Chess is a 1,500-year-old game, but that doesn’t mean people don’t try to change and improve it. And some of those people have patented their ideas. Part 1 of a series on chess inventions examines patents to make the game more modern.

This is the first of a three-part series.

Modern tournaments include such devices as chessboards that automatically record each player’s moves, digital clocks with preprogramed tournament time controls and handheld electronic devices that can store thousands of game notations.

All are clearly products of the computer and technology revolution of the last 20 years. Except that they are not. The reality is that for every chess gadget or electronic accessory that today’s players take for granted, there was a crude forerunner of some sort developed decades and sometimes more than a century ago. A search of records of the United States Patent and Trademark Office shows:

• The first U.S. patent for a chess game recorder was granted in 1906 to Lala Raja Babu of India. A similar device was patented in 1925.

• The first U.S. patent for an apparatus to enable people to teach themselves chess and perform opening analysis was granted in 1894.

• And, the first U.S. patent for a mechanical chessboard was granted in 1942.

These are just a few of the chess-related inventions over the last century or so. Some of the ideas were brilliant while others were downright wacky. They range from audible chess pieces that emitted a sound to indicate if a player had violated the “touch-move” rule, to chess pieces that light up to let players know whose turn it is, to chessboards that doubled as carrying cases.

Since chess is based on war, it comes as little surprise that numerous attempts have also been made to alter the dynamics of the game of kings and queens to make it more interesting to modern players and more reflective of contemporary battlefields as warfare has evolved.

In January 1944, a Brooklynite named Benjamin Hoffman applied for a patent for a “military chess game” in which “actual military moves of a battlefield are accurately simulated.”

 Much like the global World War that was raging at the time, Hoffman’s game featured infantrymen, tanks, anti-aircraft guns, and both light and heavy artillery pieces, although they did not precisely mimic the moves in classical chess.

Played on a 12-by-8-square rectangular board, each piece had the ability to “knock each other out of the game,” and a player won once he “managed to move one of his pieces the complete width of the board and to the rear line of defense of his opponent.”

The rules were not entirely clear, but the game also featured a movable smoke screen to prevent players from peering over the screen to see how the other player was arranging their pieces.

Hoffman was one of several inventors who sought U.S. patents to make chess more like contemporary battlefields.

In 1947, Paschal Guy obtained a patent for game pieces that included submarines, torpedoes and aircraft carriers from which planes could be launched. The pieces were to be played on a game-board “almost exactly like a regular chess board,” except that it had eleven rows of eleven squares because Guy thought his game would be “cramped” by a regular chessboard.

Guy described his pieces as being able to “create a simulated naval combat so closely approximating the actual conditions and strategy that it practically becomes a three dimensional battle of reality on a two dimensional surface.”

Sometimes, the innovations have been global — literally.

For example, in 1965 David Kass — through the Original Toy Corporation— sought a patent for a borderless chess board in the form of a global sphere with magnetic pieces.

The lines that demarcated the files and ranks were more like longitudes and latitudes. One player was supposed to start from the region of the south pole and the other from the north.

Kass seemed to think his invention would have global appeal.

“All of the games that are played on the conventional board can be played on my new apparatus,” his patent states. “However, the actual moves may differ greatly because the structural change embodied in the new apparatus makes possible new moves, with enhanced challenge and pleasure.”

Several decades later, in 1994, Michael H. King applied for a patent for another “military chess game” that featured “military pieces simulating military personnel, armament, and a headquarters.”

“The rules of chess apply except that the military pieces are enabled to move in a manner simulating movement of military equipment, which enables the players to combine military strategy with chess-like logic,” his patent states.

Besides infantry men, King’s pieces included armored tanks, fighter planes, attack helicopters, bomber planes and command headquarters, which represented the king. Instead of opponents’ command headquarters being put in check, they are put under “radar lock.” Un-winnable games do not end in draws, but with a “truce.” If a player wins a game, he or she declares “victory.”

Attempts to make chess reflective of modern warfare continue to this day.

Majid Khodabandeh, an Iranian-born immigrant to the United States, considers his “political chess game,” which was patented in 2006, as a “perfection” of classical chess.

In an interview, he refers to the 160-square board as the “highest political chessboard.”

The pieces include the White House; a donkey for Democrats; an elephant for Republicans; a camel for Arab nations; the symbols of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; a star for Communists; and guns. And there are five colors to represent all the races of world, not just black and white.

“Everybody should have one chess game at home like my chess game,” said Khodabandeh, 56, who lives in Cincinnati, and is working on a PhD in psychology.

“My pieces in my chess game, all of them relate to today’s political society,” said Khodabandeh. “That’s a completion of the old game,” he said. “The old game does not relate to the society.”

Khodabandeh — who speaks of having sold a “few” of the 500 or so chess games he has made — said when children play it, they will be learning “lots of things about politics.”

He said he hopes to get his game manufactured and sold to the general public, but that lack of financing is holding him back.

One toy company offered to manufacturer 10,000 of Khodabandeh’s game sets at $5 per set for a total of $50,000.

“Every toy manufacturer, they do not want to talk with the inventor,” Khodabandeh explained. “You have to have a lawyer or somebody negotiate with the manufacturer. They don’t want to directly deal with the inventor.”

He said he has been reluctant to hire a lawyer because “there is no guarantee that I can sell it.”


Jamaal Abdul-Alin is a Washington, D.C.,-based senior staff writer at Diverse Issues in Higher Education. Previously he was a full-time free-lance journalist whose articles have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, including Education Week, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and US News & World Report. He studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin and was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University. He has a home page and he can be followed on Twitter (@dcwriter360)