Whether because of the popularity of Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit or because of how much time indoors the past year and a half has entailed, chess has boomed lately. Luckily for those would-be chessmasters who’ve had their interest piqued, everything they need to learn the game is available free online. But the deeper one gets into any given pursuit, the greater one’s desire for concrete representations of that interest. In the case of chess players, how many, at any level, have transcended the desire for a nice board and pieces? And how many have never dreamed of owning one of the finest chess sets money can buy?
Such a set appears in the Business Insider video above. “You can pick up a plastic set for $20 dollars, but a wooden set certified for the World Chess Championship costs $500,” says its narrator. “Much of the value of a high-quality of the set comes down to how well just one piece is made: the knight.”
Properly carved by a master artisan, each knight — with its horse’s head, the only realistic piece in chess — takes about two hours. Very few are qualified for the job, and one knight carver appears in an interview to explain that it took him five or six years to learn it, as against the four or five months required to master carving the other pieces.
The workshop introduced in this video is located in Amritsar (also home to the Golden Temple and its enormous free kitchen, previously featured here in Open Culture). To those just starting to learn about chess, India may seem an unlikely place, but in fact no country has a longer history with the game. “Chess has been played for over 1,000 years, with some form of the game first appearing in India around the sixth century,” says the video’s narrator. “Over the past two centuries, high-level competitions have drawn international interest.” For most of that period, fluctuations in public enthusiasm for chess have resulted in proportionate fluctuations in the demand for chess sets, much of which is satisfied by large-scale industrial production. But the most experienced players presumably feel satisfaction only when handling a knight carved to artisanal perfection.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.