A chess piece made of deer antlers from the late 14th century was found during the excavation of Diósgyőr castle, which suggests that our ancestors knew the game already at that time. According to authentic historical sources, King Charles Robert presented King John of Bohemia with a chess set during the Visegrád negotiations in 1355. More than a century later, two bags of chess pieces recorded in the inventory of the castle of Egervár in 1490 suggests that the game was known in the castle.
Chess literature in Hungary started in 1758 with the title "Sách, or rules and regulations tailored for a royal game". This booklet of just 37 pages is more of a rulebook, which also preserves the chess language of the time: castle is called tower, bishop is called archer and knight is called horseman. One of our first known chess players was Ferenc Batthyány, and from the 17th century, we must mention our writer-general Miklós Zrínyi, who so aptly compares valour to chess in his work “The Valiant Lieutenant” that it is a proof beyond doubt that he was a competent player. It is well known that Prince Ferenc Rákóczi II enjoyed playing chess both as a young man and during his exile.
The next stage of our chronological overview was the operation of Farkas Kempelen's chess machine, the Turk, one of the greatest chess historical mysteries of the 18th century. Kempelen started building the chess machine on the orders of Maria Theresa in 1769, and in early 1770, he presented it to the court. Its structure, consisting of a cupboard with a table and a number of cogs, and a puppet holding a pipe in one hand, resembling a Turkish magician in a turban - hence the name - amazed the public from the very sight of it. The machine was heralded by Kempelen as being able to take on anyone who sit down to play with it. On the other hand, it can solve a chess problem called 'the knight's way' (a mathematical problem where the knight touches each square on the board exactly once).
Kempelen's later popularity was based on his demonstration of the machine, but it was also widely believed that the ingenious inventor was a wizard, who used his magic to move the machine. The reality, however, was that a professional chess player could fit into the device, and he could track the position of the chess pieces containing metal cores based on the position of the magnetic needles attached to the bottom of the board. After a European tour, the chess machine was shown in the United States as a kind of magic show, but was destroyed in a fire in 1854. Only the chessboard of the Turk survived, and a few years later, its then owner Nepomuk Maelzel revealed the secret of the device: that a man hid in the box and actually moved the arms of the puppet. Among 19th-century politicians and prominent personalities, István Széchenyi must be mentioned, who did not abandon playing the game even during his years in Döbling. Lajos Kossuth, Artúr Görgei and György Klapka also played chess.
Among the writers and poets of the 20th century, we can find several passionate players, such as Frigyes Karinthy, Lajos Nagy and Attila József. Our scientists must not to be left out either: the Nobel Prize winner Albert Szent-Györgyi, who was chairman of the Szeged Chess Club, and the former president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Elek Szilveszter Vizi, who also competed as a student.
The first Hungarian chess association, the Chess Club of Pest (the predecessor of the Hungarian Chess Association), was founded in the 19th century, according to some opinions in 1839, but there is evidence that it existed already in 1842 in the Wurm Café. Its founders were the best-known Hungarian chess players of the time, József Szén, Vince Grimm and János Jakab Löwenthal. In 1849, the chess club was disbanded, and its re-establishment was only permitted in 1864, with Count Ödön Széchenyi as its chairman and patron, and Ferenc Erkel as its vice-chairman, who later held the title from 1865 to 1893 until his death.
The Hungarian Chess Association was founded in 1911, with Géza Maróczy and Dániel Huber as its presidents, and was disbanded in 1913. It was re-established in 1918, however, it was unable to start its activities due to the uncertain situation caused by the war. The association operated uninterruptedly from 1921 until 1944. In 1945, it was re-established under a different name, the Hungarian Workers' National Chess Association (MADOS). In 1956, it was renamed the Hungarian Chess Association again and has been operating under this name ever since. The president of the association was János Kádár for a short time in 1955, who was himself a chess enthusiast. What kind of player he was we are not sure, but the Hungarian chess sport owed a lot to him.
The International Olympic Committee has recognised chess as an Olympic sport since 1999. However, the Chess Olympiads are not organised together with the Olympics. As for Hungary's achievements in chess, the first two official chess Olympiads were won by Hungary in 1927 and 1928. The members of the legendary winning team were Géza Maróczy, Géza Nagy, Árpád Vajda, Kornél Havasi, Endre Steiner (Maróczy did not play in 1928). As for our women's team, they were excellent on several occasions: twice in 1988 and in 1990, our national team made up of the Polgár sisters (Zsuzsa, Zsófi, Judit) and Ildikó Mádl won gold medals. Hungary will next host the Chess Olympiad in 2024.
Women chess players
The first female chess player to be mentioned in history was Beatrix, wife of King Matthias, who was recorded not only by Bonfini but also by Heltai that she liked the board game. Those of whom we can be really proud: the Polgár girls, Zsuzsa, Zsófia and Judit, the special heroes of chess history. Part of what some call a "controversial experiment", the sisters were prepared from an early age to become world chess champions thanks to their father. Their father, László Polgár, decided to prove that 'genius' could be acquired, that with the right upbringing, any healthy child can be developed into a genius. The girls' ingenuity can be measured in numbers. Zsuzsa was considered one of the best chess players in the world during her active career from the 1980s to the early 2000s, and was also the Women's World Chess Champion from 1996 to 1999. Zsófia is an international grandmaster and a double Olympic chess champion. Judit won her first international tournament at the age of 9. She was 11 when she defeated a grandmaster for the first time. She won the International Grandmaster title in 1991, at the age of 15, and finished her career in 2014.
Two chess museums in Hungary, one in the town of Heves and one in Budapest, preserve relics of this great game and sport. The Chess Section can be found in the National Graveyard on Kerepesi Road, where four of our world-famous chess players are buried: Géza Maróczy, Rezső Charousek, Gyula Breyer and Gedeon Barcza.
Translated by Zita Aknai
Bottlik Iván: Kis magyar sakktörténet, Szerzői kiadás, 2004.