My Chess Sets

I own two chess sets. Well, technically, I’ve owned dozens of sets, mostly cheap garbage. Most of my relatives knew I liked chess as a kid, and so they’d get me a chess set for my birthday. While the thought is certainly nice, wouldn’t someone who likes chess already have a chess board? And why would you buy the cheapest, most plastic board possible?

The spirit was nice, but this was probably the least useful birthday present ever. Worse than socks.

To be fair, to non-chess players a board is a board. What does it matter if it’s high quality or not, it’s just a board game, right? Also, it’s useful to have a smaller set for travelling purposes. My big chess set is certainly beautiful, but it’s not the most portable. Having a magnetic board for car rides or bus trips definitely helps.

Still, I don’t count these as my chess sets. They could vanish without a trace tomorrow and I wouldn’t bat an eye, or likely even notice. No, I have two chess sets, one brand new and beautifully carved out from a European artist … and the other carved during World War II.

Let’s start with that one. My grandfather was detained in Italy as a prisoner of war. He didn’t talk about this experience much … or at all. War was a sensitive subject, best to be avoided. Not that he would tell me anything anyway. I was young and innocent, and he didn’t want to share his visions of hell on earth.

I only know about his stint as a prisoner of war because of two reasons. One, my grandfather hated pasta. Absolutely hated it. I guess he had pasta for breakfast, lunch and dinner there, and it was enough for a lifetime. I don’t think he willingly ate pasta ever again. Second, and more relevant for our purposes, my grandfather carved a chess set out of a broom during his stay, a set I now hold and treasure.

Note that he didn’t make the board, only the pieces. Doesn’t matter; the pieces are what counts, and they are near and dear to my heart.

Considering the circumstances (war, imprisonment, worrying about family, the memory of friends dying right before his eyes, etc), I consider this chess set as perhaps the greatest art pieces ever created. The figurines are all obvious at a moment’s notice, and amazingly symmetrical. I’m not sure what tools he used, but it’s fantastic. The only irregularities are with the pawns (there are sixteen of them, so of course it’s harder to make all of them perfect compared to only four of each other piece) and with the Knights (the most stylized of the pieces).

Even these are beautifully rendered, and they fit in the hand like a dream.

It is my favourite chess set, bar none. I’m probably biased, because I learned how to play with it. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent staring down at it, whether playing games, analyzing positions or just observing the geometry of the chess board. My first real victory happened with this chess set. In fact, just about everything associated with my chess development happened with this set set.

My Grandfather's Chess Set

Alternate view, which also features all my chess books in the background.

At this point, it’s more than a chess set. It’s a veritable symbol. It represents me, my complete chess history, made by the person who not only taught me chess but got me addicted to it. This is why it is so precious to me … and it’s also why I so rarely use it. It’s over sixty years old, and the wear and tear is obvious. The colours have become muted; before they looked quite distinct, but time has turned them almost the same. The pieces themselves have become brittle. One pawn has actually broken in half. My grandfather made extras, one each for both sides, but that’s still not a good sign.

I don’t want to use these pieces anymore. They mean far too much to risk breaking, and I could never get them repaired. I thus don’t use them. I look at them constantly, and I might set the pieces up, but using them just feels like a risk, a risk I don’t want to take. I want this set to last forever.

Here are all the major pieces in all their glory.

If I don’t use them, though, then I don’t have any other pieces available. That’s not good, as I need a board. Computers have made studying chess a heck of a lot easier, as you can just arrow through game after game, almost mindlessly, and expert analysis is always a click away. For all that, there still is some magic in looking at a real board and using real pieces, going through a game slowly, move by slow move.

Many players have no patience for that anymore, but I think it’s one of the best training tools. Say you are analyzing a game. You go through the first five moves and then look at a side variation. Maybe it involves many captures. By the end, the position is a mess, and so you just restart from the beginning, move one. You then get to move seven and find a new variation. You go through that, and then you reset, restarting from move one again, etc etc.

Doing it this way, with a real board, gives you such a better insight into the game. You end up playing through it not just once but a half dozen times, maybe even more. Your memory improves, to the point you can memorize the key positions and start there rather than the initial position every time. Heck, I’ve often memorized entire games this way. I didn’t try to, it just happened. That’s the benefit in having a real chess board… and I don’t have one.

I thought about this for awhile, not really thinking much of it … and then, about a week ago, I got an email from Chess Central. Yes, I’m on the mailing lists of just about every chess website. I looked through randomly, not really caring .. and then I saw it. My future chess board. I thought for less than 10sec before trying to buy it … and then finding out with the exchange rate shipping to Canada it would cost almost $200. No, that’s not going to happen.

Fortunately, I found more or less the identical board on Amazon for half price, and I didn’t hesitate. Yes, it’s a lot … but it’s beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.

Plato would call this the Form of both Chess and Beauty.

I have to start with the board. It is perhaps the nicest board I’ve ever seen. It feels great; it’s smooth, it has weight to it but without being unduly heavy. The colours are sharp and clear, but the real draw are the small carvings all around it. Board coordinates have been carved all around in an elegant font, and there are small symmetrical rune-like patterns all around. It’s fantastic.

The pieces, too, have these little carvings, the Kings and Queens in particular. These small details, much like tiny positional advantages, add up to something great. I look at this set and I just feel happy. When I glide a piece across the board, it feels right. It feels good. It feels completely worth every penny I paid.

Here it is on my desk. It’s BIG, taking up the entire surface. I love it for that. Chess is a big game.

Indeed, this set has re-ignited my passion in a way. I’ve been waffling back and forth since my devastating loss, trying to find a way to get back in chess and overcome my disappointment. Now that I have this, it’s no doubt. I see the beauty of chess without even moving a piece. There’s no question now: I’m back.

Some people collect chess sets. Though I’ll admit there are many beautiful sets out there, and also many fun themed ones, I don’t think I’ll do that. I have everything I need.

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