April 17, 2013
Painters, sculptors and musicians have long since found inspiration in the complex movement of thirty-two pieces across a chessboard. We previously looked at examples from Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and others. But writers too have found inspiration in the 64 square battlefield. Perhaps none moreso than Charles Lutwidge Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll aka the writer of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Whereas in the first story, Alice encountered a kingdom of playing cards after falling down the rabbit hole, in the sequel, she stepped through a mirror to find an entirely new wonderland populated by anthropomorphic red and white chessmen.
It makes sense that the two dominant symbols of the story are the mirror and the chess board—after all, the pieces on a board at the start of play are a reflection of one another. But chess wasn’t just a recurring motif or symbol in Carroll’s story, it was, in fact, the basis for the novel’s structure. The story was designed around a game of chess. This is made explicit from the very beginning of the book, when the reader is confronted with a chess problem and the following note: “White Pawn (Alice) to play, and win in eleven moves.”
This opening salvo perplexed readers more than the frumious language of “Jabberwocky.” Although the problem is a sort of funhouse mirror distortion of the novel (or vice versa), with eleven moves roughly corresponding to the book’s twelve chapters, Carroll’s notation displays a flagrant disregard for the basic rules of chess. At best, it was viewed as a careless game, even with the explanatory Dramatis Personae included with early versions of the text that equated every character with a corresponding piece. In response to concerns and criticisms, Carroll included a preface to the 1896 edition of Through the Looking Glass, addressing the opening chess problem:
As the chess-problem…has puzzled some of my readers, it may be well to explain that it is correctly worked out, so far as the moves are concerned. The alternation of Red and White is perhaps not so strictly observed as it might be, and the “castling” of the three Queens is merely a way of saying that they entered the palace; but the “check” of the White King at move 6, the capture of the Red Knight at move 7, and the final “checkmate” of the Red King, will be found, by anyone who will take the trouble to set the pieces and play the moves as directed, to be strictly in accordance to the laws of the game.
So while Carroll admits taking some liberties with the game, the logic is, in his view at least, sound. Furthermore, although many of the moves listed in the introductory problem make no sense if taken on their own, when they are considered in the context of the story, a strange logic emerges, a logic based not on the rules of chess, but on Carroll’s narrative. For example, as Martin Gardner points out in an analysis of Carroll’s game in The Annotated Alice, “At two points the White Queen passes up a chance to checkmate and on another occasion she flees from the Red Knight when she could shave captured him. Both oversights, however, are in keeping with her absent-mindedness.” By Gardner’s theory then, the mistakes are designed into the story. The White Queen, who famously believed in “six impossible things before breakfast,” also experiences time in reverse, which, from the perspective of a game piece, would surely result in unpredictable movement and a curious perception of the board.
Another example of narrative’s influence on the opening problem can be seen when the Red Queen puts the White King in check at move 8, but the condition is neither included in the game’s notation nor addressed in the story. However, this too can be explained by considering the rules of both. According to the rules of chess, when a player is put in check, it must be announced. Otherwise, the check can be ignored. Gardner cites an article by artist Ivor Davies, who rationalizes the antagonistic Red Queen’s behavior with evidence from the story itself, noting that the silence was “entirely logical because, at the moment of her arrival at King one, she said to Alice. ‘Speak when you’re spoken to!’ Since no one had spoken to her she would have been breaking her own rule had she said ‘check.’”
There are myriad other connections between Carroll’s story and his introductory chess problem, and perhaps even more interpretations and analyses of said chess problem. But in all the scholarship surrounding Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, it’s clear that the story cannot be isolated as a either chess treatise or a children’s story. It’s both. The novel’s structure is determined according to a prescribed series of chess moves; the actions and behaviors of its characters are largely dictated by the limitations and characteristics of their corresponding pieces. But this interdependence means that the pieces are themselves influenced by character traits established in the story. The narrative abides by the logic of the game and the game abides by the logic of the narrative. Lewis Carrroll’s story is quite literally a game-changer.
April 15, 2013
Last week we published a history of the Staunton chess set, which was developed, in part, out of a need to standardize pieces for international competition. In a response on his blog, Jason Kottke published some terrific images of beautiful pre-Staunton sets –the St. George, the Selenus, and the Regence– and explained some of the confusion that prompted the creation of the Staunton. While following up on some of these early chess sets, I learned that there is a trove of artist-designed chess sets in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art. The largely minimalist chess pieces, created by artists including Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Josef Hartwig, represent an attempt to strip down each piece to its most essential components: what is the absolute least a knight can be to still be read as a knight? The results are striking, although often just as confusing as the idiosyncratic pre-Staunton sets that proliferated throughout Europe during the 18th century.
