It has been speculated that chess evolved in the United States from the American Indians. Early American Indians played many different board games with one of them being a game in which men were captured and two types of men moved differently. It is virtually impossible to be sure whether any of those games preceded the coming of European contacts but they can serve as a historical bookmark on the possible origins of chess.
It is known that chess came with the earliest Spanish settlers. There is recorded evidence of chess being taught to the Indians by Spanish settlers as early as the 15th century. Historical experts do not find this fact surprising, since the Spanish of that period were the most active chess players in Europe. What is surprising, however, is that there are few references to chess within the current boundaries of the United States before the 18th century.
It is assumed that the first game within the current United States was probably in St. Augustine, Florida. This is mostly likely due to the fact that the founder of St. Augustine, Pedro Menendez, was a favorite of Philip II of Spain, who in turn was a patron of Ruy Lopez, the famous chess-playing priest. In spite of all this there is still no evidence and no record of the first official chess game.
The early pilgrims left no written evidence of chess, although one of their legal documents listed a number of other games. Benjamin Franklin left written references to the Spanish spreading the game of chess but even then the reference is vague. The documented history of American chess begins in 1733, when there were suddenly three known US chess players. Two of those were Benjamin Franklin and his chess-playing “acquaintance,” who was an unnamed fellow student of the Italian language. The question of when Benjamin Franklin learned chess is still unknown. The fact that he made no mention of chess in that early writing suggests, but does not prove, that he had not yet learned chess
The other player from that year was Rev. Lewis Rau of New York City, who was a Huguenot minister. Rev. Rau prepared a manuscript in 1733 about chess, which was in response to a British political article that had used chess references. Rau’s manuscript was apparently not published but serves as another bookmark in the early history of chess.
Chess progressed slowly in the United States during the early 19th century. Though this is when the rules that are used today were firmly established. Only a small number of chess books appeared from American presses before the 1840’s, and many of them were simply editions of English books that had been reprinted. It is abundantly clear that there were no American “stars” in chess above the local level at that time.
In the late 1820’s and early 1830’s after the “great chess automaton” toured American cities there was greatly increased interest in chess around the country. In addition a number of chess clubs appeared in major cities in the first decades of the 1800’s, and some local players achieved acclaim in some of those places. It was during the 1840’s, that organized chess in the US left its prolonged infancy and began to become a national game. It was also at this time when an explosion of publications in magazines and newspapers began to focus exclusively on chess exciting even more interest in the game.
The first US Championship competition was held in 1845, with Charles Stanley winning in New Orleans against Eugene Rousseau. Interestingly enough it was viewed by Paul Morphy, then aged eight, who would go on to become one of the most legendary figures in chess history. It was from this point on that international competition became part of the game of chess in the US.
Russian players would dominate the chess arena for nearly the next 100 years until the arrival of the Bobby Fischer. Bobby Fischer’s play was to ignite a firestorm of interest in chess through movies, television and printed media that continues today.