It is an Island, in the outer Hebrides, that has left behind a legacy of ghosts and spirits that centuries of austere, harsh and sometimes reactionary Christianity have been helpless in extinguishing. They are called the Lewis Chessmen and their exact origin and how they were put on the remote island of Lewis has eluded a definitive verdict by a number of researchers. The real explanation may be quite prosaic , but the actual voyage in arriving there, one day has been marked by academic disagreements, sometimes bitter, as well as falling into the political regarding who has the right to possess the collection. This game of parrying back and forth has been a draw, possession 9/10ths of the law and no conclusive check-mate in sight….
There are ninety-three pieces in all, perhaps belonging to at least four and perhaps more incomplete sets. The missing pieces have never been found. They are carved from walrus tusk are are regarded as unique in the annals of medieval art. Drawn up in full array- the largest is slightly over four inches high- they look more like a summit of twelfth-century monarchs and their retinue than a classic chess set. More faithfully, and in greater detail than any other known set, they seem to convey actual customs and costumes of their masters, the real life kings, queens, knights and bishops who played a slower moving version of the modern game on ornately decorated boards. The chess set reflected how the royalty of medieval society perceived themselves.
The craftsmen, the carvers,captured a great deal of the minutaie in the knights’ representation, the clerics’ garb, and the king’s regalia. Amusingly, and sadly, the pawns are represented as abstractions: men were viewed, even then as expendable commodities. Since the commoner, the peasant did not play chess and no need to see himself reflected on the gaming board, he could be depicted as a non-person, an “unknown soldier” in the shape of something rough-cut and appalling simple- something that resembled a tombstone.
“Recently, Gudmundur G. Thórarinsson, published a paper disputing the theory that the pieces are Norwegian, and hypothesizes that the Lewis Chessmen were, in fact, made in Iceland around the year 1200. Thórarinsson, a civil engineer, is also the former President of the Icelandic Chess Federation and was the chairman of the Organizing Committee of the historical World Chess Championship Match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in Reykavik 1972. His main contentions stem on the bishops, and the fact that they are depicted as such. In English today, this might seem a non-argument, but one must understand that the use of the word bishop in chess is only found in two languages in the world, Icelandic and English. In Scandinavia and Germany this piece is called a runner. According to The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1971, the word “bishop” entered the English language around 1450-70.”
…from a chess player’s vantage point the oddest pieces are the collection of rooks, which take the form of captains afoot rather than the castles we know. Such figures are considered to belong to the icelandic tradition; the warrior rooks have suggested that the chessmen may have been carved in Iceland, but that is still conjecture. In any event, chess in the middle ages was an all-consuming passion, an ungodly enterprise in the manner that participation was the equivalent to a career in the entertainment industry. Though forbidden to priests and monks, and members of the knightly orders, it was soon to play a decisive role in secular, or indeed sexual, affairs. But not all the matches had such romantic endings. Medieval chess passions ran so high that the players often came to blows , and there are authenticated as well as fictional accounts of chess mayhem, or chess hooliganism. In fact the heavier pieces have documented instances in which they were used as blunt instruments. When a trio of hangmen came to fetch Duke Richard of Normandy:
“The old French romances abound with references to the game of chess, in the time of Charlemagne. In one of these, called Guerin de Montglave, the whole story turns upon a game of chess, at which Charlemagne los’t his kingdom to Guerin, the latter having proposed a game at which the stake was to be the kingdom of France. Another romance, describing the arrest of Duke Richard of Normandy, says that he was playing at chess with Ivonnet, son of Regnaut, and the officers came up to him, saying, “Aryse up, Duke Rycharde; for in dispite of Charlemayne, that loveth you so muche, ye shall be hanged now.” “When Duke Rycharde saw that these sergeauntes had him thus by the arm, and helde in his hande a lady (dame) of ¡very, where he would have given a mate to Yonnet, he withdrew his arme, and gave to one of the sergeauntes such a stroke with it into the forehead that he made him tumble over and over at his feet;
then he took a rooke, (roc,) and smote another all upon his head, that he all to brost it to the brayne.”—
“Personally, I rather look forward to a computer program winning the world Chess Championship. Humanity needs a lesson in humility” (Richard Dawkings)…“The boy (then a 12 year old boy named Anatoly Karpov) doesn’t have a clue about Chess, and there’s no future at all for him in this profession” (Mikhail Botvinnik)…“Chess is ruthless: you’ve got to be prepared to kill people” (Nigel Short)…“The game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement; several very valuable qualities of the mind are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions; for life is a kind of Chess” (Benjamin Franklin)…“Avoid the crowd. Do your own thinking independently. Be the Chess player, not the Chess piece” (Ralph Charell)…“I am still a victim of Chess. It has all the beauty of art and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position”