Commentary

Book Review: Chess Masterpieces

Chess Masterpieces: One Thousand Years of Extraordinary Chess Sets
By George Dean with Maxine Brady
Abrams, $65.00, 272 pages

Chess has tens if not hundreds of millions of adherents around the globe. A few participate in world-class tournaments. Most play “coffeehouse” chess with friends and strangers alike.

But some people are captivated not by the play of the pieces, but by the pieces being played. Thought to have originated in India in the sixth century A.D., the game has hopscotched around the globe, mutating as it went. Today, the rules are constant, but the sets are not. There is a vast array of designs and multitude of materials. It’s a perfect collectible.

Many collectors, like players, are patzers. Modern sets may be interesting and fun, but most are not rare or valuable, such as metal pieces representing The Lord of the Rings characters and plastic pieces of The Simpsons cast — two sets that I own.

However, there are truly serious collectors who concentrate on the unique and extraordinary. For example, George and Vivian Dean, founders of the group Chess Collectors International, have accumulated a — perhaps the — world-class collection of chess sets.

In Chess Masterpieces, George Dean uses his collection to illustrate the variety and artistry of what most people see as a schoolchild’s game.It’s an engaging story that helps explain the passion many of us have for the sets as well as the game.

Indeed, the passion for the hunt underlies collecting. Mr. Dean writes in the prologue about picking up the scent in 1977 of two Faberge chess sets, created before the Russian revolution swept away the luxuries of the czarist era. Faberge combines beauty and craftsmanship with rarity and value. Mr. Dean ended up acquiring both of them, one in 1977 and the other 26 years later.

Early chess was different from the game today. Mr. Dean begins the story with pieces and board games reaching back thousands of years. No complete sets exist, but the desire to play and compete is basic to humanity.

Game moves and set designs changed as chess moved from India to Persia and beyond. Writes Mr. Dean: “Chess was so well-established in the Arab world by 950 that caliphs kept resident chess players at their courts.” Islam sparked a move toward abstract designs, a simple yet elegant style that I enjoy collecting. Still, innovation occurred. Observes Mr. Dean, backed by beautiful photos of appropriate sets: “Some Islamic craftsmen moved beyond purely abstract shapes. They reasoned that although the Koran forbids representations of human or animal forms, pictures or sculptures of the plant world were acceptable,” leading to sets with floral shapes.

Medieval Europe felt no such inhibitions. Notes Mr. Dean, “Chess itself became a status symbol in Europe, played by aristocratic ladies as well as gentlemen.” The game evolved on the Continent, and so did the sets. Europeans created some of the finest sets now available. Some were largely abstract — such as a magnificent silver, topaz and rock crystal set of Mr. Dean’s. But many were figural, celebrating royalty, commemorating warring adversaries and more.

With Europe constantly at war, these conflicts provided themes for many sets. Americans think most of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, but 17th- and 18th-century European ivory sets commemorate the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, early Germanic wars and the French wars of religion. More recent sets represent the Napoleonic wars on to World War II. Mr. Dean includes under the Cold War one of my favorites: a porcelain Soviet propaganda set, matching capitalist exploiters against happy workers (it actually came out shortly after the Russian revolution, when some Westerners were bewitched by Soviet propaganda).

Materials also vary greatly. Gold sets exist, but only the wealthy (or powerful, who became wealthy or stole from the wealthy) could acquire them.Silver is more common and more affordable, but still rare. Lesser metals, from bronze on down, are far more common. Ivory and bone were widely used because they were relatively plentiful and easily carved. Wood was more common still. Glass sets have a unique character, while porcelain sets are among the most beautiful and elegant. Chess sets even have been made of amber, coral, bamboo and meerschaum. Plastic is a modern favorite. Mr. Dean illustrates sets made of all these materials.

Individual European countries had their own styles and signature sets. Mr. Dean highlights ivory and porcelain sets for France and porcelain and metal sets for Germany (including several of the truly magnificent Meissen sets, including one of frogs and another of an imaginative seascape).

Britain produced most everything, from ivory to wood to metal. Particularly notable were its Wedgewood jasperware (a bisque form of china) and Royal Doulton porcelain sets. My favorite probably is the large ivory Staunton design, with the best ones made by London maker Jaques. These may be the finest playing sets ever made, combining quality and elegance with utility.

Equally creative were countries on the Mediterranean and in Central Europe. Sets were made of different porcelains, Venetian and Murano glass, ivory and various woods, amber and fine metals. Russia produced more than Faberge and propaganda sets, including many wooden ones with peasants dressed in traditional costumes.

India, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and China produced many sets, most often ivory, and most often for the European market. Hong Kong artisans even targeted Britain and France, offering sets where the king was Napoleon or the British monarch. But these countries also incorporated symbols of local life. The Indian John set, for instance, one of today’s rarest and most valuable, includes elephants, chariots, juggernaut carts, lions and rhinoceroses.

The Western Hemisphere has not been without creativity, and Mr. Dean devotes a chapter to its sets. Most interesting in my view are modern designs in the 20th and 21st centuries. They tend to lack the intricate beauty of antique sets, but many nevertheless are elegant, even mesmerizing, mixing cylinders, curves and angles with varying colors and materials.

Chess Masterpieces is a biblio gem. It combines a valuable historical discussion of the development of chess with a truly invaluable pictorial record of the progression of chess sets. By presenting the beauty, diversity and history of chess sets as well as the game of chess, George Dean shows how one of the world’s most common games has become an important force of artistic development.

When not writing about policy for the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow, Doug Bandow, a member of Chess Collectors International, often is visiting antique shops or looking online in an attempt to augment his chess set collection.