In the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, nine-year-old Beth Harmon stumbles upon a janitor, Mr. Shaibel, sitting alone at a chessboard in the dimly-lit basement of the orphanage she calls home. Her curiosity piqued, she demands Mr. Shaibel teach her how to play. Beth’s discovery of this complex and elegant game leads her into the world of competitive chess (and to self-destruction and discovery).
Chess is believed to have developed from an Indian board game called chaturanga, which rose to popularity by the 6th century. Like modern chess, all the pieces (king, minister, elephants, cavalry, chariots, and foot soldiers—the elements of an Indian army) had different powers and winning the game depended on defeating one piece (the opponent’s king). As the game spread through Asia, Persia, the Arabian empire, and into Europe over the following centuries, regional variations led to the creation of new rules and pieces that reflected the social dynamics of the time and place. You can see medieval European society reflected in the pawns, bishops, knights, and castles, who serve to protect the king and queen. Their powers evolved as their real-life counterparts evolved; for example, the queen replaced the “minister” and grew the ability to move any number of spaces in any direction, as opposed to a single space, as queens became more powerful across Europe.
One of the world’s oldest and most popular games, chess is depicted in paintings, photography, books, movies, and even song lyrics, often as the ultimate intellectual showdown.
Curious about representations of the game in art, we looked through Getty’s collection to pay homage to this battle of wits.
A Medieval How-To Guide
If you were a budding chess player in medieval Europe, you might have studied this book of chess problems, known as Bonus Socius (Latin for “good companion”), to up your game. It is believed to be written by Nicholas de Saint-Nicholai, from Lombardy, Italy, in the second half of the 13th century, making it the oldest compilation of chess problems from medieval Europe. The book features 204 problems that each include a diagram and explanation of a set of moves that lead to the end of the game. On the page above, the author used letters of the alphabet to show the sequence of moves between the golden and red opponents. The Getty’s copy of Bonus Socius is written in French and dates from the late 14th century.
During the Middle Ages, chess was often played among noblemen and royalty, both women and men, who viewed it as a game that demonstrated intellect and strategy skills, as well as a diverting pastime. Chess games could get heated and possibly violent; some medieval legends tell tales of opponents being murdered, sometimes using the chessboard or pieces as weapons. Players and spectators could also get in on the action by betting on games, according to Elizabeth Morrison, senior curator of manuscripts at the Getty Museum. This means that Bonus Socius could have also been used as a guide to help gamblers place bets.
Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp’s Passion for Chess
A prominent member of the Dada and Surrealist movements of the 1920s and ‘30s, Man Ray created dreamy, often absurd photographs, paintings, films, and sculptures that play with shapes, scale, and unexpected combinations of bodies and objects. He met fellow avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp in 1915, and the two remained friends and collaborators for many years. Duchamp grew up playing chess with his siblings, and as an adult featured chess in his paintings, played in high-profile chess tournaments around the world, wrote books and newspaper columns about chess, and co-founded the Greenwich Village Chess Club. In the photograph on the left, Man Ray captures Duchamp playing chess with Raoul de Roussy de Sales, a French journalist.
Explaining his affection for chess to Truman Capote, Duchamp said: “A chess game is very plastic. You construct it. One creates beautiful problems and that beauty is made with the head and hands.”
Man Ray was also a chess aficionado (though not to the extent Duchamp was), and in 1920, he designed his first chess set, pictured on the right. Consistent with his surreal style that favored abstraction and whimsy over realism and tradition, the set imagines each piece as a geometric shape. The king is a pyramid, the queen is a cone, the bishop is a drinking container called a flagon, the rook (castle) is a cube, the knight is a violin finial, and the pawn is a sphere. Ray continued designing chess sets over the following decades, including this one he designed in 1950 with cylinder-shaped pawns and a sloped cube with a hole drilled through it as a knight, which he documented in a photograph made in 1969.
An Oasis for Chess Enthusiasts
Since its 1973 opening, the Tbilisi Chess Palace and Alpine Club has been a community hub in the heart of Georgia’s capital. Designed by architects Vladimir Aleksi-Meskhishvili and Germane Gudushauri in 1973, the building harmoniously blends into an outdoor park setting and serves as an inviting center for chess and mountaineering, two of Georgia’s popular leisure activities.
The site hosts 50 chess-related events annually, including national and international tournaments, and has been the training ground for many of Georgia’s chess champions, particularly women, who starting in the 1970s held the world chess champion title for 30 years. In 2001, the building was dedicated to Georgian chess player Nona Gaprindashvili (who gets a quick name-drop in The Queen’s Gambit), a five-time world champion and the first woman to be designated Grandmaster.
The club, which received a Getty Keeping It Modern grant in 2018, was constructed in the late Soviet Modernism style and uses natural materials such as stone and wood to merge with the surrounding natural scenery. The second and third floors boast continuous single balconies that are lined by large glass doors and windows, allowing light to stream into the interiors. A concrete screen adorned with a grid of crowns picks up the chess theme and gives it a modern treatment. The 520-seat main hall is adjoined by side galleries partitioned by six mobile panels that can be elevated to allow for even more spectators. These panels are adorned with elaborate chess scenes made of decorative wooden inlays.
With such careful attention paid to craftsmanship and detail, it’s no surprise that this remarkable chess palace has endured over many decades.