Reflections on Dr Lyndon Bouah Chess Set Journey


It is now one year since I married Denise Frick. One of our joint passions that we share is a love of chess sets. Both Denise and I started independently to buy chess sets when we travelled around the world playing chess for South Africa.

When I was studying chess every day in my youth I was always confronted with the question ” Is chess an art, a science or a sport?” I never gave this question much thought, of course, because I firmly believed that chess was a sport of course. We travelled with other indoor sporting codes to compete in school matches, university matches and club matches. Our results were read out at school assemblies and the like. We were part of the Olympic family of South Africa so the issue of what chess was never really bothered me.

I appreciated that there was a scientific basis to chess because we needed to analyse concretely and of course there were specific variations that were subjected to scientific rigour. Reams of analysis were brought forth in the Modern Chess Openings, Batsford Chess Openings and various opening monographs.

Later in life as I began to appreciate the aesthetic value of chess I started to appreciate the fact that chess is also art. It has been said by Marcel Duchamp that ” all artists are not chessplayers- all chess players are artists!”

According to C.H.O’D Alexander ( Hutchinson and Co 1973), he stated that ” until quite recently it seemed fairly certain that chess was invented in North West India in the sixth century AD. Earlier ideas that it was a much older game arise from the habit of referring to any pieces used in an unknown board game as ‘ chessmen’; so-called chessmen found in Tutankhamun’s and other Egyptian tombs have nothing to do with chess. However in 1973, Russian archaeologists working near the Afghanistan border of the Uzbek Republic found china jar filled with gold, rubies, emeralds, and two ivory figures which look like chessmen. If they are, then this moves the origins of the game back to the 2nd century. Even so, on present evidence, the Chinese game of Wei-chi ( or Go in Japan) is over twice as old as chess, having been traced back at least as far as the emperor Kieh Kwei ( 1818-1767 BCC) so although chess is of respectable antiquity, we chessplayers should not give ourselves too many airs on this account.”

A.E.J Mackett- Beeson in his book Chessmen (Octopus Books Limited, 1973) states “the game of chess, its origin, evolution and progression through countries of the Old War has, for centuries, fascinated and stirred the imagination of chessplayers and historians. Since Caxton printed his immortal ‘ the Game and Playe of Chesse, translated from French in 1474, innumerable books have been written on the subject and it is small wonder that chess has been designated ‘ the Royal Game’. To befit such a game, craftsmen of many countries designed and produced exquisite chess pieces from an enormous variety and substances including wood, bone, Ivory, amber, hardstones, gold, silver, brass, copper, iron and pewter.”

The first country Denise and I travelled to was Mauritius for our honeymoon. We spent a good few days in that lovely country and one of the items we came back with was of course a chess set! The chess set was a wooden one and of course Denise bargained in Port Louis in the market place. The pawns are exquisitely carved with the rook looking like a beach home found close to the ocean. The knight is a horse on a pole with the Bishop standing ready to attention. The queen has an umbrella in her hand to cover her from the sun I am sure. The King has a hat to shield him. The board also has various drawings on the side of it. One of the drawings is of the dodo. The dodo is an extinct flightless bird that was endemic to the island of Mauritius, East of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

Mauritius is a close friend of South Africa internationally. They travelled to South Africa in 2003 and played chess matches against strong SA and WP teams in Cape Town. I remember with fondness when we re-joined the international chess community in 1992 when the Island players showed us the ropes.

In Moscow in 1994 we all stayed at the famous Cosmos hotel and every night I used to play blitz with the team. Many of their players have gone on to play over 100 matches for their country.

Upon our return we now decided to join our chess sets and place the best ones in the lounge of our home. The first one that I decided upon was the Greek chess set. The Greek chess set has a column representing the rook, the knight is a sturdy piece with a man sitting on top of a horse, with the bishop now ready flanking the king and queen. The king and queen is well decorated as royalty with the royal sceptre next to the king. The pawns are ready for action and will spring into action at a moment’s notice! The chess set is quite heavy but many chess sets represent war and of course the protoganists.

The next prominent chess set that has found pride of place was a Chinese chess set given to me by Mr. Ignatius Leong from Singapore. The chess set has the famous Terracota warriors as pawns. The Terracota Army is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. It is a form of funerary art buried with the emperor in 210-209 BCE with the purpose of protecting the emperors in his afterlife. The rook is depicted in typical Chinese architectural style hat developed over the millennia in China, before spreading out to influence architecture all throughout East Asia. The knight is very regal with the bishop standing next to the horse. The king and queen is decorated in traditional Chinese robes.

