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The Lewis Chessmen and why we play the game
Chess is a vibe
Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them
By Nancy Marie Brown
St. Martin's Griffin
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“Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do.”
~ G. K. Chesterton
In her book Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them, author Nancy Marie Brown investigates the Lewis Chessmen, a trove of medieval hand-carved chess pieces discovered in early 19th Century Scotland, that have charmed generations of museum goers and caused a surprising amount of controversy.
Even if you haven’t heard of the Lewis chess pieces, you’ve likely seen them. They have appeared in many films, including The Lion in Winter, The Seventh Seal, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and Brave.
Life as a pawn in someone else’s game
Why are people so fascinated by these figures?
It may be because they elicit so many different interpretations and reactions. Sometimes they look funny, almost comical. (The beserkers are particularly goofy.) We imagine the personality of the artist (or artists) behind these figures—good-humored, whimsical, surely enjoying themselves.
Then again, some of their faces register fear, even terror, perhaps sadness and grief. There are such a variety of personalities and emotions—reacting to the game? Reacting to their role in the game?
The Lewis Chessmen seem to capture (no pun intended) something about humanity, the way in which we are trapped in situations and roles, moved by forces outside ourselves, and yet reacting strongly to our position in the world.
Nearly all games are eventually reducible to the consequences of their rules. If you play a video game long enough, it becomes a grinding out of repeated procedures—no matter how pretty the graphics are.
Chess, in my experience, is particularly brutal in its logic. To beat someone is to leave them without excuses or alibis. As Bobby Fischer once said, “Chess is war over the board. The object is to crush the opponent’s mind.” Even if you don’t want to do it, that’s what you end up doing.
In the same way, one can reduce the world we live in to an abstraction. Who wins and loses in life ultimately comes down to numbers. Perhaps even our self is reducible to numbers.
What the Lewis Chessmen look like doesn’t matter to the game. And in life we are “just” another knight or bishop or king. An employee, a voter, a patient, a customer. And yet we are this particular one and no other. To examine these figures, unlike a mass-produced, manufactured set, is to look on ourselves with warmth, humor, and sympathy in a world that runs on cruel method.
The time has come, the Walrus said
My favorite part of the book was the part about the walruses.
I never associated Vikings with walruses, but they were an essential part of their culture and their flourishing in the Middle Ages.
Walruses were plentiful in the northern Atlantic at that time. And although they were dangerous to hunt, Vikings found ways to kill them en masse, and use their hides to create incredibly strong rope. Brown writes:
It was the strongest rope known for its weight: A strand half an inch thick could lift a ton. Sixty men could tug on a sail-rope without snapping it. Anchor cables were preferentially made of walrus hide.
This rope also served a secondary function—as food in a crisis. Starving sailors and besieged castle-dwellers could eat walrus rope to get by.
Other medieval seamen were saved from starvation by their walrus-hide rigging; dismasted in a storm, they lived for eighteen days on ropes smeared with butter.
Dear reader: THEY ATE THEIR RIGGING.
In addition, the walrus tusk ivory was a prized commodity, encouraging Vikings to spread to Iceland and Greenland. Nearly all the Lewis Chessmen were carved from walrus ivory—a rather poetic irony, given that tusks were the defensive and offensive “weapons” of walruses.
The game of kings
Chess came to northwest Europe from India by way of Persia and the Islamic kingdoms of the Middle East, the intellectual epicenter of the medieval world. The bishops were elephants, the rooks were chariots, and the queen was a vizier. (In Muslim kingdoms, the chess pieces became even more abstracted, as Islam prohibited the creation of idols.) Made from elephant ivory, chess playing and chess sets were associated with wealth, leisure, warfare, and royalty.
Much of this aura transferred over as chess spread into Europe. Some of the pieces changed, but chess mastery remained a social sign of the “complete” gentleman, alongside horse riding and archery. It’s remarkable how this mystique of chess has persisted down to our own day, a mystique that began in the West when the Lewis Chessmen were carved from walrus tusks.
Although it’s been shown that chess skill doesn’t transfer to other skills, chess acumen remains an intellectual status symbol. Chess is often associated with prep schools or elite boarding schools. Chess pieces are frequently found in the logo for a law office or a wealth management firm—a symbol of something very old, solid and rich.
In addition, the Norse obsession with chess remains apparent too. The most famous chess game of the 20th Century happened in Reykjavik. Gary Karsparov is Russian, of course. (The Norsemen were known as the Rus.) The most popular chess player today, Magnus Carlsen, is Norwegian.
Why we still play
Remarkably, the modern technological world has not dimmed the popularity of this medieval game. In fact, even after supercomputers have beat humans soundly and repeatedly, chess is more popular than ever.
I can only speak as a low-level casual online chess player, but some of the things that make chess so engaging to me are:
How many surprises and reversals can happen right before your eyes, almost like a magic trick
How a single move can do many things at once—capture, threaten, block, improve overall position, open up opportunities for other pieces, and shut down opportunities for others
How looking at the board from the opponent’s side can make you see the whole game differently
How the game rewards assertiveness but punishes rashness
How the interdependency of your pieces can make a strong defense—but also make your defenses fragile and liable to collapse suddenly
How powerful a well-positioned pawn can be
What makes chess engaging is that, even after the logic of chess has been understood, it’s still a game about one’s own subjectivity. We look at the same board. We play by the same rules. But what can I see? What am I missing? What do you see? What are you thinking?
Perhaps, in the end, the emotions of the Lewis Chessmen are the same emotions we feel when playing—shock, wonder, fear, grief. But it may just be possible that the master carver is watching us play with a sly smile. Such big emotions for a such a little game.