Is the Sport of Chess Older than Income Taxes?

By: Travis H. Brown, MBA

While the City of Saint Louis will soon be 250 years old, the international sport of Chess dates back to at least 1500 years. That got several of our lobbyists and media experts wondering: is the professional idea of chess older than the idea of taxing one’s personal income?

The early forms of the game that became chess come from India before or around the 6th century AD. Some may claim that early civilizations that tithed by offering up their first fruits could count as a concept of taxing personal production. However, Wikipedia takes us to ancient China in the year 10 CE. Emperor Wang Mang slapped his Xin Dynasty with ten percent tax on all profits for professional and skilled labor. Without the benefit of facebook, twitter, or email, it took his citizens only 13 years to overthrow him and repeal such policies.

As chess spread into Persia, and later into Europe, so did the concept of taxing one’s income. If chess can be thought of as a professional sport that simulates the Art of War, then it’s financier with past governments in real war was often the income tax. At least that has often been the excuse, as Britain chose to do in preparation for the Napoleonic Wars in 1798.

Eighteen years later, the war income tax did get repealed, but, true to some halls of government, its memory was not forgotten. Meanwhile, by 1851, London gave the world our first modern chess tournament than was won by a German. Dueling tournaments across European countries helped shape chess as a sport for all kingdoms, cultures, and ages.

Ten years later, America imposed its first personal income tax for, well, you guessed, war again.

The Revenue Act of 1861 charged 3% off all incomes over the near equivalent of $20,000 or more in today’s terms. The fledgling State of Missouri also imposes its first temporary income tax which was quickly-repealed after the Civil War.

As civil war moved to reparation and reconstruction in America, here came the World Chess Championship of 1886 where four matches were played in Saint Louis. This international event featured the civic rise of our great city at a time without any city earnings tax, or tax on a professional athlete’s income.

With prosperity in American from the 1880’s to the 1910’s came a surge in chess as a sport again.

A curious political series of turns then concluded by 1913 with the 16th Amendment that gave Americans their first peacetime income tax. At the State level, Missouri’s income tax table was later applied from the Great Depression time when no one ever expected to have income, in 1931.

As the rules on taxing income shifted when the “wars on prohibition” demanded more government revenues, so did the popularity and focus of the game of chess within the Show Me State.

So, the origin of chess and income taxes may be hard to compare, but their justifications and use between war and peacetimes has certainly been cyclical over the generations. Saint Louis City and Missouri itself may prove pivotal to the next chapter of both subjects, as the City opens a new Hall of Fame while the State tries to end its personal income tax .

In one of our next blogs, we will compare tax tables to chess moves in the context of contemporary history to explore this subject further.