Chess is an old game, dating back at least 1,400 years. It was hugely popular in Europe throughout the medieval ages. In America, writes the U.S. Chess Federation, Benjamin Franklin was a fan.
In the mid-19th century, after American Paul Morphy beat Europe's greatest chess players, chess's popularity in the U.S. surged. Morphy's win was greeted with a reaction that a chess player today could only dream of. According to the July 2, 1859 edition of Scientific American:
The achievements of our young countryman, Paul Morphy, in vanquishing the most distinguished chess-players of Europe, have excited in our people a very pardonable degree of national pride; hence they have exhibited a strong exultant feeling in welcoming him back to his native land as the Chess Champion of the World. He has been received with high demonstrations in several cities, and public testimonials of great value have been presented to him; while at the same time poets have sung, and sages have delivered orations in his praise.
Yet far from cheering on this public fascination with chess, the writers of Scientific American seem downright dismayed. The article becomes a glorious piece of concern trolling, the sort of screed that today would be reserved for the latest shoot em' up video game, young adult novel franchise or fabricated teen trend.
[A] pernicious excitement to learn and play chess has spread all over the country, and numerous clubs for practicing this game have been formed in cities and villages. Why should we regret this? it may be asked. We answer, chess is a mere amusement of a very inferior character, which robs the mind of valuable time that might be devoted to nobler acquirements, while at the same time it affords no benefit whatever to the body.
Newton, Shakspeare and Milton were never good at chess, says Scientific American, and look what they've accomplished. Famous chess players, on the other hand, “seem to have been endowed with a peculiar intuitive faculty for making the right moves, while at the same time they seem to have possessed very ordinary faculties for other purposes.”
A game of chess does not add a single new fact to the mind; it does not excite a single beautiful thought; nor does it serve a single purpose for polishing and improving the nobler faculties.
As Clive Thompson points out, some of the Scientific American author's arguments against chess do actually make sense:
We can chuckle at what seems like a nutty, off-base argument — except the author makes some extremely good points. Take, for example, the argument that chess is too sedentary a pasttime for people who were living increasingly industrialized and sedentary lives. This was true, and still is! We’re now discovering that physical activity helps prime mental activity, and that taking walks in nature stimulates creativity. If you were a desk worker in 1859, finishing your work-week and then plunking yourself down at a chessboard — the video game of the day — for hours more of butt-planted, immobile cerebral activity probably did risk driving your mind into deep mental ruts.
What's really funny, says Thompson, is the massive rift between the mid-19th century perspective and today's. It's hard to imagine writers getting in a tizzy over the sudden spread of chess.