second year shows that they are well on their way.”
Horobetz went on to tout the potential for the Memphis Chess Club to be a strong driver of tourism to the city and specifically downtown. “When we offer classes or put on big tournaments people have been driving a full day to get here. Some have flown in from all over.” Horobetz continued, “This place is so unique. When people discover it, they end up taking pictures of everything and can’t wait to tell their friends.”
October 28 – 30 the Memphis Chess Club hosted almost 100 players for the 76th Peter P. Lahde Tennessee Open and State Championship, the first time the event has been held in Memphis in more than twenty years. Along with some of the country’s best chess play, the event also featured 3 side scholastic youth tournaments, the TN Blitz championship (high speed chess), and a simultaneous demonstration by visiting Grandmaster Alex Fishbein. This incredible player faced off against a crowd of players in 20 separate matches at the same time, without losing a single game! Four players in the talented field were able to come away with draws – something they will undoubtedly brag about for years to come.
General Manager of the Memphis Chess Club, Mike Shuey, had this to say about the future of chess in Memphis, “The future looks bright! We are growing. New players are coming in everyday and they seem excited about what we are building. Of course, we appreciate the recognition of the US Chess Federation [2022 Chess Club of the Year] and Memphis Magazine [Top 10 New Restaurants of 2022], but what I find really exciting is all the new folks coming in for the first time, discovering or re-discovering chess and joining our community.” He continued, “I think our plan to host weekly tournaments and classes for all levels at affordable prices has gone a long way to helping people that would have otherwise been intimidated by a ‘chess club’ setting be much more comfortable and willing to engage.” Laughing, “A solid beer and wine selection also helps!”
Next up for the Memphis Chess Club? They are hosting the Mid-South Open on November 25 – 27. The top prize is $1,000. Have you got the moves to take it home? Let’s find out.
Gary Blevins is the President of Board Game Nation, a community of people that love all types of tabletop games. Board Game Nation shares this love by creating and promoting engaging content surrounding great games while featuring our favorite local game stores.