Making Peace with a Precious Chess Set

In November of 2020, I sent a direct message on Twitter to a British man named Phil Makepeace. “Hi!” I wrote. “I need a chess coach! Are you the person to talk to?” I knew that Phil was a professional chess teacher who started his practice, in London, after spending years on the competitive circuit. (He was England’s under-eighteen captain in 2007.) I also knew that most of his students—at least before the pandemic—were in elementary school. At some point, I had started listening to his podcast, “The Chess Pit,” when I couldn’t sleep. I take great comfort in listening to other people talk about chess, because it makes me feel close to the game without having to play it. On the show, Phil and his co-hosts gab in crisp accents about pawn sacrifices and variations on the Sicilian Defense with the rowdy bonhomie of lads closing down a pub. Eventually, I realized that I should learn, once and for all, how to play well. I saw that Phil was offering Zoom classes for adults, and I felt drawn to his company’s name: Makepeace with Chess. A silly bit of wordplay, but it hit me right in the gut. For most of my life, I have been trying to make peace with chess.

We don’t have many heirlooms in my family—at least not ones that carry a lot of mythology—but we do have a very rare chess set, one that has passed through three generations, and which sits on a beautiful, glossy board in my parents’ living room. The pieces are heavy and substantial in the hand, though nobody can quite pinpoint their material. (They’re certainly not wooden; my father seems to think they are “fake ivory.”) The white pieces are a drab buttercream color; the black pieces are the vibrant cherry red of a new Ferrari. The two kings used to bear large crosses on their heads, but somewhere along the way they were decapitated, and now look like slightly taller and less ornate queens. The set is, we think, from France—the wooden box that holds the pieces contains a sort of taupe felt lining and a small golden tag that reads “Delaire: 4. Rue des Pyramides, Paris.” This seems to suggest that the set was either owned, designed, or endorsed by Henri Delaire, a Parisian chess dynamo who edited the chess magazine La Stratégie from 1908 until 1940, the year before his death. Delaire was something of a bon vivant of the chess world: he was the first president of the French Chess Federation, a gregarious organizer of matches and meets, and, through the magazine that he helped fund, a chatty arbiter of the scene. It makes poetic sense, then, that my mother’s grandfather, in many ways Delaire’s American equivalent, would come to own and play on this set.

I never met my great-grandfather, Harold Meyer Phillips, but I heard his name constantly growing up, as evidence that our family once had true genius in it. We would hear tall tales about how Harold, as a twelve-year-old Lithuanian immigrant, somehow taught himself English and graduated high school by fifteen. We heard the legend of Harold’s star turn at Columbia Law School, and of his infamous litigation efforts, including representing Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s co-defendant, Morton Sobell. But, mostly, we heard about chess. Harold was, for a time, one of the sport’s most influential figures in America. He was the president of the Manhattan Chess Club in the nineteen-thirties, and, in the fifties, ran the United States Chess Federation. He was the New York State champion, was ranked as a master, and even had a catchy nickname. (His peers called him Der Kleine Morphy, meaning the little Morphy, since he played in the risk-taking style of the American prodigy Paul Morphy.) Harold was also, like Delaire, something of a chess socialite, as interested in the people who played as he was in the game itself. He organized international tournaments, and welcomed the feared Russians to play in the U.S. Most nights, he hosted games at his Riverside Drive apartment; one of his regular partners was the Dada artist Marcel Duchamp. My late grandfather, Paul, said that Duchamp would take a break between games, slip into his room, and tell him fantastical bedtime stories.

My grandfather revered his father, though they had a contentious relationship. They were both lawyers, which led to competition and impossible expectations. Still, my grandfather talked about his father as a giant, a looming, stentorian intellect. I think a lot of this reverence had to do with the fact that Paul never really had a passion for chess. His father’s obsession was inscrutable to him. My grandfather was in love with opera and classical music—he played arias all day long in his study—and not with quiet contemplation over a chessboard. We used to joke in my family that chess simply skips generations. But neither my mother nor any of her siblings took up the game.

The chess player in my nuclear family is my father, William, who isn’t related to Harold by blood at all. He started playing in grade school, at camp in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico, and he joined his junior-high chess team in the sixties. My dad has the kind of brain that maps perfectly onto a chessboard: methodical, logical, but also intense and relentless. He has dozens of books on chess openings, full of dog-eared corners and annotations. When I was young, he was part of an amateur Wednesday-night chess club that gathered at the Frontier Restaurant, a then twenty-four-hour diner famous for its gargantuan, gooey cinnamon rolls. He tried to teach me, but, like my grandfather, I could never sink my teeth into it. I didn’t have—and still don’t possess—the patience required. I am impetuous and hasty when it comes to attacks, gleefully hoovering up pawns even if it leaves my bishops exposed. I am easily bored, and I get a shifty, squirrelly feeling after sitting in one place for too long. When my father first taught me how the pieces move, when I was five or six years old, I remember thinking that the entire enterprise was a waste of perfectly good figurines. Why push horses around on a dusty, old table, I thought, when you could make them fly through the air or pretend they were crossing a moat?

My dad plays on my great-grandfather’s set now, though he rarely gets the opportunity. My brother isn’t all that interested. In fact, it is my husband—another non-blood relative—who will sit for hours and move red rooks around. When the chess set passes on, it will likely be to me, not because I have any particular affinity for it, but because my partner does.

The chess set has made me think a lot about what we inherit. Things? Aptitudes? Attitudes? I certainly didn’t inherit chess skill from my great-grandfather. He did, I believe, bequeath me a fervent interest in people, and in corralling them into the same place. He was also a writer, for Chessworld—my favorite of his pieces is “A Recollection of the First Official World Champion by the Only Living Chessplayer Who Remembers Him,” a profile of the champion William Steinitz, which Harold wrote at eighty-nine. When I heard a rumor that he used our set for a game with the German master Emanuel Lasker, I called up my teacher, Phil, across the Atlantic, and asked him why Lasker mattered. (“He was a true psychological player,” Phil told me. “He did not play storybook chess. How he played was ruthless.”) Three generations later, chess is still opening up my world, helping me meet new people, driving me to send late-night messages to strangers. I may not know how to move the pieces, but, somehow, the set is moving me. ♦

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