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War Games: Chess

Chess Is One of the World's Oldest Games, and Today Elegant and Unusual Sets Are Valued as Collectibles
Nicholas M. Dawes
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96

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Formed 12 years ago in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Chess Collectors International helps its members understand the vagaries of the chess marketplace and how to accurately determine the value of sets and other collectibles. A newsletter published two to three times a year provides auction results and other information for some 2,000 chess aficionados who hail from around the world--from South Africa to Abu Dhabi, from the United States to Russia. The group also strives to advance the study and history of chess, not only as a game but as an art form.

Members of the group own, on average, about 100 to 125 chess sets each, according to Floyd Sarisohn, who serves as the American contact for the organization. Sarisohn and his wife, Bernice, have been collecting sets for 43 years and, as of last count, own what is believed to be the largest collection in the United States, with 673 sets in their Long Island home. The site doubles as the Long Island Chess Museum, which the Sarisohns open informally on weekends and by appointment. Another big collector is George Dean, the founding president of Chess Collectors International and the chairman of the group's upcoming convention in Washington, D.C. Dean and his wife, Vivian, who started their collection some 20 years ago, own about 250 sets; many are loaned to friends while another 60 were donated to a museum. Their 11 grandchildren help them "break in" newly acquired sets. "Each time we get a set," Dean says, "we play with that set once, then put it on the shelf."

While sets (or "miniature statuary," as Floyd Sarisohn describes it) are the top collectible among the group's members, other items have gained in popularity. Books, boards, posters, T-shirts, ties, advertisements, art, postcards--almost anything with a chess theme is fair game.

The heart of Chess Collectors International are its biennial conventions, four- to five-day affairs that feature seminars and speakers on chess collecting; exhibitions at city museums; displays of chess art, books and stamps; the sale and trading of sets and other chess materials; and, when feasible, auctions. When the convention descended upon London in 1986, Sotheby's and Phillips jointly organized an auction; Phillips also ran an auction for the Munich congress in 1988 and will have the honors again this October at the Washington, D.C., gathering, where about 150 to 200 sets are expected to go on the block. Other conventions have been held in New York City, Paris and St. Petersburg, Russia; the 1998 event is scheduled for Vienna.

On each occasion, the group has persuaded a major museum to trot out its chess collection. When the convention came to New York in 1990, Sarisohn says, the Metropolitan Museum of Art "grudgingly" agreed to display its collection for six weeks (it hadn't been shown since 1964), but ultimately kept the exhibit up for 18 months! In addition, 100 sets displayed by the Citicorp Building in honor of the convention attracted approximately 75,000 people.

The national groups within Chess Collectors International occasionally get together between conventions. In April, members of the U.S. contingent were scheduled to attend a special exhibition of sets and books at the Cleveland Public Library, which houses the world's largest collection of chess books.

The programs for the conventions are, in general, written in both English and the language of the host country. This year, organizers are planning to do something a little different. "We want to produce a collector's book with [reproductions of] ads from the cigar, liquor and other industries that have used the game of chess to advertise in newspapers and magazines," says Sarisohn. The program will be distributed to members of Congress and other dignitaries, in addition to convention attendees, with proceeds from program advertisements going to help teach chess to youngsters in the nation's capital.

The Washington convention will be held from Oct. 23-27 at the Vista Hotel on M Street. For more information on the convention or Chess Collectors International, you can contact Dean at 18900 West Ten Mile Road, Southfield, Michigan 48075, or call him at (810) 424-8340.

--Bruce Goldman


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