Bookplates with chess motifs
The story in Lewis Carroll’s book "Through the Looking
Glass" is structured as a game of chess and each move represents
important events in the book: White Pawn (Alice) plays and wins in eleven
moves. In the beginning of the game Alice meets the Red Queen in a landscape
surrounded by trees and towers. The scene is illustrated by the Danish
advertising designer Per Christensen for Erik Skovenborg, whose name means
castle in the wood.
Bookplates with chess-motifs
The article Chess Bookplates was printed in
Bookplate International 1999, vol. 6, No. 2
page 79-113. The text of the article is printed
below, however, due to lack of space the 46
chess bookplates that illustrate the article are
not shown here.
Interested chess players may by a copy of the
offprint (10 USD incl. postage) - just send a
mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chess is an old game - much older than chess-books and the bookplates that adorn
many of them. Chess evolved from a two-player game, shatranj, popular in
India after AD 600. From India shatranj made its way to Europe by way of
Persia. An Indian legation is said to have given King Chosroës I (532-578)
a chessboard and chessmen as a present. It coupled the present with one condition
however, namely that Persia could only then free itself from its obligation to
pay tribute if it could work out the proper positioning of the pieces and their
way of moving. Should Persia achieve this, then India was prepared to pay tribute
herself, since it esteemed wisdom more than any other earthly possession. Persia
fulfilled the appointed task. Not only did it make chess exceedingly popular,
it also played a decisive part in refining the rules of the game to such a degree
that when the Arabs conquered the Persian Empire in 651 they also adopted the
Persian way of playing chess. The oldest recorded game, found in a 10th-century
manuscript, was played between a Baghdad historian and a pupil. The Russian artist
Wladimir Chekarjkov has transformed the King to a Grand Vizier in his design
for Alexander Sazonov, a well-known russian bookplate collector with about
50 personal chess-exlibris (Fig. 1).
In Europe chess really became the Game of Kings. It was primarily noblemen and
knights who indulged in the game, and it was part of a good education to play
chess well. It was therefore logical that it soon belonged to the Seven Arts which
a knight had to master. The motif of Dutch bibliophile and collector of chess-problems
Dr. Meindert Niemeijer’s bookplate (Fig. 2) shows a miniature from
“Codice di Manesse” (Bibliotecha Universitaria Heidelberg),
where the lady is moving a Rook while her opponent, Otto IV of Brandenburg (1182-1218),
contemplates the position of his Knight.
The game was carried to England by the Vikings, who are also believed responsible
for the most famous collection of chessmen, 78 walrus-ivory pieces of various
sets that were found on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in 1831 and date
from the 11th or 12th century. Leslie Benenson illustrate
the famous story from medieval England - “The floating chessboard”
- in her woodcut for the Dutch collector Wim K. de Bruijn. One day in Camelot,
when the legendary king Arthur was sitting at the round table with his knights,
a chessboard came floating through the door and settled before the king (Fig.
3). He started to play chess, however, when his invisible opponent stood to loose
the game the chessboard floated away. One of King Arthur’s brave knights,
Sir Gawaine, followed the floating board in a quest to find out who was the invisible
chess player (Fig. 4).
One of the myths about the origin of chess tells the story of King Sjeram of India.
He was not a good king and one of the Court nobles created a game in order to
send a message to the king. The game should demonstrate that the king was of no
avail without his officers and his people. King Sjeram took in the meaning, and
he was so pleased with the new game that he promised the inventive genius to gratify
his greatest wish. The wise man turned out to be very modest. He only asked for
some wheat from the royal storerooms: one grain of wheat on the first square of
the chessboard, two times one = two grains on the second square, two times two
= four grains on the third square, two times four = eight grains on the fourth
square etc. on the 64 squares of the board. The king agreed thinking that he was
let off cheaply, but the amount of wheat for the reward proved impossible to deliver:
922.337.203.685 metric tons. To amass that huge quantity you would have to put
the whole world under wheat eight times and harvest the same number of crops!
