In September of 2008 a chess game began between Earth and astronaut Greg Chamitoff onboard the International Space Station and the combined voting forces of Earth in the form of Stevenson Elementary School third graders in Bellevue Washington. The match marks the first game played between Earth and those orbiting Earth on record. But who won the chess match spanning well over a year and several thousand miles?
After his return to Earth, Chamitoff sent the Elementary school a letter congratulating them on their victory and conceding that they had him beat. He also told them that they showed incredible foresight in their strategy, and cooperation as they took great care in their strategy and determination to win the game. In his open letter to the students he said, “This was a fantastic game with so many intricate twists and turns. When the time between moves is measured in days, it seems that the depth of analysis and strategy happens at a different level. This made for a very exciting game!” He went on to say of the record breaking match between them, “This wasn’t the longest game ever played, but for sure it set a record for long distance.”
Though Chamitoff regretted not being able to play the entire game while on the station (as it continued after he returned to Earth via email), he was excited by the prospect of another game in the future, saying “perhaps there will be time for a complete ‘Earth vs Space’ match one day.”
The match was hosted jointly by NASA and the United States Chess Federation, which promotes the playing of chess for the sake of the game itself, but also as an allegorical example of problem solving in the real world. Founded in 1939, this was only one of the most recent high profile chess games played thanks to the USCF.
The game happened in the long hours between experiments, public appearances, and the very active process of staying healthy while suspended in zero gravity. Astronauts often have several hours in a day which must be spent fighting the cabin fever and the loneliness involved in being suspended several hundred thousand feet above the Earth. Needless to say, every distraction possible is important, and it was likely just as difficult to concede victory for the chess playing Chamitoff as it was exhilarating for the students to receive the victory after well over a year’s worth of playing. Often moves would reportedly be thought out days well in advance.
Though some may consider this merely a PR move on the part of NASA and the USCF, it is an important landmark because it is the first official competition of strategy between forces outside of Earth’s atmosphere and those within. Though it was merely a chess game, it is no doubt the first of many competitions, be they for resources or the basic human rights all intelligent beings strive for. Let’s hope future conflicts between the two are just as friendly and end just as well with a diplomatic letter of congratulations.