Chess Is One of the World's Oldest Games, and Today Elegant and Unusual Sets Are Valued as Collectibles
The scene is the southwest corner of Washington Square Park in New York City's Greeenwich Village. This is the city's chess district, which is not as well known as the diamond, garment or financial districts, but certainly quainter. The district is anchored by the tables in Washington Square (featured in the 1994 movie Searching for Bobby Fischer) and a pair of chess shops located one block south on Thompson Street, where patrons play until midnight for a dollar an hour.
A typical assortment of players congregates in the park, most of whom would look entirely out of place almost anywhere outside New York: recent Eastern European immigrants--including a sprinkling of defectors--ragtag Village intellectuals and ex-convicts who blend easily with the park's ubiquitous drug peddlers. Most of the games here are quick affairs, over within 10 or 15 minutes, but now and then a more leisurely match takes place. Much of the "blitz" action is played by hustlers who take on all comers, usually for $5 to $10 a game. "A lot of those hustlers played in prison, where you have plenty of time to learn," says Imad Khachan, owner of the Chess Forum on Thompson Street, where the slapping of pieces and time-clock buttons acts as counterpoint to the classical music playing in the background. "You can tell by the way they hold captive pieces firmly in their fists."
Khachan is benefiting from a renewed interest in the game, sparked in part by the world championship held in New York City last fall between Garry Kasparov, who earned $1 million for his victory, and the Indian underdog, Viswanathan Anand, who took home $500,000. The flurry of publicity attending the match has led, Khachan says, to a demand for lessons from a wide variety of people, including Wall Street executives, for whom the game is cheaper and more practical than golf and developing in status.
The Chess Forum and its older neighbor, The Village Chess Shop, sell books on the subject and sets of every description, including sets of interest to collectors. The chess collectibles market is wide-ranging, with choices including antiquities as well as collectibles of the future, such as a set depicting the characters from the hit Fox Television series, "The Simpsons." On the auction block, rare chess sets have commanded anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $10,000.
The Western association of chess with medieval imagery has led to a widespread belief that the game originated during the age of castles, crusaders and clergy. Yet versions of the game were being played in Asia at least three millennia before knights in armor rode through the Holy Land. The origins of chess are as mystical as the game itself. Some modern theoreticians compare the moves and geometrical progressions in the board to numerical symbolism, cosmic elements and ancient religious ritual, suggesting that the game may be a living legacy of a long-lost awareness.
The extraordinary secrets that may be locked in chess fascinated intellectuals during the Age of Enlightenment, including Benjamin Franklin, who published a treatise on the subject in 1786. The most copious and celebrated accounts of chess history were contained in On the Indian Game of Chess, published by English authority Sir William Jones in 1790, which described chess in its original version of chaturanga, first played in eastern India about 2500 B.C. Modern players would recognize the pieces of this ancient Hindustani war game, which until the sixth century was played using a king, rook (from the Indian word rukh, meaning a fighting animal and typically depicted as an elephant or camel), knight (usually a horse), bishop (depicted as a ship) and four pawns (foot soldiers). Chaturanga, from the Indian chatur (four) and anga (part of an army), was played by four players, each with eight colored pieces arranged on a conventional checkerboard of 64 squares. Moves were determined by the throw of a die, allowing an element of chance that is authentic to war, but preventing the battle of pure intellect into which the game has evolved.
About 1,500 years ago, a modified western Indian version of the game, called shatranj, emerged, in which the four armies allied into two opposing forces and one of the two allied kings became a "general" or "minister." This masculine piece later became feminine, probably under French influence in the fifteenth century, and gained the powers of a modern queen piece.
Shatranj filtered through the Byzantine empire in the seventh and eighth centuries and was taken by Saracens and Arabs into every corner of the Near East and North Africa. From North Africa the game's popularity spread northward, bringing some light to Europe's Dark Ages by the tenth century, by which time the game had reached England and Scandinavia.
Little evidence of the first period in European chess history remains. Of notable exception are the "Lewis chessmen," a remarkable horde of 78 pieces carved from morse ivory (fossil remains of walrus tusks) and containing the oldest known ecclesiastical "bishop." The set was discovered in an underground chamber on the remote Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides off the northwest coast of Scotland, in 1831. Although the Lewis islanders fiercely claim the men as their heritage, their actual origin is unclear. Some scholars believe the pieces to be Norse, pegging their creation between the eighth and twelfth centuries. The Lewis men are among only a handful of European pieces from this era; any examples made before the seventeenth century are extremely rare.
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.
