A kingly tribute to chess. London exhibition by collectors reveals fascinating lore about the game

TIM Rice's new musical, ``Chess,'' is heir to a literary and dramatic history as old as the game itself; and this month London offers a rare opportunity to see how the ``royal game,'' its pieces, and its cultural trappings have developed since medieval times. The occasion for this opportunity is the arrival here of the second congress of Chess Collectors International, which was formed a few years ago by a group of fellow enthusiasts from all over the world, led by George A. Dean, a physician from the Midwest United States. Although a few of these enthusiasts are undoubtedly sharp chess players, most of them are more interested in the boards and pieces than in the game itself.

As keen collectors, their main fascination is with the wealth of chess artifacts that the game's long history has left behind. Their biennial congresses offer them a chance to share their knowledge and enthusiasm -- with the public as well as with each other.

All of which presents a unique opportunity to view such chess treasures as Indian and Chinese sets of the 18th and 19th centuries, frequently depicting opposing armies of native and colonial powers or Hindus set against Muslims, or even ``The Monkeys'' against ``The Demon King''; and sets in ivory and wood (both plain and stained), colored hardstones, porcelain, and even silver and gold -- used to display the owner's wealth as well as his intellect. The constant play of politics and conflict in chess is shown in a lavish display of chess sets at Asprey's in Bond Street and at two auctions of sets at Christie's and Phillips -- all of which are timed to coincide with the congress.

Cartoons and dramatic caricatures on display at the exhibition illustrate how chess has been used down through the years to comment on social and political problems. Included among these is a pair of engravings by George Cruickshank, one of the 18th century's foremost caricaturists. The pictures, ``Check Mate'' and ``Stale Mate,'' make a wry comment on marriage.

Thomas Middleton's play, ``A Game at Chesse,'' which was staged at the Globe Theatre in 1624, was a veiled denunciation of the proposed Spanish marriage of Prince Charles at a time of deep hostilities between the countries. King James was so incensed the play was banned.

Among the historical tidbits that Chess Collectors International is making known through its current congress is the fact that references were made to chess in Indian literature of the 6th century.

According to the group, chess spread to Europe by the 12th century. In fact, the inventory of the wardrobe of Edward I of England (1239-1307) reveals that it had by then become common practice for a man to own two chess sets -- one for play and and another for display. The latter was very elaborate and was seldom (if ever) used, while the former was plainer to withstand the rough and tumble of everyday matches.

Chess continued to be popular up until the 17th century, when it suffered a decline. Writing in 1674, Charles Cotton, the supposed author of ``The Complete Gamester,'' said, ``I believe the tediousness of the game hath caus'd the practice thereof to be so little used.'' As a result, there are few sets surviving from this period, until the revival of the game in the late 18th century.

The great variety in the design of chess sets gave way to a standardized design only in the 18th century, when Howard Staunton, British champion from 1843 to 1852, gave his name to the design still used in chess tournaments today.

But this standardization hardly put an end to new designs. Sets are still being produced with great ingenuity. One of the latest to appear on the market turns a chess set into two games instead of one; the two sides' pieces -- which are made of silver- and gold-colored metals -- are locked together in a puzzle that must be disentangled before the chess match can begin. The pieces then must be reassembled when the play is over.

However decorative and elaborate the pieces, the game of chess remains essentially a two-dimensional mathematical exercise. The sheer skill and competitive qualities of the game will be in ample evidence in London in July when the World Chess Championships are due to be held here.

Further information about Chess Collectors International can be obtained from Dr. G. A. Dean, 18900 West Ten Mile Road, Southfield, Mich. 48075 USA, or Mr. G. Williams, 41 St. Mary's Mansions, St. Mary's Terrace, London W2 1SQ.

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