The power of the innocently looking 64 squares is illustrated by André
Vlaanderen in his bookplate for the English collector Reginald G. E. Stainforth
The number 8, the mathematical symbol for infinity, was surely not chosen by chance
as the basis for the game. 8 x 8 squares make up the chessboard; the army is composed
of 8 officers and 8 foot-soldiers. The King and the Knight have the choice of
moving to 8 different squares. The magic of the chessboard is depicted
by the Russian artist Serik Kulmeschkenov in his etching for the author
Playing-boards, which had monochromatic squares in the Muslim world, began to
have alternating black-and-white, or red-and-white, squares by AD 1000 and were
often made of fine wood or marble. Peter I the Great of Russia had special campaign
boards made of soft leather that he carried during military efforts. The chessboard
of Börje Börjesson’s bookplate ranks among the luxury boards
with black and gold squares as the background to some stylish chessmen. The elegant
set was designed by the Swedish artist Arthur Sjögren in 1923 (Fig.
By convention, the board is so placed that each player has a light-coloured square
at his right-hand corner. The files, the lines of squares running vertically up
and down, are labeled a through h beginning with the file at White’s left
hand. The ranks, the lines of squares running horizontally to right and left,
are numbered from 1 through 8 beginning with the rank closest to White. There
are eight squares in each rank and file. Using the letter and number of each square
- coordinate notation - it is possible to record a chess game. Here is an example:
a recording of the shortest possible game of chess, known as the Fool’s
No Fool’s mate but a discovered check is threatening the black King in Willy
Kornher’s design for L. C. Schmidt (Fig. 8).
- g2-g4 e7-e5
- f2-f4 Dd8-h4 checkmate!
The board represents a battlefield in which two armies fight to capture each other’s
King. The worn-out troops in Wim de Bruijn’s bookplate
fight in a smoking, desolate landscape that looks like the battlefields of World
War I. The military operation was etched by the Chech artist Katerina Slavikova
Most chess-players win some games and loose some. That is also true for the Grand
Masters even if they mostly win more battles than they loose. So did Napoleon,
but “Every man meets his Waterloo at last.” In Bueno de Mesquita’s
scraperboard-design for Ivan Matteo Lombardo the black Knight is in
charge of the execution of the white King, Napoleon, who incidentally found chess
without comparison, an imperial game (Fig. 10).
The simple design of the pieces before AD 600 gradually led to figurative sets
depicting animals, warriors, and noblemen. Muslim sets of the 9th-12th
centuries were often made of carved stove following the Islamic prohibition of
images of living creatures. Stylized sets, often adorned with precious stones,
resturned to fashion as the game spread to Europe and Russia. The standard for
modern sets was established about 1835 with a simple design by an Englishman,
Nathanial Cook. The design was endorsed by Howard Staunton, then the world’s
best player, and the set subsequently became known as the Staunton pattern. Only
sets based on the Staunton design are allowed in international competition today.
The linocut by the German artist Georg M. Bauernfeind for his fellow-countryman
Friedrich Wolfenter shows the simple design that helps to direct the players’
attention to the game itself (Fig. 11).
The King can move one square in any direction. That does not
sound like the most powerful officer in the army, however the King is the most
important piece. When his Majesty is caught, the battle is lost. The Crimean artist
V. Mitsuk has illustrated the scene of surrender in his bookplate for Alexander
Sazonov: the victorious white King accept the crown of the defeated
black King (Fig. 12).
A golden King in the Staunton design was the Dutch artist Johanna Bieruma-Oosting’s
suggestion for her fellow-countryman P. L. J. Rassers’ bookplate
(Fig. 13). In the classical chess openings as well as in the middle game the King
is playing a not very active part as observer from a safe distance. “No
need to risk his life in the opening encounters,” the Finnish chessplayer
and philosophical Doctor Pentti Jänkälä has decided. So
the artist Mirjam Kinos has placed the white King on his throne with his
sword in the sheath (Fig. 14).
In shatranj, the original Indian game, a new piece, a “firzan”
(counselor), was placed next to the King. The counselor was limited to moving
one square diagonally at a time. In medieval times the piece grew in size when
its powers expanded, and the piece changed from a male counselor to the King’s
female consort. The Queen adorning the bookplate of the great Danish collector
Kristen Rasmussen is unmistakable feminine. She was undressed by the Danish
artist H. C. Bärenholdt (Fig. 15).
