On Chess: Appreciating the art of ivory chess sets

Jun 17, 2015

It was the 2004 Olympiad. I had just had a rough night, stayed up a little later than I should have. I didn't figure out what the pairing was until late morning. The preparation was beyond my reach, my opponent was too strong to outplay over the board: Viswanathan Anand, world chess champion.

Of course, I was nervous, and of course he won, but it was a good fight. He was only one of the many elite players I have played in my life, a list that includes Magnus Carlsen, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Hikaru Nakamura, Sergey Karjakin and many others that are in the top 10 of the chess world.

And yet, never have I been so nervous at picking up a chess piece as when I had the pleasure, and the honor, to set up the positions at the current World Chess Hall of Fame exhibition: "Encore! Ivory Chess Treasures from the Jon Crumiller Collection."

I was tasked by the lovely and active Emily Allred, assistant curator from the World Chess Hall of Fame, to bring the wonderful chess sets from this famous collection into life. And what better way to do it than by researching some key legendary situations in our chess history. The exhibition was going to be graced by showcasing some of the most important moments in what we, as chess players, considered chess art – the art of moving the pieces in such a graceful way that it delights chess fans. And I have never been so nervous about moving a chess piece!

Chess sets on display at the World Chess Hall of Fame.
Credit Austin Fuller | The World Chess Hall of Fame

The delicate figures showcased at the World Chess Hall of Fame have immense value – not only in the incredible artistic design and the painstaking process that must have taken place to create each individual piece, but also in the historic value that I can appreciate as being a chess player. They are the pieces that inspired some of the great players of the past to take up the royal game, and those have catapulted us to where are today.

The ivory collection is unique – artistic in itself, fragile and delicate. When setting up a position, I was nervous that I was going to break something. I was lucky, and careful enough, not to drop a single piece, while setting up some of the positions that, to me, signified greatness in the chess world: Morphy vs. Anderssen, McDonnell vs. La Bourdannais, Steinitz in his first World Championship, which was partially held in Saint Louis, only to name a few. The attention to detail to the hand-crafted pieces is something that cannot be described in words: You have to see them in the Central West End.

The use of ivory in any art, shape or form is incredibly controversial nowadays, but learning the history of the material and its use in chess makes the game jump to another level. The exhibition includes a retrospective on how ivory was used as a way to make game pieces, from practical purposes to simply elaborate table pieces. I simply cannot emphasize it enough: The Jon Crumiller collection is a must-see in the World Chess Hall of Fame and well worth your time!      

Alejandro Ramirez is a grandmaster and has recently been resident grandmaster in charge of various activities at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.