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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

Hunched over a group of concrete tables, a dozen or so men peer intently at chess boards, completely engrossed. Small time clocks tick away precious moments, moments in which the combatants are furiously plotting. As soon as moves click into place, plastic pieces fly back and forth. Strong moves are rewarded, weak ones punished. Within minutes, one player usually conquers, while the other licks his wounds.

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.

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