The Queen is the star of the game. Not only is she the most powerful of all pieces,
her range of movement is star-shaped, in any one direction at a time, so far as
the squares in that line are unoccupied. The Queen combines the powers of both
Rook and Bishop. Evaluating a Pawn as a unit of one, the Queen is the equivalent
of nine in the table of the relative value of chessmen. She deserves her prominent
position in E. Zierold’s plastic engraving for the German collector
Paul G. Becker (Fig. 16).
It is tempting to use the powerful Queen to charge the footsoldiers of the enemy
right away. The plastic engraving by the Israeli artist Leonid Kuris for
V. Teplitskogo shows a Queen on pawn-looting (Fig. 17). However, the Queen
she should not be put to risk too early in the game. An early Queen sortie is
apt to recoil: the Queen will serve as a target, be attacked and be compelled
to retreat. The time expended in advancing and retreating will be used by the
adversary to bolster his developmenmt. The Queen should not join the fray until
the position has crystallized. Then she will be a decisive asset in the hunt for
the enemy King as depicted in the Hungarian artist Laszlo Kekesi’s
woodcut for his fellow countryman Gulyas Mihaly (Fig. 18).
The story in Lewis Carroll’s book “Through the Looking Glass”
is structured as a game of chess and each move represents important events
in the book: White Pawn (Alice) plays and wins in eleven moves. In the beginning
of the game Alice meets the Red Queen in a landscape surrounded by trees and towers.
The scene is illustrated by the Danish advertising designer Per Christensen
for the author of this article, whose name means castle in the wood (Fig. 19).
Depiction of the Rook varied considerably during times and places. In Russia it
was usually represented as a sailing ship until the 20th century. Elsewhere
it was a warrior i a chariot or a castle turret. The “warrior in a chariot”
type of Rook looks marvelous in Serik Kulmeschkenov’s woodcut
for the great Russian collector Alexander Sazonov (Fig. 20).
The woodcut by the Hungarian artist Havas depicts the Rook as a
castle turret in a city with busy people (Fig. 21). The Rooks like to be positioned
on open files, where its massive frame and long-ranging cannon may dominate the
enemy troops. The interesting bookplate is owned by the Hungarian collector Pécsi
The strong Castle is the equivalent of five Pawns, even so it can be used as an
elegant symbol in heraldry as shown by the Dutch artist Mia Pot van Regteren
Altena in her wood-engraving for the Dutch collector A. G. Stolp Fig.
22). In this way the exceptionally beautiful topographic bookplate is turned
into a chess-bookplate.
The Bishop has been known by different names - “Fool” in French, “Elephant”
in Russin, for example - and was not universally recognized by a distinctive mitre
until the 19th century. The modest appearance of the piece has appealed
to neither bookplate-artists nor bookplate-collectors.
Consequently is it is hard to find a nice Bishop in even a
large collection of chess-exlibris. However, the typographical bookplate of the
German collector Norbert Richter presents all six types of chessmen in
a line: King, Bishop, Rook, Knight, Queen and a Pawn upside-down (Fig. 23). The
motif is composed by Friedrich Wolfenter using examples of type from a
normal typewriter (not computer).
The Bishop is the equivalent of fully three Pawn units thanks to its ability to
strike from a distance along diagonals, that is, slant-wise, in any one direction
at a time, and so far as the squares are unoccupied. From one corner the Bishop
may aim straight at the enemy King in the opposite corner; a dangerous situation
as shown in the fine wood-engraving by the French artist Ernest Huber (Fig.
24). Chess is the art of human reason, but according to the motto of Dr. E.
Olivier - Patientia et Ingenio - a little patience is needed as well.
The Knight is a funny piece with a funny way of moving: in the shape of an
L or an inverted L, one square forward or backward and two squares to the left
or right; or two squares forward or backward and one square to the left or right.
The Knight’s move is actually a leap to the nearest non-adjacent square
of opposite colour. The Knight alone can leap over other chessmen, friendly
or enemy, and it is the only piece which can move before Pawns at the start
of the game. The Knight, the equivalent of three pawns, is always ready to jump
and to fight as the beautiful horse in Hungarian artist Jenö Sebök's
ipse fecit (Fig. 25).
In contrast to the Bishop, the Knight has never lacked attentiveness from
the bookplate artists. Any collection of chess-exlibris should have plenty af
Knights among which exquisite works of art like the etching of the Austrian
artist Victor Schapiel for Jürgen Auer may be found (Fig.
