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On Chess: The case of the missing molds

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 24, 2013: Considering the escalation of tension over depleting oil reserves, I’m seriously concerned with the level of meltdown America will encounter as we run dangerously low on intellectual reserves.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the United States is running out of chess pieces.

The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis stocks much of its inventory – specifically its pieces – through American Chess Equipment, a wholesale supplier out of Anaheim, Calif. Several months ago, however, those pieces stopped coming in – and the dark whispers of rumor began to swirl.

The fate of the Ultimate weighted chess set, featuring a signature look and feel, is unclear.

A minor problem easily solved, you say, but understand the concerned level of which I speak. These pieces are known as the Ultimate chess set, and they are the quintessential choice when playing with plastic. Black pieces on one side, and not-white opposing: The yellow cream that opened a game provided a unique and instantly identifiable look to chess halls across America.

And these superior pieces are even more special on the inside. Over the years, players have found that tactics aren’t the only thing that affect their pieces: Outdoor players have had many a game literally blown up by the wind, and the fast-flying moves of a blitz player have seen too many pieces knocked over to count. To combat these extra-particulars of chess, it became commonplace to insert weights within the pieces.

This, of course, merely gave us chess nerds something else to obsess over. Single weights obviously needed to be one-upped, while double-weighted pieces didn’t always seem to cut the mustard. And quadruple-weighted sets? Let’s not get carried away.

No, the Ultimate sets became the cream of the crop of the triple-weighted pieces, finding a perfect harmony of density and balance. For more than a decade, they have become the unofficial industry standard: Referring to a set as triple-weighted meant you were speaking of the Ultimate set. And helping to secure its notoriety was an internal design quirk that kept the weights from rattling loose as quickly as other inferior sets, many that just jammed weights inside with glue and covered with a piece of felt.

“They just had a great feel to them, just a great design,” said American Chess Equipment owner Shelby Lohrman, the United States’ sole distributor of the Ultimate set. “Really chunky pawns, and the knights had a good look – not too big or ugly. The set could handle the abuse of blitz, but it was also nice-looking enough to keep out in the house. Before I became a wooden-set snob, all I would play with was the Ultimate set.”

But Lohrman received bad news upon his last order to create more Ultimate pieces. Or, more accurately, he received no news. After 15 years of production, the Taiwanese plastics factory that produced the Ultimate sets just simply stopped responding to any of Lohrman’s inquires – and soon after, desperate pleas – for a resupply.

He tried recruiting the help of previous owner Dewain Barber, credited with the design of the mold used to produce the sets, but to no avail. About 25 unresponded to e-mails and half-dozen unanswered phone calls later, Lohrman sent another Taiwanese supplier to check things out: The plastics factory was now a hotel, and the sales office, a strip mall.

A vanishing act, indeed, but of most concern was the disappearance of that mold – which had cost Barber $15,000 to create, back in a time when discretionary income was a bit easier to come by.

“I would have paid $5,000 for someone just to pack up the mold and send it to me,” Lohrman said. “If I had that mold, we could find another plastics company in Mexico or India and have them produced again in a month. It was our mold anyway. We paid for it, but to try to find it in a place like Taiwain ... no, we’re never going to get that thing back.”

Now, the U.S. chess scene is knocking on Lohrman’s door for more of the beloved triple-weights, and he can do little more than shrug his shoulders. Ultimate set prices have skyrocketed around the Internet, hitting prices on eBay for upward of $50 a pop – nearly tripling their original cost. And those who need more than just a set or two – such as Alex Marler, manager of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis – are completely out of luck.

“I’ve looked around for surplus to buy,” Marler said. “No one is selling them. None of the big distributors has anything. I found one guy on Amazon who wanted a couple hundred bucks for 10 sets. We have to replace 150 sets in the club.”

Sadly, this column does not come with a happy ending. Lohrman says he has restarted the process, already having found a Mexican plastics company that could turnaround his orders even faster than Taiwan. He is in the process of getting laser measurements done on an existing set to produce a CAD-design and recreate the mold – but the cost to make another mold bears a heavy weight.

And until that happens, for the rest of us, it bears a triple weight on our hearts.

“We’re going to cry a lot of tears if we have to replace the Ultimate set,” Marler said.

On Chess is provided the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.

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