Living Chess

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     Chess has had some difficulty throughout the years in presenting itself as a form of public entertainment. There has been some isolated cases where chess made good TV and even a few instances where chess was limelighted and managed to captivate the audiences of movie theaters.  But long before movies and TV (and even into the present time),  chess has occasionally been used to entertain the public through the dramatic pagentry of a game staged using living pieces.  Of course, not every Live Game has been elborate or professional, but each one put chess on display for both the initiated and the uninitiated.

Here a ragtag group of girls stand in for the pieces

The Walnut Grove Elem. students dress for the part.

 The above two examples contrast sharply with Charles Gilberg's description of a Live Game in the Fifth American Chess Congress book.

     "A superb and commodious hall measuring 40 by 100 feet, connected with their establishment, was generously placed at the disposal of the committee, free of rent for thirty days; and as a more convenient and desirable locality, or rooms more suitably adapted to the necessities of the Congress could scarcely have fallen to the possession of the committee, the offer was promptly and gratefully accepted, and preparations were at once begun to appropriately furnish and adorn the spacious quarters. At the rear of the hall a space of 40 feet was walled off for committee and conversation rooms, leaving a room 40 by 60 feet, unbroken by pillar or other obstruction, to the accommodation of the players, which with the assistance of a skillful decorateur was transformed into an immense bower of bunting and evergreens. Over a heavy matting which covered the floor was spread the gigantic chess board, 34 feet square, of dark blue and white cloth, which was used in the exhibition of living chess at the Academy of Music on the 16th of April, 1879, and formed a most effective and appropriate carpet."

     The Academy of Music had a 4000 seat capacity and charged $6 for the 4 seat boxes, $1 for balcony seats and $.50 for general admission.  Two games was played: one an original between Capt. George Mackenzie and Eugene Delmar and the second was the blindfold game between Paul Morphy and Henri Baucher in Paris 1858.  In addition to these games, a chess problem customed designed by E.B. Cook (entitled "Atlanta, the Fleet Footed Queen"). The "white" pieces were dressed in red and gold while the "black" pieces were dressed in blue and silver, "the finest to be had in N.Y." The management commitee was comprised of Ward, de Visser, Frere and L. Cohen.

This sketch represents the "Tableaux d'Echecs Vivants"
at the Academy of Music, Manhattan, April 16, 1879

     This article from "Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly" (1883) called "Living Chess" alludes to this exhibition at the Academy of Music:


     Cowpeb, who, like many another good man, would put under ban every recreation in which he did not himself delight, portrays the chess-player marching and countermarching his host of wooden warriors:

             "With an eye
              As fixed as marble, with a forehead ridged
              And farrowed into storms, and with a hand
              Trembling, as If eternity were hung
              In balance on his conduct of a pin."

     Who, asks he—with a mind well tuned to contemplation—would waste attention on the checkered board ? The poet would have indorsed Bishop Beveridge's argument : "Either chess is a lottery or not. If it be a lottery it is not lawful .... if it be not a lottery, then, it is not a pure recreation ; for it depends upon man's wit and study, it exercises his brains and spirits, as much as if he were about other things. So that being on one side not lawful, and on the other side no recreation, it can on no side be a lawful recreation."

     Neither bard nor bishop would have countenanced the good people of Darlington and Bishop Auckland in parting with their coin to see the vicar and schoolmaster of Heighington play cheas in Redworth Park ; not with wooden warriors, but with boys and girls, attired in canvas copies of fifteenth century costumes, figuring on the turfy board as kings and queens, rooks and bishops, knights and pawns. Apropos of this novel device for augmenting the Heighington school fund, a journalist recalled to recollection Adrien Bobert's story of a like contest on the plains of Barrackpore, between the chief of the Thugs and a representative of John Company. Many attempts had been made on the latter's life, all of which proved ignominious failures ; owing, as the adepts at assassination believed, to the protective powers of an old gray felt hat, the favorite headgear of their foe. To obtain possession of this talisman, and so put matters on a more equal footing, the Thug leader challenged the governor to a game at living chess, undertaking to supply him with men, at the charge of twenty-five pounds sterling per man, it being understood that every "man" taken on either side was to be put to death then and there. The governor promptly accepted the challenge, staking his old hat against the surrender of those concerned in the attempts upon his life. After playing for some hours, the Englishman captured his opponent's queen and actual wife, and then adjourned for luncheon, leaving the Thug chieftain in great perturbation of mind regarding his prospective loss—an anxiety relieved on his adversary's return by the latter gallantly waiving his right of execution in the lady's case ; an unlooked-for act of generosity utterly overcoming her lord, who, in consequence, lost the game, and handed over the stakes.

     The imaginative Frenchman's game with living chessmen was not entirely evolved from his inner consciousness. An old traveler avows that the Kings of Burmnli used to play chess in that grand fashion. Describing Akbar's palace at Delhi, in 1792, Hunter says the pavement of one of the courts was " marked out with squares in the manner of the cloth used by the Indians for playing the game called pachess. Here, it is said, Akbar used to play at the game, the pieces being represented by real persons. On one side of the court is a little square apart, in the centre of which stands a pillar supporting a circular chair of stone, at the height of one story. Here the Emperor used to sit to direct the moves." One of Austria's many Don Johns had a room in his palace paved with black and white marble after the-pattern of a chessboard, and there played the game with living pieces. A duke of Weimar turned his soldiers to similar account, as did Frederick the Great and his marshal, Keith, when more serious evolutions were not in hand.