The sly Knight is a difficult opponent in the battle of the chessboard as many
inexperienced chess-players have found to their cost. During the battle of Troy
the Achaen forces led by Epeius constructed the Trojan horse, a huge, hollow
wooden horse, to gain entrance into Troy. The Achaeans, pretending to desert
the war, sailed to the nearby island of Tenedos, leaving behind Sinon, who persuaded
the Trojans that the horse was an offering to Athena that would make Troy impregnable.
Despite the warnings of Cassandra and Laokoon, the horse was taken inside. That
night warriors emerged from it and opened the city's gates to the returned Achaen
army. The Trojan horse engraved in plastic by Leonid Kuris should remind
warriors as well as chessplayers like Lothar Schmid never
to trust the enemy (Fig. 27).
One of the reasons for the dominationg position of the Knight in chess-exlibris
is its value as a symbol of chess. Like the card with club, diamond, heart and
spade shows the world that Seppo Asikainen like to play cards, the Knight
in the centre tells us that the Finnish bookplate collector is also a chess-player
(Fig. 28). The Finnish artist Jorma Piironen has designed the elegant
Chess is a game of black-and-white. In the Middle ages the chessboard stood
for the world, its white squares symbolizing life and the quality of mercy,
its black squares death and guilt. The black&white character of the game
is exactly what makes chessboard and chessmen such excellent motifs for the
black-and-white graphic art. An example of excellent use of the contrasting
colours is the fine bookplate for W. F. Denneborg (Fig. 29).
From the start of the game in India the Pawns have always been the infantry of
the army. In shatranj the humble Pawn could only move one square at a time,
however, by 1300 the foot soldier had acquired the ability to move two squares
on its first turn. The rule of en passant capture did not win acceptance until
the 18th century. The role of the Pawn as infantryman is illustrated
in the bookplate of Spanish collector F. Gimenéz Monmany (Fig. 30).
Between players of approximately equal strength a game is likely to reach an ending.
And it is in the ending that the game is won, lost or drawn. In the beginning
there are thirty-two units on the chessboard. The opening is an initial development
of the forces. The middle game is the complex art of chess that covers about a
score of strategic motifs and nearly as many tactical ones. The officers bear
the brunt of the battle. In the scientific calculation of the end game the leading
parts of the drama are taken by the Pawns and the King as shown in Serik Kulmeschkenov’s
wood-engraving for the Russian collector N. Kulikov (Fig. 31).
With each advance toward the eighth rank, the Pawn looms as a greater menace,
for the eighth rank usually means the conversion from pawn to Queen; and there
is no greater power on the chessboard than the Queen. The value of pawn promotion
added a dynamic element to chess. In Serik Kulmeschkenov’s imaginative
design for the Polish collector Jerzy Gizycki a new-born officer is breaking
through the egg-shell to take part in the decisive battle (Fig. 32).
The time element
The rise of competitive chess with the London tournament of 1851 posed a question
of fairness: should a player be allowed to take enormous amounts of time? As much
as two hours and 20 minutes was spent by one player over a single move at the
London tournament. That would give a spider ample time to finish its eloborate
web as depicted by Rajmund Lewandowsky in his humerous drawing for the
wellknown German specialist in chess-exlibris Gerd Mayer (Fig. 33).
Staunton, the most influential player of the first half of the 19th
century, was severely critical of players who took “hours over moves where
minutes might suffice.” He suggested limiting the amount of time allotted
for each move to be a specified number of minutes. The principle, adopted for
most competitons from 1861 on, allow each player a bank of time in which to play
a predetermined number of moves, such as two hours for 30 moves, playing some
moves quickly and taking as much as an hour or more on others. In 1861 the first
time limits, using sand glasses, were emplyed in a match, however, the sandglasses
proved clumsy and were replaced by a pair of mechanical clocks. The linocut by
Aadu Tammsaar for the Danish collector Bernt B. Jensen shows one
of the modern clocks consisting of two parallel timers, each with a small button
above it for a player to press after completing a move (Fig. 34). This stops the
player’s time and starts the opponent’s. The simplified device makes
it possible for a player to survive severe time trouble, situations in which it
may be necessary to make 20 or 30 moves with less than a minute of allotted time
remaining. Persius, a 1st A.D. century Roman poet, used the expression
“Fugit hora” (time flies) to tell us that it’s later than we
think. Many chess-players have learnt that to their cost and have resorted to
“ora” - a prayer that they may get to make their next move before
the flag falls down.
