Check It Out: Statues for In-House Moves

My father taught me how to play chess when I was 7. Since then I've been trying to figure a way to turn it into a contact sport.

I never found the game boring, I just wanted more. I wanted explosions, shouting, metal grinding on metal. It was supposed to be a war game, after all. It needed more aggression. You could have some real adolescent yuks, I thought, if the rules permitted you to give your opponent an Indian burn every time you took a pawn and allowed you to flip a lighted firecracker into his ranks to announce that his king was in check.

Fortunately, my next-door neighbor, who had an ancient two-way office intercom, was also a chess freak. We set up the intercom boxes in our respective bedrooms, ran wire between the houses and played phone chess without tying up the telephone. It gave the game a sense of high-tech urgency and made us feel like spies.

This struck us as terribly adult and clever until we heard about people who played chess through the mail. One guy would write a long, literate epistle to his pal, holding forth on Current Affairs and Philosophy and Art and Man and Life Its Ownself, and end it with a P.S. indicating his move. The other guy would ponder this for a few weeks and write a similar letter back. These games would last longer than most marriages, and great friendships would be cemented.

My friend and I quickly realized the great advantage of playing through the mail: It forced you to keep your chess set displayed, in mid-game, always, allowing you to stroll by the board at your leisure, finger a couple of the pieces, put on a sage look, stroke your chin and say, "Hmmmmm."

It was as if a battle, albeit a benign and intellectual one, was always raging.

Also, I continue to believe that, short of a well-used piano, there is nothing that indicates that one is in a cultured house like an elegant chessboard with finely crafted pieces poised in mid-gambit.

Chess sets, displayed, are bric-a-brac with an actual purpose, little pieces of in-house statuary you are supposed to handle, and often.

Not to say that serious chess players are used to shoving pieces around the board that look like Charlemagne and Marie de Medici and Cardinal Richelieu, all hand-carved from Italian marble. Generally, they do their day-to-day skirmishing with pieces made in the Staunton style, said Jim Meyer, the associate director of the U.S. Chess Federation.

Staunton pieces are the most popular and widely used chessmen, Meyer said. They are named for an accomplished English player who designed them about a century ago. Physically they are symbolic, rather than literal: The bishop, for instance, is a rounded piece with a notch in the top that makes it resemble a bishop's miter.

Staunton pieces can be elegant and--if made from rare wood, metal or stone--can be pricey as well. Mostly, however, they are made from relatively inexpensive wood.

It is the stylized pieces, however, that catch the eye and dent the wallet. Chessmen many times are drawn from real life, real wars, real commanders, real soldiers and real monarchs. And, with a bit of judicious shopping, you're likely to find a set that will approximate the style of your home (if you want to be that picky; personally, I think it would be wonderful to walk into a staunchly traditional home and see a set of Starship Enterprise/Romulan chessmen).

In Orange County, a good place for ideas is the Game Keeper, a shop in the MainPlace/Santa Ana mall, where manager Karen Kupel keeps several exotic miniature battlefields in her display cases. She says the shop is the largest distributor of chess sets in the county.

There's the "Good vs. Evil" set, with small metal figures of grotty little monsters on one side, presided over by a dark figure in a hooded robe, against a fairy tale-like bunch on the other side--a bit screwy looking, but obviously the good guys. They cost $375.

There's a large Louis XIV set, with figures of the Sun King and Marie Antoinette and various courtiers and clerics and soldiers for $700. There's a "Napoleon and Josephine" set, with the emperor himself as king and Josephine as queen at $395. And there's an "Alice in Wonderland" set, with Alice and the Smoking Caterpillar presiding over one army and the King and Queen of Hearts facing them down across the board: $350.

Depending on the materials, boards can be fairly inexpensive or run to about $200 or more. They're usually sold separately from the playing pieces.

The combinations of themes is almost endless.

Almost any war that was ever fought can be represented in a chess set: the Civil War, the American Revolution, World War II in North Africa or the Pacific or in the air, Rome versus Carthage, Wellington versus Napoleon, hobbits versus monsters.

Meyer said some people make their own sets. He remembered seeing a set built by a fireman in which each piece was either a fireman or a piece of fire equipment (the rook, for instance, was a hydrant). Another, he said, was made exclusively of nuts and bolts.

Still, people who are using sets as, among other purposes, a decorator item, will probably need to dig a bit deeper into the pocketbook.

"A lot of people are buying them with the idea that they'll be family heirlooms," Kupel said, "so they're willing to spend a little more."

There is, however, an inexpensive shortcut to an impressive chess display.

Get yourself a good, efficient-looking Staunton set and a clean wooden board and arrange it on the coffee table.

Then type up this letter, place it next to the board and explain to anyone who asks that you forgot to mail it that morning:

My dear Count,

Your last move has caused me great consternation, so much so that I feel I must suspend our usual discussion of the sociopolitical impact of the Thirty Years' War on Northern European religious and scientific thought until I am satisfied that you are rendered reeling and pathetic from the devastating effects of my latest salvo: knight to king's bishop 4.

Take that, you hyena.

P.S.--Hugs to Wanda and the kids, and thanks for the fruitcake. See you at Chamonix.

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