On the front cover of our Winter 2021 issue are a selection of intricate chess pieces. The pieces featured are from an 1800s German set of the Selenus style. Prior to the standardisation of chess pieces in 1849 different countries had their own styles (which could put a player at a disadvantage if unfamiliar with the pieces of their opponent’s set). The most elegant of the different styles had to be the Selenus style, named due to the popularity of the 1616 book ‘Chess or the King’s Game’ by Gustavus Selenus (the pen name of Augustus the Younger, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg*).
*Fun fact: Also know for his book on cryptology, the pen name Gustavus Selenus was also cryptic. Gustavus was an anagram of Augustus (with one U=V) and Selenus referred to the Greek moon goddess Selene (moon=lunar= Lüneburg).
The Selenus style can be spotted by its lathe turned bases (usually made from bone), with a tiered form. The pieces were distinguished by their height and number of tiers. There’s formal garden associations across all of the intricate variations of this style – floral pawns, tiered fountains, urns, ornate towers and gentle horses. In England they were referred to as ‘tulip sets’. Do they look floral to you?
Tall and slim, these sets are easily toppled and fragile, so complete and undamaged sets are rare. Usually priced in the mid hundreds, more unusual and intricate examples (particularly if made from ivory) will sell in their low to mid thousands.
A game of life and death
Several of the Founding Fathers of the United States were keen chess players including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington but it was a German Colonel’s enthusiasm for chess that gave Washington the advantage in the American Revolutionary War…
On 26th December, 1776 Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall was camped in Trenton, New Jersey with his Hessian troops, reportedly playing a game of chess. Rall was handed a note obtained from a British spy, informing him that General George Washington was to cross the Delaware River and attack. Unfortunately, instead of reading the note Rall chose to finish his game of chess. The attack took place and Rall died having been struck by a musket ball. The note was found, unopened, in his coat pocket.
The Queen’s Gambit
2020 was a good year for chess. First, a pandemic-induced board game boom and then, on 23rd October, the debut of Netflix’s chess drama The Queen’s Gambit, which at the time of writing (a month later) has already become their most viewed programme with 62 million viewers worldwide and caused a surge of interest in playing chess, particularly among women…