Mr. Leong told me to have a look at the book written about Chinese chess. I decided to have a look at the origins of chess in China. Let’s see what the author says.

The book is called Chinese School of Chess – The unique approach, training methods and secrets by Liu Wenzhe. It was published in 2002 by Batsford. The book is unique as many opinions that the author had in that year is now taking shape. He predicted a battle between the Russian school of a Chess and the Chinese school of chess and indeed it seems China is heavily involved with that fight at Olympiad level. Wenzhe states that “as long ago as 5000BC, people produced the simplest 8 by 8 game in black and white (as evidenced by the painted pottery unearthed at the Yongchang site in Gansu province). This was the initial material form, which was later to accommodate the chess idea. In the twenty- sixth century BC, an astrology and physiognomy game with a divinatory function was created. This reflected the development of religious and scientific knowledge, and the combination of techniques and witchcraft. “

Wenzhe further opined that the ancient game of Liu Bo already existed before the tenth century BC. In the fifth century BC, after undergoing some improvement Liu Bo became Sai Xi. Liu Bo is a game in which each of the two sides, Black and White, has six pieces. By throwing Dice, the players decide how to make their moves. Sai Xi however had no dice. Confucious (551-476 BC) said “Is there anyone who wants to play games. The games referred to are the ones above.” The author ends his historical overview by quoting Bai Juyi (772-846), a poet of the Tang Dynasty who wrote a famous sentence about chess: ” Pawns move forwards, elephants play with chariots”- which vividly illustrates the form of the game at the time. ” If you can, you should order the book and compare what was written at the turn of the century and determine if some of the predictions have come to pass!

Denise and I travelled to Italy in the middle of the year. We stayed for a few days with GM Kenny Solomon who showed us the fantastic sights of Venice. We found a shop called Fabio near the St Marco Square and we were astonished by the chess sets that were on display. Denise and I couldn’t make up our minds what to purchase. We then decided that each one of us would be able to buy two chess sets of our choice. Denise decided upon the chess sets which were dogs versus cats in well-dressed robes. The dogs reminded me of the popular cartoon character Brakenjan and his friends the three musketeers Artos, Aramis and Porthos. Denise loves her dogs and couldn’t resist this cute set. In the 17th century, Brakenjan travelled to Paris to become one of King Louis xiii of France musketeers. During his journey, he befriends three musketeers and falls in love with a maid-in waiting for Queen Anne of Austria. Note the cute faces of each of the back row participants!

The cats are also impeccably dressed for the occasion and want to steal the show from the dogs!

The chess set I chose was the one that depicted Julius Ceasar and Cleopatra. I thought that since I am in Italy I may as well choose a Ceasar set. I had recently completed an interesting book written by a British historian called ” The Leadership Genius of Julius Ceasar”. The author Phillip Barlag used events from Caesar’s life to illustrate principles such as

  1. Lead with power not force and
  • Co-opt the power of others.

Everyone of course is familiar with Caesar and the many stories about his conquests and his death on the Ides of March in 44BC. Et tu Brutus! The rook is a Roman Standard which was in common use at the time. The Roman Standard was a pendant, flag, staff or pole which identified a Roman legion (infantry) or Equites (Cavalry). The knight was the standard horse with a rider. I am assuming that the

Bishop is a Senator who would dispense advice upon request. The pawns are of course Roman soldiers which are depicted in many movies.

Cleopatra is the famous Egyptian queen that is probably the best known of the ancient queens. It is said she was the last member do the Macedonian Ptolemy family to rule a Kingdom based around Egypt.

Cleopatra was throughout her life a loyal ally of the Romans. Her misfortune was to live at a time when the Roman Republic was in a civil war, and in the end she found herself too closely linked to the defeated Mark Anthony. She took her own life once it was clear that Augustus would not permit her or any of her children to retain power ( Adrian Coldsworth in the book Augustus , 2014 published by Weidenfeld). The rook appears to the Great Sphinx of Giza with the cavalry next to him and then what I assuming are the ancient priests of Egypt. Cleopatra is of course the Central feature with the Egyptian soldiers as pawns.

