Mongolian Chessmen

Traditionally, many people of Central Asia, and in particular Mongolia, Chinese Inner Mongolia and the Russian republic of Tuva, have been practicing nomadism for millennia, live in yurts and know chess well. Chess was presumably introduced into Mongolia from India and Persia, through Tibet, in the XIV-XVIt century AD.  In this part of the world, chess was played with figures other than those used in the rest of the world: they depict men, animals, equipment and symbols typical of nomadic culture. Handcrafted, they have been used for many generations within a family clan.

    Mongolian sculpture occupies an important place in Central Asian art. From prehistory to today we find tombstones, stems with engravings of galloping deers, idols, amulets, masks, to get to the gilded bronze statues of Zanabazar of the seventeenth century and popular sculptures, which masterfully portrays in wood, stone, metals (and less frequently in bone and ivory) animals and men from all walks of life in Mongolia. “The main merit of the master – writes Tsultem (1989) – lies in his ability to express the monumental character of an image through miniature plastic art”, and the skilled carvers have managed to express, in small dimensions, the aesthetic and philosophical aspect of the Mongolian people.

    The rules used in family play are slightly different from ours; the most common method, however, is the international one, which the Mongols must follow for official competitions.

    In the past, Mongolian chessboards simply had orthogonal lines drawn on paper, cloth or lids of boxes and chests, but from the mid-twentieth century, the habit of alternating coloring of boxes also took over in Mongolia.

    Various materials have always been used to sculpt or melt the chess games of these areas: wood, hard stone, soapstone or agalmatolite, metal (especially bronze) and, much more rarely, bone and ivory .

19th Century Mongolian set

Mongolian wooden set from 1850, repeatedly repainted. The kings (h 8.5 cm) are the village chiefs seated on a throne, the carriages are the Rooks, the camels of the Bactriana the Standard Bearers: the one in the center is bent over to drink. Source: CCI Italy.

Early 20th Century Mongolian set

Mongolian wooden set from 1922-24, used in yurts for countless games and therefore very worn. The figure female with lamb is the Head of the Village and represents the King (h 5,8 cm), the lion is the Vizir (the western Queen), the car is the rook and the squirrels are the pawns. Source: CCI Italy.