Chess across the ages at the National Strong Museum of Play

Chess across the ages at the National Strong Museum of Play


with Nicolas Ricketts, collections curator and board game specialist 1/13/16 [Photo: Shane Rhinewald]

Like many, I am a big chess fan. And a huge fan of Rochester city school chess that every year grows in popularity and involvement.


At Chess, Rhymes and Wisdom (Frederick Douglass Campus)


Wildcats hoisting 2nd place trophy at the States

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.

In 2013 chess was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame

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.

newNic 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.


19th century era Chinese game set

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.


And this summer, check out the outdoor games played at Fringe Festival Headquarters. (Last summer Fringe actually gave Talker a Press Pass. Checkmate!)

On other museums:

War (literally) made into art at the Military History Society of Rochester

Art for the People premiers early at the MAG. Five year labor of love comes to fruition for curator Jessica Marten

Living the Native American way of being at Haudenosaunee Days at the RMSC

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


Like what you see on our site? We’d appreciate your support. Please donate today.

Featured Posts


%d bloggers like this: