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Let the Games Begin

Emma Wegner, Assistant Museum Educator, The Cloisters

Posted: Wednesday, January 4, 2012

«Last Wednesday, The Cloisters hosted a chess tournament for fifty New York City elementary and junior high school students, organized by Chess-in-the-Schools. The students came from four public schools: East Side Community School, PS 226X, PS 279X, and PS 145M, all of which have active chess teams. We chose the date of the event to coincide with the first day of our two-day December Family Festival, which offered chess-themed gallery workshops for visitors ages four through twelve. Between games, several of the chess players participated in the self-guided Art Hunt that was offered as part of the Family Festival.»

Young chess competitors faced off in the Fuentidueña Chapel at The Cloisters. The students came from chess clubs at four New York City public schools: East Side Community School, PS 226X, PS 279X, and PS 145M. Photograph by Andrew Winslow

Our tournament included four rounds of competition, starting at 10:15 a.m. and concluding with an award ceremony at 3:30 p.m. The majority of the players, some of whom are just beginning their tournament careers, competed at two long tables in the Fuentidueña Chapel. Competition chess sets and timers were provided by Chess-in-the-Schools staff, who carefully supervised the proceedings and recorded the results. The players kept track of each of their moves with a score sheet so they could review them with their coaches after each game.

"Top board" players competed in the St-Michel-de-Cuxa cloister, using reproduction Lewis Chessmen sets acquired from the British Museum. This part of the competition was open for Museum visitors to observe.

Two "top board" players engrossed in a game in the St-Michel-de-Cuxa cloister. They played with reproduction Lewis Chessmen sets from the British Museum. Photograph by Andrew Winslow

Before the games began, the players were allowed to practice with the unfamiliar twelfth-century-style pieces. The reproduction sets, unlike the original sets on view in the exhibition, include both red and white pieces. (Although the Lewis Chessmen have lost any color that differentiated the opposing sides, at the time of their discovery some pieces retained their original red coloring, possibly made by a vegetable pigment such as madder root.)

A few weeks before the tournament, anticipating that some players might be confused by the way the pieces appear from the back, we provided front and rear view images of the pieces to Chess-in-the-Schools staff. The Kings' long pigtails, for example, might lead a player to mistake them for the Queens, who wear veils.

King (left) and Queen (right), ca. 1150–1200. Scandinavian, probably Norway, found on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland, 1831. Walrus ivory. The British Museum, London (1831,1101.78, .84) © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

Also, modern chess players are used to Rooks shaped like castle towers, while the Lewis Rooks, or Warders, are warriors with pointy helmets resembling the miters of modern chess bishops.

Warder, ca. 1150–1200. Scandinavian, probably Norway, found on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland, 1831. Walrus ivory. The British Museum, London (1831,1101.124) © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

Although we were initially anxious about the non-standard pieces, Shaun Smith, Chess-in-the-Schools' Director of School Programs, assured us that these players become so absorbed in their games that "they could play with caramels and not even notice."

Chess is a serious and all-consuming passion for these young players. Photograph by Andrew Winslow

Museum staff and visitors were impressed with the concentration that these young people gave to their games. Chess is clearly a very serious business for them, and they were quiet, focused, and very polite, shaking hands with their opponents at the beginning and end of each game. Between games, some players went to other galleries in the Museum to play speed chess with their own sets, which they carry with them wherever they go. Their competitive spirit was made evident not only in their chess playing but also in their participation in the Art Hunt, which they approached with similar gusto. The winning players received their trophies from City Councilman Robert Jackson (Northern Manhattan) and Peter Barnet, Michel David-Weill Curator-in-Charge of the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters.

The winning players received their trophies at a ceremony in the Fuentidueña Chapel. Pictured in the back from left to right are City Councilman Robert Jackson (Northern Manhattan), Shaun Smith, Director of School Programs at Chess-in-the-Schools, and Peter Barnet, Michel David-Weill Curator-in-Charge of the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. Photograph by Andrew Winslow

Meanwhile, as part of the festivities, staff from Chess-in-the-Schools also gave chess lessons for visitors in the St-Guilhem-le-Désert cloister. Young and old alike enjoyed this opportunity to try their hands at chess and to experience the thrill and fascination that this game has offered for centuries.

Chess-in-the-Schools staff offered lessons and game time to visitors in the St-Guilhem-le-Désert cloister. Photograph by Andrew Winslow

The instructors are specially trained to teach chess to children in a straightforward manner that focuses on strategy and advanced thinking. It was impressive to watch one of these instructors work with a five year-old girl who had never played chess. "Which is the most important piece?" he began. Within a short time, she was playing with the same focus as the competitors next door in Fuentidueña.

A young museum visitor receives her first chess lesson from a Chess-in-the-Schools instructor. Photograph by Andrew Winslow

Clearly, the love of the game of chess has not wavered a bit in the centuries since the Lewis Chessmen were carved. We hope that many more chess enthusiasts and players of all levels will take advantage of the rare opportunity to see these captivating pieces at The Cloisters in the next few months.

About Chess-in-the-Schools

Chess-in-the-Schools is a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to improving academic performance and building self-esteem among inner-city public school children. Chess-in-the-Schools oversees and administers a diverse group of ventures, including a School Program that teaches chess to students in Title I elementary and middle schools as part of their academic school day. This program has been in existence for more than twenty years during which Chess-in-the-Schools has taught more than four hundred thousand students to play chess. They also offer an After School Chess Club at each of the schools in the School Program. Children who participate in these programs often go on to compete in Chess-in-the-Schools' Tournament Program, which offers more than twenty-five chess tournaments throughout the academic year, each of which draws between 250 and 500 players from second grade through high school. High school students can also participate in the College Bound program, which provides comprehensive college preparatory services, academic and cultural excursions (including to The Cloisters), and chess instruction in a safe and engaging environment.

The Family Festival was made possible by the Great Circle Foundation.

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About the Author

Emma Wegner is the assistant Museum educator at The Cloisters museum and gardens.

About this Blog

This blog accompanied the special exhibition The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis, on view at The Cloisters November 15, 2011–April 22, 2012.