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May 29, 2011

Earth vs Space Chess: A Chance to Checkmate the Cosmos

Life on the International Space Station requires intense concentration, critical thinking skills, and strategic contemplation of what could come next, because hundreds of kilometers above the Earth, there is a lot at stake. With one wrong move, you could lose your queen.

Hal Bogner is a chess master who lives in the southwestern U.S. state of California.  Last week, shortly after U.S. astronaut Greg Chamitoff completed a seven-hour spacewalk, Bogner said he imagined the astronaut floating in space, contemplating a chess board. "I don't know if he had a moment to think about it, but here he is, the first person in space to threaten to checkmate an entire planet in one move," he said.

Bogner is the match director for the Earth versus Space chess match that is being waged between U.S. astronauts Greg Chamitoff and Gregory Johnson and, well, Earth.  Or anyone on Earth with access to the Internet who wants to join in the game.

Astronauts Chamitoff and Johnson are both crew members on the current space shuttle Endeavour mission, and they played their match against Earth until they undocked from the International Space Station Sunday. 

Bogner noted that both sides, Earth and Space, missed opportunities to make aggressive moves.  And, more than two weeks in, neither side has won.    

As match director, Bogner keeps track of the moves the astronauts post on Twitter and the moves people around the globe vote for on the U.S. Chess Federation website.

Although the game is hosted by a U.S. organization, Bogner says the Earth versus Space match has captured the attention of people all around the world. "South Africa, in Belgium, in Iraq.  Somebody in Iraq described himself as a computer repair shop manager," he said.

Astronauts Chamitoff and Johnson talked about the game's universal appeal in a video they produced while on the International Space Station. "One of the great things about chess is that it brings people together from all walks of life people from different cultures, [with] different languages, [from] different countries," said Johnson.

Floating in microgravity as they posed with a magnetic chess board before them, the astronauts said the match was both fun and challenging. Then, they issued a challenge of their own.

"It's your move," they said.

In fact, it is no longer just Earth's move, but Earth's decision. Bogner says, given that neither side won while the astronauts were in space, the public will have a chance to vote for the team that played the better game.

Hard to believe, but this is not the first match of its kind. Chamitoff represented Space in a similar match-up in 2008, a game Earth won.