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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

(continued from page 1)

Chess enjoyed respectability and popularity between the Renaissance and the end of the eighteenth century, although only individuals of privileged position were encouraged to play, prompting the accolade "the royal game," a moniker that probably dates from the sixteenth century. Pieces of this period tend to be of exquisite execution to suit the discriminating standards of aristocratic patrons.

The nineteenth century saw chess move from the marquetry tables of palaces into the mainstream. It was promoted in P.T. Barnum fashion by exotic masters who, in newly formed chess clubs, would play several games simultaneously--blindfolded! The game was popularized by international tournaments, the earliest of which were often between France--which, with Italy, had dominated the game in the eighteenth century--and England, which rose to prominence during the 1830s. Competition soon surfaced in other European nations and the United States, which produced its first international champion, Paul Morphy, in 1858. Morphy, who learned the game at age 10 and defeated the reigning U.S. champion three years later, may be the first chess wunderkind, a phenomenon that is embodied today by the Polgar sisters of Hungary, all of whom achieved master status as teenagers. Nineteen-year-old Judit Polgar, the youngest sister and a grandmaster, is considered by many to be the best female chess player in history.

It is generally accepted that the resurgence of chess began during the extraordinary series of 21 games played between Bobby Fischer of the United States and Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union in Reykjavík, Iceland, in 1972, from which Fischer emerged as world champion. The electricity of this event was generated by a combination of Fischer's eccentric personality and chess style and the tournament's obvious metaphorical representation of the Cold War, for which, considering the larger conflict's outcome, the Fischer-Spassky challenge served as a fitting prelude. Fischer refused to defend his title three years later, fading from the limelight until he defeated Spassky again in a 1992 rematch in Yugoslavia. Once again, Fischer generated controversy, literally spitting on a U.S. Treasury Department letter warning of severe penalties for violating United Nations sanctions by playing in the war-torn country.

Kasparov, like Fischer, has also ruffled some chess feathers. Despite his recent success against Anand, Kasparov receives little support from chess enthusiasts, many of whom view his delaying tactics and gamesmanship at the New York tournament as arrogant, unfair and the actions of a prima donna. Some of this may be sour grapes from a chess establishment that is proud of its "proletarian" image and is not yet adapted to the huge prize monies offered by the fledgling Professional Chess Association (PCA), which sponsored the World Trade Center event with underwriting by the Intel Corp.

Kasparov, virtually unbeatable over the past decade, led a secession of grandmasters from the established Federation Internationale D'Echecs (FIDE) to the PCA four years ago in search of greater publicity and financial rewards. Thus chess, like boxing, has two world champions. The FIDE champion, by default, is Anatoly Karpov, who succeeded Fischer as world champion in 1975. Just to give you an idea of the exclusivity of this group, chess associations rank players from novice through several intermediate levels to expert, master, senior master, international master and grandmaster. The latter title, which is determined by a complex arrangement of scoring based on tournament performances, is held by fewer than 200 players worldwide.

For the modern chess collector, less is more. Pieces and sets of understated elegance achieved through an economy of design attract considerably more market enthusiasm than ornamental or revivalist creations. The chess market operates much like clock collecting; an older original set with superb execution and refined elegance will typically fare much better than one with extravagant design or materials. The sets that collectors find most distasteful were mainly produced during the late Victorian period, or in very recent years when expensive "prestige" sets in hard stone, precious metal or of unique design have been fed to hungry, affluent admirers. Such sets perform about as well in resale as the average S & L holding.

The yuppies of last century purchased highly ornamental sets, most of which were exquisitely carved from ivory in India or China for export. The common nature of these sets, combined with their lack of inspiration in design and execution, ensures a low market value, despite the impressive appearance most have at first glance.

The taste for excessive ornamentation among Victorian consumers dates from the "Great Exhibition of the Arts and Industry of All Nations"--the first singular World's Fair--held in London's Hyde Park in the summer of 1851. Visitors to the vast Crystal Palace, which housed the event, witnessed all of the opulence of the Renaissance and eighteenth century revived for modern consumption, including chess tables and sets of monumental proportion and monstrous design.

The Great Exhibition style was challenged by progressive design reformers who preferred the more conservative Arts and Crafts taste and looked upon a pre-industrial past for inspiration. The classic chess set designed by Nathaniel Cook in 1835 can be considered an outstanding example of British design reform, combining economy of manufacture with practical elegance and the romance of medievalism. Pieces are identifiable by symbols: a crown for the king, a coronet for the queen, miter for the bishop, horse head (inspired by the Elgin Marbles) for the knight, castle for the rook and ball for the pawn, which is based on the form of a Freemason's square-and-compass device.

Cook's pattern is named the "Staunton," after his friend Howard Staunton, the British chess master and scholar who approved the design and promoted its commercial production and tournament use. Like all great designs, Staunton sets have achieved a perennial popularity that is likely to continue as long as the game is played. Stauntons are the model of choice for all competition play, in which the kings are typically 3 3/4 inches high. Examples of this style can be found even in the humblest plastic traveling set. It is a testament to the subtleties of the game that chess players prefer Staunton over extravagance.

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