Sculptor Josef Hartwig designed his chess set (above two images) while teaching at the Bauhaus in 1924. It embodied the school’s tenets that an object must be practical, durable, inexpensive and beautiful. Hartwig’s design reduced the pieces to the most basic components of artistic construction: line, square and circle. Though they are incredibly abstract, each well-crafted piece, originally sculpted from pear wood, has been designed to describe its movement on the board. The bishop, for example, is a simple X, denoting its diagonal movement. Every aspect of the Bauhaus set was given consideration, even the packaging designed by Hartwig’s colleague Joost Schmidt. It truly is, in the Bauhaus tradition, a union of art and craft. The pieces are stripped of any symbolic meaning and reduced to pure form. Their designations –bishop, knight, king– become irrelevant. All that matters was movement, which is made tangible as the identifying characteristic of each piece.
Even more reductive is this 1966 best designed by Lanier Graham. Perhaps most noteworthy on this set are the king and queen, whose tops are inverse versions of one another – a sort of phallic point on the king and, conversely, a yonic ‘v’ for the queen. Like Hartwig’s, Graham’s pieces fit perfectly, tanagram-like into its box.
Man Ray designed a set using mostly conic and curvilinear abstract forms. While his pieces are beautiful, they seem to be abstract for abstraction’s sake, rather than carry any built-in meaning. In fact, the pieces are a rather personal reflection of the artist himself, or rather, the artists space. Each piece was inspired by an object in his studio used for inspiration or still-life arrangement. The knight, for example, is the finial of a violin.
Man Ray played many chess matches against his friend and fellow artist Marcel Duchamp, for whom chess was, perhaps more than any artist past or present, a profound muse. More that that. Chess consumed Duchamp. In the 1920s, it was said that he abandoned art for the world of competitive chess. While he never truly stopped producing art, Duchamp did indeed compete in professional tournaments, even entering the several championships and earning the status of chess master. He not only drew and painted chess players, but encoded messages in his work that could only be read by chess players. Duchamp published a book on endgame theory the title of which sounded like one of his paintings or sculptures: Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled. He designed chessmen and even created his own pocketbook chess sets, ensuring that he would never be without a board. In an obituary published in The New York Times, it was said that Duchamp’s life-long enthusiasm for the game inspired his fellow artists to create their own sets. For Duchamp, art and chess were one and the same. “From my close contact with artists and chess players,” he has famously said, “I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.”
These artistic chess are not strictly the purview of the middle of the century. Last year, London’s Saatchi Gallery commissioned sixteen artists, including Maurizio Cattelan, Damien Hirst, Barbara Kruger, and Rachel Whiteread, to create their own vision of the game of kings. The results are incredibly diverse. Hirst’s set (above image) is made entirely from medicine bottles.
But even more cutting edge than high-art chess pieces are home-made ones. Relatively cheap 3D printing, combined with free design software, means that almost anyone can create their own chess sets. Last year, 3D printing pioneers Makerbot issued a chess set design challenge. Nearly one hundred diverse entries were posted online, including everything from variations of the traditional Staunton to a particularly innovative set of pieces that join together Voltron-like to form a chess robot.
With its nearly infinite combination of moves, its symbolic pieces, and its romantic terminology, it’s no wonder that chess has captured the imagination of artists throughout history. And there’s absolutely no doubt that the game will continue to challenge and inspire.
April 3, 2013
Prior to 1849, there was no such thing as a “normal chess set.” At least not like we think of it today. Over the centuries that chess had been played, innumerable varieties of sets of pieces were created, with regional differences in designation and appearance. As the game proliferated throughout southern Europe in the early 11th century, the rules began to evolve, the movement of the pieces were formalized, and the pieces themselves were drastically transformed from their origins in 6th century India. Originally conceived of as a field of battle, the symbolic meaning of the game changed as it gained popularity in Europe, and the pieces became stand-ins for a royal court instead of an army. Thus, the original chessmen, known as counselor, infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots, became the queen, pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, respectively. By the 19th century, chess clubs and competitions began to appear all around the world, it became necessary to use a standardized set that would enable players from different cultures to compete without getting confused.
In 1849, that challenge would be met by the “Staunton” Chess Set.
The Staunton chess pieces are the ones we know and love today, the ones we simply think of as chess pieces. Prior to its invention, there were a wide variety of popular styles in England, such as The St George, The English Barleycorn, and the Northern Upright. To say nothing of the regional and cultural variations. But the Staunton quickly would surpass them all. Howard Staunton was a chess authority who organized many tournaments and clubs in London, and was widely considered to be one of the best players in the world. Despite its name, the iconic set was not designed by Howard Staunton.
According to the most widely told origin story, the Staunton set was designed by architect Nathan Cook, who looked at a variety of popular chess sets and distilled their common traits while also, more importantly, looking at the city around him. Victorian London’s Neoclassical architecture had been influenced by a renewed interest in the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome, which captured the popular imagination after the rediscovery of Pompeii in the 18th century. The work of architects like Christopher Wren, William Chambers, John Soane, and many others inspired the column-like, tripartite division of king, queen, and bishop. A row of Staunton pawns evokes Italianate balustrades enclosing of stairways and balconies.
