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Location: Great Boreal Deciduous Hardwood Forest, New England, United States

old dude, all hair, swell new teeth

10 November 2005

war without a drop of blood, intimacy without a single word

Learn to play. Learn the Open Sesame to a fantastic, rich, thrilling World.

Imagine the deepest sharing of souls and intellects -- almost as intimate as the Vulcan Mind Meld -- between two strangers on a ship or a train without a single word spoken.

Imagine fear, treachery, betrayal, courage, sacrifice, triumph, despair, euphoria, humiliation -- and you only speak deutsches, and your opponent only speaks Uzbek. I played a couple of Cuban old men in the all-night chess and domino park on Calle Ocho/Little Havana in Miami, no more than four words were (or could have been) exchanged, but for an hour we were in the most ferocious competition the brain or emotions could imagine. (Well ... maybe it wasn't quite as ferocious for these old men. One of them yawned a lot.) One of the greatest world champions in history was the Cuban Capablanca.

It's no longer an All-Boys club. Two of the world's finest competitive players today are the Hungarian Polgar sisters, Judit and Zsuzsa
. As teenagers, they were coached by Bobby Fischer during his fugitive wanderings to elude American authorities.

Despite what you may have seen in fancy movies, serious chessplayers only use the familiar, classic Staunton design, and most of the time use cheap toy store plastic sets which can stand up to a lot of physical abuse -- after each capture, the piece is banged roughly against the button on the chess clock to stop your clock and start your opponent's.

Using the hundreds or thousands of more artistic, beautiful, clever, expensive designs -- Napoleon versus Wellington, Civil War, Alice in Wonderland, Hannibal versus the Romans, The Fellowship of the Ring versus Mordor, etc. -- just confuses real chessplayers.

But for Beauty and Evocation, sculptors and collectors find magnificent chess sets an infinite source of inspiration.

These are chesspieces produced at the Tula arms factory of Russia in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. (More images.) The box and chessmen, now in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, were made by Andreyan Sukhanov in 1782. Forty-four pieces have survived. The steel surfaces are decorated with gold and silver inlays and diamond-cut heads.


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