The Arabs not only adopted the Persian rules of chess but also the Persian names
for the pieces. Shah, the Persian name for King, took on a changed meaning
in the course of the centuries, finally becoming synonymous with the deadly threat
of capturing the King. When a player attacks the enemy King, it is customary to
say “check” in sociable games. In any such event the King must
get out of check on its player’s next turn. There are three ways to do so:
1. capture the attacking man; 2. interpose a friendly man on the line of fire
of the attacker; and 3. move the King out of that line of fire. If none of these
resources works, the attacked King is “checkmated”, and the game is
That is the sad position of the white King in Jar. Mrazek’s bookplate
engraved in wood by the Chech artist Ant. Moravek (Fig. 35).
Tolstoi loved a game of chess; he recovered his strength while the game forced
him to focus on the moves of the chessmen. “Ludo - ergo sum” - I play,
therefore I am is the motto of E.N. The enthusiastic player is cut in wood
by Leonid Kuris (Fig. 36).
Some games are more serious than others. Vitalis Jakstas from Lithuania
has depicted a scene where a young woman play a game of chess with Death while
the sands are running out (Fig. 37). Even if that is a game no mortal is able
to win we can always hope to gain some time by playing well. R. Jurelionis
is the happy owner of the intriguing bookplate, an etching in brown and red
Jens Enevoldsen was a well-known Danish Chess-champion, a great blindfold
player with an excellent memory and a fine analytic mind. The Danish artist Leo
Petersen drew a portrait of Enevoldsen at the chessboard in a state of deep
concentration; you can almost see his brain working (Fig. 38).
The famous Grand Master Aaron Nimzowitsch hated tobacco and spirits and during
tournaments he always tried to have smoking prohibited. During the tournament
in New York 1927 Nimzowitsch was going to meet Dr. M. Vidmar, a passionate smoker.
With assistance from tournament leader Mr. Maroczy Nimzowitsch got Dr. Vidmars
promise not to smoke during the game. During the fight Dr. Vidmar missed his tobacco,
but he stood by his promise. Unconsciously, however, he fiddled with his pipe,
tobacco pouch, cigars and matches on the table. Suddenly Nimzovitsch jumped to
his feet and called for the tournament leader:
“Mr. Maroczy, Dr. Vidmar promised not to smoke, didn’t he?”
Maroczy looked with astonishment from Nimzowitsch to the Yugoslav professor:
“Yes, but Dr. Vidmar is not smoking.”
Nimzovitz regained his composure and with a smile he said:
“No, but he is threatening to smoke, and as an old chessplayer you must
know, Maroczy, that a suspended threat is worse than a threat that is put into
execution at once!”
We do not know whether the great Nimzowitz had a bookplate, but Rajmund Lewandowski’s
drawing for Gerd Meyer’s exlibris illustrates the situation very
well (Fig. 39).
Dr. Machielis Euwe was chess World Champion from 1935-1937. He took a doctor’s
degree in mathematics in 1926 and then he became head of a high school in Amsterdam.
Max Euwe was a scientific chessplayer; he wanted to search for the core of chess
systems. The Dutch Grand Master liked to play the game through a series of progressive
calculations and deductions in order to assemble the game to an integrated row
of experiments, where the last move proved the theory that had been the guiding
principle all along. Max Euwe’s mathematical talent for positionel play
and his determination to win brought him many victories. So the Dutch artist Jeanne
Bieruma Oosting has put a sprig of laurel in the mouth of the professor’s
clever Knight (Fig. 40).
Chess as recreation
Most chess-players are not champions, neither do they play chess for a living;
they play chess for recreation. With the words of G. Marco (Vienna 1908): “Maintained
with care chess is of great value. It helps to keep the sad hours away that so
often haunt the ailing humans. It distracts the self-pity that is so easily provoked
by the many infirmities of mankind. The delight of combination raise your spirits
while the ability to look into the future boosts your self-esteem. It produces
mental vitamins in a way that no other hobby is capable of. So chess is a consolation;
it fortifies and encourages and consequently it prolongs life.” The many
infirmities of mankind are also the business of Dr. Pentti Pentola, doctor
of medicine and professor of pharmacology. The professor is from Ostrobothnia,
the most spread-out and flat region in Finland, so the artist Pentti Kaskipuro
has placed the professors chessmen together with the doctor’s medicine
tablets in the same area (Fig. 41).
