Just recently five hundred dollars was raised for the Frederick Douglass Campus club, Chess, Rhymes and Wisdom. And we’ve written a lot about the Wilson Wildcats dynasty taking aim at a state title, as well as the success of SOTA. Monroe is organizing a new team. And chess will be back at East soon.
So I was thrilled to be invited by Shane Rhinewald, Director of Public Relations, and Nicolas Ricketts, collections curator and board game specialist, for a behind the scenes tour of chess at the Strong National Museum of Play.
As explained by Nic, the Museum has over 50 rare chess sets from cultures and nations around the globe and over time. The collection also includes all sorts of “Chess Variants” – ingenious versions of the game like Tri-Chess from Star Trek. Neat looking but often too mind boggling to actually play.
First, with Nic guiding Shane and myself, we looked at a Cold War chess set pitting the USA vs. the old USSR. (The four described sets seen on the table picture.)
The USSR pieces include Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Gorbachev (just under the wire). On the capitalist side are JFK, Reagan, Bush I and Clinton (a bit of a stretch). Interestingly, in this geopolitical game, the world leaders are actually the pawns. Perhaps Fisher and Spassky are pulling the strings offstage.
Next was the Lewis Chessman, a group of 78 chess playing pieces, or “chessmen,” discovered in 1831 on the isle of Lewis, one of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The pieces likely represent the oldest and most complete medieval chess sets yet discovered. A little surprised, we noticed the countenances of the royal pieces are not particularly commanding or masterful. The Bishop is sheepish, half hidden under his shield. The Knight (or it might be the Rook) looks like a weary old man. The Queen (or it might be the King) seems puzzled or overwhelmed by the daunting prospect of the next move. Not unlike Cold War Chess, we saw in the pieces some whimsical or satirical commentary on power.
Nic then brought from the archives a 19th century set made in China most likely to be sold overseas or to visiting Europeans. As he showed the intricate carving, Nic also explained the pieces were probably made in small factory-like facilities by forced laborers. In this case, it was pawns making pawns.
Lastly, there was a 19th century English set with pieces modeled from Roman antiquity, such as soldiers with crossbows riding elephants. This 19th century fascination with Roman figurines was in keeping with Britain’s own sweeping empire.
In each case, we were looking both at chess sets and rich windows into cultural and economic pasts.
We also walked around the main exhibit area. That’s me and Nic at the Knight. And forever frozen forces as the fate of the Five Dynasties or the Ten Kingdom lies in the balance.
As the tour ended, I thought city chess playing students would no doubt find the sets and their stories fascinating. Nic will gladly offer the tour to school groups. So chess coaches out there, contact Nic and make an appointment. You and your team won’t be disappointed.
And for more on chess, visit the Museum’s online collections.
On other museums: