Maybe the celebrated American chess champion knew something, a secret on the game he never disclosed. On the isle of Lewis on the outer fringe of the Northern Hebrides, the existence of giant chessmen does not go unnoticed. Here, as at Stonehenge, the pioneers, the earliest settlers, built immense circles of hewn stone that recalls Stonehenge. They also left behind a legacy of ghosts and spirits, the paranormal and the supernatural that centuries of stern and often reactionary Christianity have been waging a lost cause on. There is a predilection to think these chessmen were put on remote Lewis through forces of the outer-worldly. There has to be explanations and even the mundane can hold a charming fascination. After all, they were featured in the movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Made of walrus tusk, nothing like them has ever been found.
The traditional story of the chessmen tells that they were found in sand dunes at Uig on Lewis in 1831. They were made in Scandinavia in the 12th century, it was assumed, and probably abandoned by a passing merchant. Dr Caldwell and others now suggest they were actually found several miles south, and hope new excavations could confirm that view. The exhibition says it is possible that one of several historical figures on Lewis might have collected and owned them – possibly Olaf, the younger brother of a King of the Isles, or a local bishop.
While it is still widely thought they were made in Trondheim, Norway, close analysis of some carvings now point to a later date. Three of the bishops, for example, wear mitres, their traditional headgear, in styles thought to date from after 1300, a century later than previously thought. ( Tim Cornwell )
What makes them so interesting to researchers is that they are concluded to reflect the actual customs and costumes of their masters, the real world kings, queens, bishops and knights that would actually play the game. Though the figures are geometric and compressed, they are full of detail. Interestingly, only the pawns are abstractions; after all, the peasant didn’t play chess and could be represented as something of an unperson in the form of something like a dull cemetery headstone. Their true origin remains a riddle because of the lack of clear coherence with respect to what is known of costume and look in that time period. The Vikings, however were tremendous travelers and its not inconceivable the pieces were fabricated in Africa or Asia as well. In all this, the missing link seems to be the game board…
“The pieces can be divided into four sets fairly easily.
Lewis Chessmen Unmasked analyses the facial structures of the pieces, using that to divide them into five groups which largely cut across those sets. This “may be evidence that most of the chessmen were manufactured in the one workshop with four or more master craftsmen working on ivory chessmen at any one time”. Such a workshop is likely to have been located in Trondheim or perhaps Bergen.
The work concludes with a brief look at contemporary Scandinavian board games other than chess, some of which may have used chess pieces. Among these was
“another game called hnefatafl, in which one player had a group of attackers arranged around the edge of the board and attempted to capture a centrally-placed king defended by his guards. The player with the king could win if he could get his king to one of the four corner squares.” ( Yee )
McClain: The two men pushing Iceland as the birthplace of the pieces are two chess aficionados, Gudmundur G. Thorarinsson and Einar S. Einarsson. According to a Web site created to explain his theory, Mr. Thorarinsson is a civil engineer and a former member of the Icelandic Parliament. Mr. Einarsson, a former president of Visa Iceland and a friend of the late chess champion Bobby Fischer, is helping to promote the idea.
They wrote e-mails to the organizers of the Scottish conference asking that the Icelandic theory be added to the agenda, but they said they were told the schedule had already closed. Still, they say they plan to attend and discuss the idea with scholars there.
Mr. Thorarinsson concedes that the idea of Iceland as the source of the chessmen comes from circumstantial evidence, largely based on the history of the development of the rules of the game and its pieces. In an interview, he said the most important clue was that the sets have bishops, which were not used in the rest of Europe at the time the pieces were made (the equivalent piece was often called a runner, and still is in Norway). “The Lewis Chessmen are the only chess pieces found in the world then that have actually connected chess with the church,” Mr. Thorarinsson said.
“Combinations have always been the most intriguing aspect of Chess. The masters look for them, the public applauds them, the critics praise them. It is because combinations are possible that Chess is more than a lifeless mathematical exercise. They are the
poetry of the game; they are to Chess what melody is to music. They represent the triumph of mind over matter” (Reuben Fine)…“We cannot resist the fascination of sacrifice, since a passion for sacrifices is part of a Chessplayer’s nature” (Rudolf Spielman)…“It is the aim of the modern school, not to treat every position according to one general law, but according to the principle inherent in the position” (Richard Reti)…“Excellence at Chess is one mark of a scheming mind” (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)…“Not all artists are Chess players, but all Chess players are artists” (Marcel Duchamp)…“Chess problems demand from the composer the same virtues that
characterize all worthwhile art: originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity, and splendid insincerity” (Vladimir Nabokov)