Marco’s kind words about chess could also have been said about music. The
Knight in István Molnár’s etching for the Erkel Muzeum
has grown wings to be a symbol of Pegasus, the winged horse from Greek mythology,
a symbol of poetic inspiration (Fig. 42). Ferenc Erkel (1810-1893) was
a well-known Hungarian composer, who composed the melody of the Hungarian national
anthem and several operas. He was also a great and passionate chess-player.
The Belgian artist André Gastmans has created a chess-study in black-and-white
inhabited by a royal couple from the realm of the sea. The graving tool in the
hand of His Majesty indicates that chess-lover Isaïas Pires Peixoto is
a renowned Portuguese engraver (Fig. 43).
The merit of having first introduced a great new tradition of chess literature
is attributed to Alphonso the Wise, tenth King of Castile and Leon (1252-1284).
Under the aegis of this ruler there originated alongside a multitude of legal
and historical works, a tractate on chess: the magnificently illustrated codex
“Libros de Acedrex”. The tractate praises the value of games and playing
in general and then the merits of that most distinguished game of chess in particular.
A section on the rules of the game then follows and this leads on to the main
body of the work: 103 chess problems and the solutions to them. The motif of the
Catalan Rafael Masó Subirana’s bookplate, a line block by
Estiate, pay homage to Spanish chess-books (Fig. 44).
First and foremost chess-books are necessary to teach young players the rules
of the game. Every newcomer to chess wishes to be a general - to direct his forces
and engage in strategy and tactics even before he has the faintest notion of what
it is all about. “That won’t do,” the King in Leonid Kuris’
woodcut warns the little pawn, “you have to learn the rules of the game
first!” (Fig. 45). The humerous exlibris belongs to the Polish collector
Tadeusz T. Gudzowski.
Many chessplayers would like to bring plenty of chess-books to the next chess-tournament.
However, that is not very practical as Rein Kontus has found out (Fig.
46). The well-informed player is drawn by the Estonian artist H. Hiibus.
It is much easier to get help from your chess-books when you play correspondance
chess. You play at home with an opponent from another city or another country,
you receive the enemy moves by post send your own moves back by post. The Polish
correspondance-chess player Andrezej Kruszewski has put his King in an
envelope, ready to depart for its next move in the distant battle (Fig. 47). Tadeusz
Szumarski has engraved the unusual scene in wood.
The Belgian collector of chess-exlibris Karel Falleyn is always ready to
play a game of chess as depicted in his bookplate by his fellow-countryman Peter
Lagast (Fig. 48). However, he has also published two catalogues on
exlibris and circumstance graphic with chess motifs. In catalogue I (1992) 815
bookplates are listed with illustrations and a numbered alphabetic list of owners
with nationality, date, technique, original measures etc. The catalogue also brings
an alphabetic list of artists and a list of literature about chess-bookplates.
Catalogue II (1996) brings the list of chess-exlibris up to 1205 according to
the same system as in catalogue I. The two catalogues should be a great help for
any serious collector of bookplates with chess-motifs in need of information about
a particular chess-bookplate.
The famous Polish collector Jerzy Gizycki has been interested in chess
and chess-related art since the first post-war years. 1967 he published a book
about chess: “Schach zu allen Zeiten”, and since then he has published
several booklets and catalogues about bookplates with chess-motifs. Jerzy Gizycki
has also written, but not yet published, an essay on the history of chees-exlibris
with more than 100 illustrations. The result of his efforts in the field of bookplate-exchange
is a collection of more than 1000 exlibris with chess-motifs. His first personal
chess-exlibris was designed 1975 by his son Marcin; since then more than 40 artists
from Poland and other countries has created around 100 bookplates for the enthusiastic
Polish collector; exchange of bookplates is only successful if you yourself can
put good material on the table. Jerzy Gizycki has lived a long life in the world
of chess concentrating on the art, culture and history of chess. He has always
been ahead of the field as the galloping Knight in one of his many fine bookplates
(Fig. 49), a wood-engraving by the artist Alexandr Miklowda.