Denise qualified as one of Africa’s representatives and played in the Women’s World Cup in 2012 in Siberia. We then spent a few days in Moscow after the event. Of course there were a variety of chess sets to choose being in the country with a classical history of chess. Denise chose the red and black chess set that is very colourful and is made of wood. It is beautifully painted and has flowers and what appears to be cherries on adjacent squares.

I attended a course in Hyderabad in January 2017. Hyderabad is located in India where it is reputed chess was invented. Of course we accept this but anything is possible as illustrated above. The carving of the pieces all have a delicate feature and is made of marble. The rook appears to be a column of some sort, with the knight next to the rook and then the Bishop with the royalty next to him.

The next chess set Denise showcases is also from Russia. The pawns are representative of the famous matryoshka dolls. A set of matryoshkas consists of a wooden figure, which separates, top from bottom, to reveal a smaller figure of the same sort inside, which had, in turn, another figure inside it, and so on. The red is of course always present!

A unique African chess set was bought in Uganda by Denise when the African Individual chess championship was held there in 2016. Uganda is an important chess country with many important events having been staged there.

The 2018 African Junior Championships took place there recently. The pieces are made of a certain type of stone. Exquisite touch is the hallmark of this chess set. The figures look very mythical to me.

Denise and I have participated in the famous First Saturday event that commences each year around February in Budapest. Many famous players have participated there and of course Hungary is a strong chess country. The key features are of course the king and queen. One has to get used to the pieces because they always appear so regal that one wants to not let them fall and of course to play correctly. The workmanship is top notch and your chess must also be in Hungary.

The next chess set comes from Zambia and was bought at the Victoria Waterfalls. I bought the chess set at the Mosi-oa-Tunya, ” the smoke that thunders”. Zambia is a key chess national and the first Sub Saharan grandmaster Amon Simutowe hails from Zambia. The rook of course resembles a big tree with the king and queen standing out.

Denise chose again as her theme the cats versus dogs chess set with us having a strong bias towards the dogs. The dogs and cats are in different poses and of course they are cute!

The next set was bought by me in Beijing when I visited China in 2013. The pieces are very similar to the one that Ignatius Leong gifted me in Singapore. The Chinese sets are of course very symbolic of the Chinese folklore.

The next chess pieces are representative of the famous Lewis chess sets. Denise and I bought it in Norway when we participated in the Tromso Olympiad in Norway in

2014. The Lewis chessmen named after the bay where they were found, are a group of distinctive 12th century chess pieces, along with other game pieces, most of which are carved from walrus ivory. Discovered in 1831 on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland, they may constitute some of the few complete medieval chess sets. When found the hoard contained 93 artefacts: 78 chess pieces, 14 table men and one belt buckle. So we just had to get a few representatives of the Lewis sets even though they were very expensive!

Denise received the next chess set as a present from her grandmother. It is the Ndebele versus the Zulus. The chess set has king, queen and bishop representing royalty. The knight appears to be a giraffe and the rook is a hut representing traditional architecture.

The next chess Denise had was Crusaders versus the Turks. The board has become familiar to us with the patterns on the squares. The religious wars between 1096 and 1291. Many chess sets had war as a theme and this chess set was no different.

Baku, Azerbaijan was the location of the chess Olympiad in 2016. I naturally had to purchase a chess set in that exotic country. The king and queen also had the headdress similar to the Hungarian pieces. The board was beautiful and I simply had to purchase this beautiful chess set for our collection.

The 2018 Olympiad was held in Batumi, Georgia. Chess sets were provided to each team and Denise took the opportunity to place the chess set on the beautifully painted chess table Denise and her mother had made earlier in the year.

The wooden chess set is called the Berlin Chess set and was bought by Denise in her teenage years. The pieces are carved in wood and they are unusually tall. It reminded me of those artistic futuristic chess pieces. Very artistic stuff!

Last year we visited Austria and of course I had to search for a chess set in Vienna. Vienna had quite a chess history with many leading players at some stage staying there. We bought this next to the famous Cathedral. The rook appears to be a cannon and the pieces are carved with exquisite workmanship. The board is similar to the ones we saw earlier. The lady who sold it to us informed us that she thinks the chess set actually comes from Turkey!

Thank you for taking this journey with me these last few years. I look forward to meeting you at the chess board or socially to chat a bit about chess and life! We have more chess sets but we don’t have space in our house! We may need a bigger house to accommodate the chess sets!


Dr Lyndon Bouah


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