He had noticed it for years. And then, after a January visit, for reasons unclear even to him, he was finally moved to say something. “I’m a tournament chess player,” he wrote in an email to the MIA, “and I noticed that the chess set in the Charleston Drawing Room has an unlikely position on the board.” As anachronistic in the 18th-century period room, it turns out, as a Justin Bieber poster.
Cary Utterberg, without coming right out and saying the board had a silly setup, went on to suggest a couple positions that would be more historically accurate. (Such as “the position after 1.e4,e5 2.Nf3,d6 3.Bc4,Bg4 4.Nc3,g6 5.Nxe5,” he wrote. Yeah, no one at the MIA understood chess notation either, so we asked for diagrams.)
The chess set is Chinese, from the 18th century, with large figures atop elaborately filigreed globes, and it’s been in the period room as long as anyone can remember. In fact, little has changed in the room since its 1931 installation, a gift from James Ford Bell and his wife, Louise Heffelfinger—except for one thing.
In 1960, a red pawn went missing. The novice installation may have attempted to cover for this.
I called Utterberg at his Minneapolis home to ask how he noticed the anachronism, what spurred him to write, and what to make of the missing piece.
“I’ve been going to the MIA since the early ’80s, and I probably first looked at the chess set maybe 10 years ago. Most recently, I was walking through with my wife—she was scouting artworks for Art in Bloom—and it just kind of bugged me. I don’t know why I said something this time. I guess enough was enough.
I had two objections. The opening moves aren’t ridiculous—until black gives up its king pawn for nothing. Though if the set is missing a pawn, that could explain it. But also it just doesn’t fit 18th-century opening schemes. Back then, players generally occupied the center with their pawns right away. Yet there had been three moves played and neither center pawn had advanced two squares.
It’s hard to say why someone came up with that setup. The position in the photograph online is different than the one I saw on the board, still unusual but a little more plausible. Someone probably just made a few moves and that was that.
There’s not a lot of 18th-century chess information out there, but there are couple hundred games that old. The two positions I suggested are in Philidor’s book from 1749, the dominant chess book for the better part of a century. Around the middle of the 19th century, more games started to be recorded and published and the game advanced quickly. Before then, strong players didn’t record their games, they wanted to keep them secret.
The opening now is Philidor’s Gambit, a defense for the black pieces recommended in Philidor’s book. Black’s strategy is typical of the kind of pawn play favored in the 18th century, and the gambit is still occasionally used for surprise value by average to local-level players. But if the player of the white pieces reacts aggressively, he often gains a strong attack, so world-class players since about 1860 have almost entirely given up on the defense.
I tend to be obsessive-compulsive—I enjoy the museum because everything is displayed so carefully. The chess pieces were the only thing out of place, so I’m certain I’ll rest better tonight.”