Games: Chess

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The Independent Online
Of all the many changes that have taken place in the chess world over the past three decades - the schism in the world championship, the bad influence of rapid play events on the general quality of play, the pernicious effects of computer analysis, and the introduction of the ludicrous Bobby Fischer Chess Clock among them - the one I find most depressing is the extinction of cheap chess sets made of French boxwood at the hands of an even less expensive plastic variety.

I say this not through any particular aesthetic delight at the tactile qualities of wood or a dislike of plastic itself. It's just the shape of the wooden knights' ears that I miss. The disappearance of the boxwood sets, you see, has deprived me of my one great claim to a place in chess history. For I was the first person ever, as far as I know, to pile an entire chess set on top of a single rook. And thanks to the despicable new plastic sets, that is an art that has totally died out.

You start with a rook (conventionally a white one, though black would, I suppose, be equally acceptable) placed normally on any square of a chessboard. The crenellations around its battlements provide the notches on which four pawns may be hung in a manner that allows the tops of the pawns to form the base for the next level.

Now comes the clever bit. Take two knights, two bishops and one rook. If you hang the knights' muzzles over the rook's battlements, you will find they stay in place. And they become even more stable if you tuck a bishop in under each of their bellies. (Point the two bishops in opposite directions for general stability.) The entire rook-plus-four-minor-pieces combination may then be balanced upon the four pawns on the original rook. Not only were the boxwood sets perfectly weighted for this to work, but the ears of the knights, pointed friskily upwards, left a four-point horizontal base for the next level.

So another rook, two bishop and two knights are disposed of in similar manner, leaving us with two queens, two kings and 12 pawns. It's a little tricky, but you can get rid of two of the pawns between the ears of the knights. Delicately placed, they are light enough not to upset the balance, and their position becomes more stable when the next level is added.

Three pawns can be hung round each queen's head, again forming a level triangular base of pawn-tops for the next storey. At the very top two kings may be suspended by their crosses on those very useful crenellations of the final rook. The last four pawns may be balanced on assorted bishops, with one or two even on the topmost rook between the kings.

The execution of this fine pile took me most of my fourth year at Cambridge. Then the sets went out of fashion and my hope for eternal fame vanished with them.