From the middle of the last century until the Second World War, thousands of Staunton sets were made by the Jaques family firm in east London. Most sets were fashioned from boxwood and ebony and fitted with weights in the bases for greater stability. The finest sets were of turned African ivory, one side stained red or in ebony, also heavily weighted.
Jaques sets are the Rolls-Royces of chess collecting, particularly those in complete, original condition made during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. It is still possible to find never-used Victorian sets purchased from fashionable London stores such as Harrods, complete with a copy of John Jaques' pamphlet "The ABC of Chess" in the firm's distinctive mahogany boxes. Many Jaques products were marked, usually with a stamp to the white king or (later) both kings, and boxes bearing labels with the trademark "Staunton."
Jaques rivals included the Victorian London firms of William Lund and Fisher, both of which stamped the ivory and wooden sets they made, which were typically in patterns rivaling the Staunton, including "Calvert," "Edinburgh," "Old English" and "Saint George." Many contemporary Continental sets were of the figural type, particularly German sets, which were typically carved from soft woods and painted or fashioned in the traditional French pattern of elaborate spool-turned design, thought to be more authentic to ancient chess pieces.
"A good Jaques Staunton set can fetch up to $4,000," according to Nic McElhatton, head of European works of art at Christie's in London and organizer of its annual chess sale, the fourth of which will be held this fall. At the 1995 sale, more than 200 lots of chess books, sets, pieces and ephemera were sold to an enthusiastic audience that McElhatton described as "international, with a strong showing of Germans and Dutch, wealthy, and overwhelmingly male."
The auction offered a number of Jaques Staunton sets, which fetched prices ranging from a few hundred dollars to over $2,000; the usual large selection of Indian and Chinese export ivory sets, the best of which sold for $3,500 despite lacking nine pieces; and an early German ivory piece in fine condition, thought to be a queen of early seventeenth century origin and Eastern influence, which sold well above estimate at $2,500.
A few modern sets were sold, including an intriguing English silver traveling set of interlocking design made to commemorate the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match, which was an excellent buy at $1,500, and a 10-year-old Meissen porcelain set in eighteenth century style, which surprised the market by selling for $10,000.
Auctions of chess pieces are rarely held outside London, where the concept was begun by Phillips Fine Arts Auctioneers eight years ago. Luke Honey, head of Phillips' works of art department, has recently reduced his chess sales from two to one a year, partly in response to competition from other auctioneers, including Christie's, but also due to decreasing demand. Auctioneers agree there are still good sets and active buyers out there. At a recent English country auction, a set estimated to sell from $300 to $500 went for more than $5,000, "but the market is very small," Honey says. Nevertheless, aspiring collectors should approach such comments with bullish intent, as the quality, scarcity and collectible potential of chess sets appear to outweigh current prices.
Any market developed to the extent of modern chess collecting is likely to precipitate fakes and forgeries. McElhatton and Honey agree that fakes have appeared only in recent years and are generally limited to pieces that have been meticulously fashioned or altered to replicate missing pieces from an otherwise complete set. Other fakes include low standard pieces or sets that have been "promoted" by the addition of a spurious signature or label, a tempting move as marks may double or triple values. "I treat every mark with suspicion," says McElhatton, who adds that seasoned collectors and dealers can always spot a phony with the aid of a magnifying glass.
The most sought-after historical sets represent topical or unique cultural events, such as those made during the Napoleonic Wars, pitting Bonaparte against Wellington or an allied general, or the famous "Communist against Capitalist" propaganda sets made in the Soviet Union during the 1930s.
Novelty sets are an eye-catching addition to modern chess design, but few have the built-in collectibility of period pieces. Commemorative cast metal sets of the Franklin Mint type commonly depict historical images and do not represent their time, so when considering acquisitions, forget Union versus Confederacy--think Cowboys and 49ers. The same applies to most currently popular sets featuring familiar characters in miniature, including "Sherlock Holmes," with pawns modeled as truncheon-wielding bobbies, and even "The Flintstones" (guess who's the king!), which evokes the 1960s.
Dubious mention as an exception must be made of "The Simpsons," featuring the infamous family in 'toonland polychrome plastic, which captures the show's irony in its incongruity and demonstrates how far the game has come from its royal status.
Look for Bart and company at Christie's (gulp!) in the next century.
Nicholas M. Dawes is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado. A Wordly Pursuit
You've decided that a couple of Jaques Staunton and Indian ivory chess sets would look great over the fireplace, but you don't want to get burned trying to acquire them. Fortunately, a world of information is available from Chess Collectors International, an organization devoted to keeping the serious collector informed about all aspects of the chess marketplace.