Friday, 19 December 2014

j’adoube or game and gambit

After being invented in the India sub-continent, the game of chess in its recognisable and modern was one of those cultural commodities, like language, writing and religion, which was quickly disseminated all over the world and was firmly entrenched by the year one thousand. The game was so popular and universally played that societies were also quick to undertake reimaging their boards and chessmen after their own iconography and values.

The rules of engagement were the same but sculptors and artists were given great license to reflect their own outlook on the world. Chessboards from Islamic countries hosted an army of abstract figures because of the proscription against making things in the likeness of natural beings and had a vizier accompanying the sultan instead of a queen, Asian boards represented their court traditions, pawns all around were simple and anonymous, and these finely crafts objects would have been treasured and handed down as heirlooms. The historical details of the place and period in which these playing pieces were made comes across, as does the makers’ sense of hierarchy and how to mount defenses. Instead of our modern Rook, the Tower, the Viking royals of this set discovered on Scottish Lewis Island under Norse rule are flanked by fearsome berserkers. All the queens of these sets share the same forlorn and distant look, and perhaps because she is frustrated that her movement is limited to one diagonal square at a time. The question of mobility for this sovereign was one of the only major changes to the rules in centuries—though sadly not an attitude adopted by society at large until much, much later: about five hundred years later going from having even less range than a pawn to becoming the most versatile and powerful piece on the chessboard. For a time, this liberation caused the European game to be named “Mad Queen” chess, which sounds like a story for Lewis Carroll.