Friday, November 13, 2015

Coffee Table Chess

Chess Masterpieces
One Thousand Years of Extraordinary Chess Sets

Published in 2010, this is the most gorgeous of the books reviewed here, as well as the largest in terms of physical size and page count. The paper is thick and glossy, the quality of the photography excellent.

The book begins with the obligatory historical overview of the game, followed by a chapter on materials and another (the longest) entitled "War as a Theme."

Most of the remaining chapters are organized geographically (France, Germany, Russia, the Far East, etc.). The last two chapters show sets from the 20th and the 21st century. The text for the most part devotes itself to pointing out details about the sets that the reader might overlook.

Something that becomes clear as one pages through the book is that photographing chess sets is not as straight forward as it might seem. A single photo cannot provide both front and back views, while photographing pieces in the opening position will result in some being obscured by others. Thus sets in the book are posed in a variety of ways in order to do them justice.
Vice vs Virtue

Since most of the sets are owned by the author, George Dean, it is a small indulgence on his part to include one that he himself created out of wooden spools and drawerpulls. Charming, yes, but hardly a masterpiece.

That word causes more trouble in the final chapter, where one might wonder if enough time has passed for anything created since the year 2000 to be deemed a masterpiece -- especially if it lacks the sort of physical craftsmanship that make others in the book so appealing.

Chess Masterpieces is the most expensive of the books listed here, but worth it if you're at all fascinated by the physical side of the game. You can get a peek at some of the sets at World Chess Hall of Fame website -- go to Exhibitions/Exhibition Archive/2012. The site includes downloadable highlights in PDF form of the Dr. George and Vivian Dean Collection, as well as an audio tour.

10 x 12 in, 272 pp

The Art of Chess

Physically the smallest of the books discussed here, but also the most affordable, The Art of Chess by Colleen Schafroth was published in 2002 and takes a slightly broader approach than Chess Masterpieces.

The earlier chapters chart the development of the game, after which the focus is on sets and boards. The layouts are beautifully done with no two-page spread that does not have at least one full-colour illustration. The only flaw (and it is a relatively minor one) is that a few of the photos are a little fuzzy, perhaps being blown up a little larger than is advisable.

Greek, 20th century, bronze
The chapter titles are:
  • Origins of the Game
  • The First Golden Age of Chess
  • The Establishment of the Game in Europe
  • Modelling the Universe
  • Speeding Up the Game
  • Chess in the Industrial Age
  • The Twentieth Century and Beyond

According to the duskjacket's back flap, "a large part of the illustrations" in the book come from the permanent collection of chess sets at the Maryhill Museum of Art in Washington. "The collection had its origins in an exhibition held at the museum in 1957," and at present includes "over 300 sets dating from the 17th century" and "features naturalistic and abstract forms from cultures around the world."

9.5 x 9.5 in, 176 pp

Chess: A Celebration of 2000 Years

The oldest of the three books, and the one that takes the broadest approach, covering all aspects of the game, not just sets.

The illustrations are drawn from a wider source than the other books mentioned here, and include photos of chess luminaries as well as ordinary players, tournaments, outdoor games, living chess, even a game played in a swimming pool. Many of these are in B&W.

Chapters are devoted to the history and culture of the game, the board, versions of the game in other countries, discussions of the attractions and complexities of the game, a few short but famous games, and finally an overview of important players.

A collection of Knights
The chapter I enjoyed most was that on the sets themselves. Pieces from different sets are grouped together in a single spread, often across two pages -- one for kings, one for queens, and so on. It's an engaging approach, highlighting the assortment of styles and materials in a revealing and eye-catching way.

Overall it's an enjoyable read from start to finish, marred only by minor typos scattered throughout, for example the quotation from Bobby Fischer, "Chess is live."

The book is translated from the German, a collaboration by Finkenzeller, Ziehr, and Buhrer, and published in Canada in 1989 by the sadly departed Key Porter Books. Physically it is only slightly smaller than Chess Masterpieces.

9.5 x 12 in, 208 pp