ST. LOUIS • Inside the World Chess Hall of Fame in the Central West End, there is a small room filled to the brim with more than 775 carefully labeled boxes.
Most are plain on the outside, but each holds a set of 32 chess pieces. There’s everything from “Star Wars” to GI Joe to ancient Chinese pieces of art and a tournament set used by chess icon Bobby Fischer.
The museum has built this diverse chess collection over more than 30 years, adding considerably since it relocated from Miami to 4652 Maryland Avenue in St. Louis in 2011.
“They are all little works of art,” said Shannon Bailey, chief curator at the museum. “And there’s cultural history. Chess sets can tell stories about history, they tell stories about war, about pop culture. It’s all there.”
Bailey said as far back as the Middle Ages, chess sets were a staple in homes as decorative items meant to impress.
“Chess sets have always been something people showed off,” Bailey said. “You don’t have to be a Grandmaster to appreciate them.”
A wide world of chess
The collection at the World Chess Hall of Fame ranges from the goofy to the strange, historic and beautiful.
Most major pop culture phenomena are covered. There are sets for Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings with a detailed map of Middle Earth, the Flintstones, the Muppets, Hello Kitty, Babar the Elephant, Batman and “South Park,” just to name a few.
Some of the collection’s sets play into chess’s traditional role as a game of war, while others upend that expectation, said assistant curator Emily Allred.
“We have a tea set that is also a chess set,” Allred said. “So you’ve got this game of strategy and war with these dainty, feminine pieces.”
Other sets in the collection play into the war strategy of the game, like a Revolutionary War set that pits redcoats against the Minutemen, or a “Star Wars” set featuring the Jedi against the Sith.
The sets also show how chess often became a promotional item, particularly throughout the 20th century, Allred said.
That trend can be seen in the collection in several Coca-Cola sets, a set made entirely of Avon cologne containers and a large set made of bottles of whiskey.
The collection’s sets range from the early 1800s to sets made in just the last few years, including a 3-D printed set, Allred said.
Other fun themed sets among the 775 include a marching band set, Halloween and Christmas sets, and chess sets for most sports, including hockey, football and basketball.
“We have a lot of really priceless sets,” Allred said. “And then some just make you smile.”
Exploring the collection
Visitors can look through some of the World Chess Hall of Fame’s permanent collection by visiting the museum or going to worldchesshof.org, but there are also a few upcoming shows that will feature pieces from the permanent collection.
The museum will open an exhibition on April 12 about the history of the Staunton chess set, the classic set used in tournament play, titled “The Staunton Standard: Evolution of the Modern Chess Set.” The show will feature chess sets from the creation of the set in 1849 to today.
The public will also be able to see some of the collection’s lighthearted pop culture sets in a display at St. Louis Lambert International Airport beginning on May 17.
The World Chess Hall of Fame also features a different chess set from the community or its permanent collection in the museum and on its website every month.
If you have a chess set you would like featured, send a photo and the story of the set to Emily Allred at firstname.lastname@example.org.