The first chess club in New Zealand was the Dunedin Chess Club which was formed in September 1863. This was the forerunner of many similar ventures such as the Dunedin Athenaeum Chess Club, all of which took shape in the 1863–70 period. They antedated the foundation of the Napier Chess Club, which owed its origin to the enthusiasm of J. W. Whitty. This club was founded in April 1876, not 1863, as is sometimes erroneously stated.
At the present time there are over 120 clubs in existence, 44 belonging to the New Zealand Chess Association, which came into being in the 1870s. The association, refounded in 1892, conducts the annual championship, usually held in the Christmas – New Year period. The Australian master, C. J. S. Purdy, stated in 1955 that New Zealand holds the record for annual tourneys for a national chess championship.
New Zealand was one of the earliest countries to make use of telegraphic interclub chess as a method of play. Christchurch beat Nelson in two consultation games in 1866. The first interclub match was played between Canterbury and Otago in 1869. The Bledisloe Cup, presented by the Governor-General in 1933, is competed for annually in this way, and the Blackburn Cup is the subject of a competition among minor clubs.
In 1887 Count von der Lasa visited New Zealand. Earlier in the century he had been one of Europe's strongest players and, although by then an elderly man, he was still regarded as an authority on the theory of chess. There were further visits by European masters when Boris Kostich, of Yugoslavia, included New Zealand in his world tour of 1924. Lajos Steiner, the Hungarian grand master, came in 1937. Both masters played exhibition chess. In 1947 Robert Pikler, the well-known violinist, also played some exhibition chess while on a concert tour. The first strong Australian player to visit New Zealand was W. S. Viner in 1906–07. Others who followed included S. Crakenthorp, C. J. S. Purdy, and M. E. Goldstein. The usual pattern was for the visitors to play not only in the annual championship tourney but also in exhibition games. C. J. S. Purdy was the first schoolboy to win the championship, but Rodney Phillips became the youngest person to win the title, in 1956, when he tied with A. Feneridis. This also made him at 14 the youngest person ever to have held a Commonwealth national title.
Six players have been awarded the title of New Zealand master, namely, J. B. Dunlop, A. W. Gyles, W. E. Mason, R. Phillips, O. Sarapu, and R. G. Wade. Wade, who has lived abroad since 1949, is the only New Zealander to hold the title of an international master. Ortvin Sarapu, originally an Estonian but now a naturalised New Zealander, is probably the most outstanding player in New Zealand at present. In 1952 he played C. J. S. Purdy, then champion of Australia, for the championship of Australasia. The match, played at Auckland, was drawn, the players becoming joint champions for 1952. Sarapu took first place at the Melbourne International Tournament in 1955, the greatest success ever achieved in an international event by a New Zealand representative.
Correspondence chess has always been popular in New Zealand. Annual championship tournaments and other events are organised by the New Zealand Correspondence Association, with headquarters at present in Auckland.