Do Blacks have a Chess History?

February is “Black History Month” in the U.S. and each year people of African descent celebrate the accomplishments of their past and present. Blacks have storied histories in science, law, business, politics, arts and athletics. Most may not know or realize that Blacks also have a fairly rich (albeit recent) history in chess.

Queen Nefertari of Egypt playing Senet.

Queen Nefertari of Egypt playing Senet.

While the story of Theophilus Thompson is well-known and the triumphs of Walter Harris, Frank Street and Kenneth Clayton are known, there is new history being written each day. Recently Kim Bhari unveiled copies from old Kenyan chess newsletters. One of them had classic photos of the legendary K.K. Karanja giving simuls. When told about the photos, Karanja told The Chess Drum that they nearly brought tears to his eyes. Unfortunately there is much history that has not been documented or revealed.

This historical footnote was recently unveiled by Kim Bhari of Kenya. Kangugi ‘KK’ Karanja giving a simultaneous exhibition at Nairobi’s Invergara Chess Club.

In fact, history from the U.S., the Caribbean and Africa is being unearthed from old file cabinets, photo albums and from retired players. It is important that this information is made available so we can share these triumphs and allow them to be examples of inspiration for generations to come. The history is still new enough that many of the pioneers are still around to provide rich insights about chess decades ago.

Theophilus Thompson’s book, “Chess Problems” published in 1873.

In this Black history segment, I will post pictures of chess figures in Black history… some you will know and some you will not. If you have any old photos from the past, please share them here.

Daaim Shabazz

Dr. Daaim Shabazz is the creator and webmaster of The Chess Drum. He serves as a tenured faculty member of Global Business & Marketing at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, USA. He holds an MBA in Marketing and a doctorate in International Affairs & Development. He has served the journalist community for more than 30 years and still competes in tournaments occasionally.

5 Comments

  1. Great stuff Daaim. All the very best with this endeavour. Richest blessings to our brothers always but especially during this month. In Jamaica we are working on a history of our chess that will not only be very instructive and revealing, but a work that will stand the test of time!

  2. Great story and a big Thanks! I must ask if you could briefly explain “senet”. The similiarity in looks to chess is quite obvious but most main stream books place chess orgin in India.

  3. I don’t believe “Senet” is the forerunner of the chess that is played today. It appeared that there were many similar games. For example, there is “Chinese Chess” which is played on the lines as opposed to between the lines. “Chatauranga” appears to be the original India version and “Shatranj” is the Perisan descendant. It is unclear how chess got into Europe.

    One theory is that it went from Persia (Iran) across the Middle East across North Africa. The Moors of Morocco then took it into Spain after the invasion in 711 A.D. The other theory is that the Persians took it into Central Asia into Russia and then from Russia westward into Europe. In my view, the first theory is more plausible. The seat of chess romanticism appeared to start in Spain and France where the rules were re-written and pieces devised to symbolize Catholic deities. I write some history about this in an essay called “The Black Genesis of Chess – Moors of Spain“.

    Senet is more of a race between players. I have presented a similar version that originated out of Ethiopia called “Senterej”. Given that Kush was an influential empire of that day, it appears that Senterej, traveled north into lower Egypt and a new version was created.

    Link: https://www.thechessdrum.net/blog/2009/03/31/senterej-chess-with-ethiopian-flavor/

  4. I had not heard of Theophilus Thompson before, nor heard of Queen Nefertiti playing. This is fascinating history. I got here via google. Joining chess drum right away! Thanks!!!

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