And the knight, the most intricate and distinct piece of any chess set, is unique in that it’s the only piece that is not an abstracted representation of a designation; it’s a realistically carved horse head. The Staunton Knight was likely inspired by a sculpture on the east pediment of the Parthenon depicting horses drawing the chariot of Selene, the Moon Goddess. Selene’s horse is part of a collection of sculptures controversially removed from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, during his tenure as ambassador to the Ottoman court. Known as the “Elgin Marbles,” these sculptures were donated to the British Museum in 1816 and were enormously popular with a British public that was growing increasingly interested in classical antiquities. According to the British Museum, Selene’s horse “is perhaps the most famous and best loved of all the sculptures of the Parthenon. It captures the very essence of the stress felt by a beast that has spent the night drawing the chariot of the Moon across the sky….the horse pins back its ears, the jaw gapes, the nostrils flare, the eyes bulge, veins stand out and the flesh seems spare and taut over the flat plate of the cheek bone.” Now you know why the knights in your chess sets always look like they’re screaming in agony.
Staunton appreciated the simplicity and legibility of Cook’s design, and allowed Cook to use of his name in marketing the new pieces, which were first offered to the public in 1849 by purveyors John Jaques of London. On the same day the new pieces hit shelves across London, an advertisement in the Illustrated London News celebrated the new set as “the Staunton Chessmen”:
“A set of Chessmen, of a pattern combining elegance and solidity to a degree hitherto unknown, has recently appeared under the auspices of the celebrated player Mr. Staunton….The pieces generally are fashioned with convenience to the hand; and it is to be remarked, that while there is so great an accession to elegance of form, it is not attained at the expense of practical utility. Mr. Staunton’s pattern adopts but elevates the conventional form; and the base of the Pieces being of a large diameter, they are more steady than ordinary sets.”
Now, there’s some confusion about the design of the first Staunton set because Nathaniel Cook also happened to be the brother-in law of John Jaques, as well as the editor of of the News– a paper that counted Staunton among its contributors. The three men were definitely in cahoots, and some speculate that Cook was not actually the designer but was merely an agent acting on behalf of Jaques, who was looking to increase his profits by creating a cheaper, more efficient design that appealed to a variety of players and had the blessing of the most famous chess player in London. Though the design is sometimes incorrectly attributed to Mr. Staunton, he provided only the initial endorsement and functioned as a sort of spokesman, passionately advocating the set in public. The design was a huge success. The simple, largely unadorned forms of the Staunton set made it relatively cheap and easy to produce, and instantly comprehensible. Since the 1920s, the Staunton set has been required by worldwide chess organizations.
From that original set advertised in the pages of the Illustrated London News, hundreds of different versions of the have emerged. While some variation is tolerated, there are several key distinguishing characteristics that define a set as a Staunton: the king is topped with a cross and, as the the tallest piece, serves as a metric for the height of the others; the queen is topped by a crown and ball; the bishop has a split top; the knight is a horse head; the rook is a squat castle turret.”
Recently, the Staunton set got a makeover. The new piece designs are part of an earlier project by noted design conultancy Pentagram, the rebranding of World Chess, an organization that aims to bring chess back to a level of popularity it enjoyed during the heyday of Bobby Fischer. Other than coming up with a new brand and identity for chess, Pentagram also designed a new tv-friendly competitive playing environment and an interactive website that lets fans follow games live online via “chesscasting”.
Daniel Weil, partner of Pentagram, reinterpreted the classic Staunton set for the 2013 World Chess Candidates Tournament in London. Weil says that to begin the project he had to “unravel the rationale behind the original set.” This meant looking back to the pieces’ origins in Neoclassical architecture. Following the lead of Cook (or Jaques), Weil also looked to the Parthenon. As part of his subtle redesign, Weil resized the set so that when the eight primary pieces are lined up at the beginning of play, their angle reflects the pitch of the Pantheon’s pediment. Weil also streamlined the pieces somewhat, returning a precision and thoughtfulness to the Staunton set that, in his view, had been lost in many of the Staunton variations created over the last 160 years. The design also reflects the relative value of each piece according to tournament rules; the more a piece is worth, the wider the base. The new Staunton pieces were also designed to accommodate different styles of play, such as the grips that Weil ostentatiously refers to as the “north hold” and the more theatrical “south hold”. The high-quality set debuted in tournament play this year and is now also available to the public. Weill told Design Week, “When chess started to become popular in the 19th century it became a social showcase, so everyone had a set on show. I wanted to make an object of quality so that people could also show it off.”
Inspired by the Neoclassical architecture of Victorian London and a very modern need for standardization and mass production, the Staunton chessmen helped popularize the game and quickly became the world standard. The new Staunton pieces by Daniel Weil reinforces this architectural history of the original pieces while respecting their timeless design.
The House of Staunton; “Daniel Weil redesigns the chess set,” Design Week; “The History of the Staunton Chessmen” and “The Staunton Legacy,” Staunton Chess Sets; “The Staunton Chess Pattern,” ChessUSA; Henry A. Davidson, A Short History of Chess (Random House Digital, 2010); Pentagram