     Some half-century ago a futile attempt to popularize living chess was made by opening the Lowther Rooms, in West Strand—now known as Toole's Theatre—for the purpose. The floor was marked out as a chessboard, and men and women, dressed in appropriate garb, -were always in attendance to serve the use of those who chose to pay a crown for the pleasure of playing chess under Buch unusual conditions. The players sat in boxes overlooking the board, directing the movements of their pieces. The taking of a man was always preluded by a clashing of weapons in mimic combat, before the captured piece retired from the fray. One who tried his skill at the Lowther Rooms found the battling of the men, and their fidgeting about their squares, anything but conducive to the concoction or carrying out of artful combinations ; while he was in constant expectation of seeing his forces weakened by some piece or pawn taking huff, and walking off the board, regardless of consequences. Neither players nor the public took kindly to the new way of playing the old game, and want of patronage brought the experiment to an end in three months' time.

     In 1857 Count Platen gave a grand fancy ball in the Hanover Theatre ; opening it with a procession of magnificently arrayed living chessmen, who, the parade over, put themselves in position on a gigantic chessboard, to enable two mock magicians to test their powers, and in so doing; afford much amusement to the company, who watched the varying phases of the combat with great interest.

     Only three years since Captain Mackenzie and Mr. Delmar played a game at living chess at the Academy of Music, New York. The stage was covered with alternate squares of black and white Canton cloth, forming a board thirty-two feet square, surrounded by a red border. The kings wore the costume of Charlemagne, their jewel- decked robes differing but in color, one donning red; the other, blue ; their crowns being in one case gold, in the other, silver—or what passed for such. Rich dresses " of the historical period" draped the forms of the rival queens, and "jeweled coronets sat upon their graceful heads." The bishops wore highly decorated vestments, bore mitres and carried croziers. The knights, wielding heavy pikes, were clad in bright armor. The rooks were distinguished by bearing miniature castles on their heads j and the pawns were represented by pretty girls of uniform height, in amazonian dress, and armed with spears- and shields. The players sat on raised platforms, -with their chessboards before them, a crier announcing each move, and pursuivants conducting the piece or pawn concerned to its proper square. Captain Mackenzie first called, "Pawn to king's fourth." A dainty miss of sixteen, whose long black hair hung loose over her helmet, was led to her square, and -when Mr. Delmar's crier also made the same move, the two misses, standing face to lace, suspended hostilities for the nonce, and exchanged smiles. The following move brought the captain's knight to the Icing's bishop's third square, and Delmar made a similar move with his knight to his queen's bishop's square. Delmar's fourth move was the capture of a red pawn by a bishop. Her rosy cheeks assumed a scarlet hue of mortification at being captured at such an early stage of the game, and as the pursuivant led her off she pouted petulantly. The pouting was repeated on the sixth move, when Delmar, who seemed to take a great fancy to the pretty pawns, pitted a blue-eyed pawn against a red, and she, too, had to retire. The next move was another match of maiden against miss, and the queen's bishop's pawn of the gallant captain was the third victim, Mackenzie's tenth move, after his fine strategic manoeuvres, -was a capture of a blue pawn, and three moves later his bishop vanquished a stately knight. The panoplied descendant of Henry II., twirling Ms mustachio, Bought consolation among the charming prisoners behind the wings. On the twenty-fifth move Delmar made a brilliant sacrifice of his bishop, which proved unfortunate, the captain's thirtieth move giving him checkmate. Doubtless the loser found consolation in the fact that the game throughout brought out very happily the merits of the various costumes."

     The British Chess Magazine in 1896 wrote:
Carlisle.—On December 4th, two performances of Living Chess were given in the Drill Hall, in aid of the mission work of S. Paul's Parish. The games played were "fool's Mate," and an example of the Evans Gambit from Walker's Chess Studies. The costumes of all the pieces, except the Queens and Rooks, were those which formerly had belonged to the Dublin Society of Living Chess. The games were played by Messrs. H. J. R Murray and E. C. Stowell, and the pieces were conducted to their places each move by two heralds. The band of the Carlisle Depot played appropriate music. The performance was extremely well attended and financially most successful.


This leads us to "Dublin Club of Living Chess" By Ephraim MacDowel Cosgrave, T. B. Rowland -

    The origin of the Club Of Living Chess may be briefly described. The Hibernian Band of Hope Union arranged to hold a Bazaar in February, 1891, to clear off a debt, and to secure the services of a scientific lecturer, Mrs. MacDowel Cosgrave was asked to assist, and offered to get up "Living Chess." The offer being approved of and accepted, Mrs. Cosgrave, with the assistance of friends, enlisted a set of chessmen, and rehearsals were commenced—Dr. Cosgrave and Mr. T. B. Rowland directing the play and manoeuvres.

     The performances were very successful, and resulted in a large addition to the funds of the Union, and although but four had been announced, the " Living Chess," by general desire, appeared six times before crowded houses, the games being played by W. H. S. Monck against J. B. Pirn, T. B. Rowland against Porterfield Rynd, and Dr. Cosgrave against A. E. R. Joynt.

     So perfect was the training, and so accurate the Chess knowledge of the Pieces and Pawns, that two impromptu games were played without a mistake or hesitation of any kind. The Pages were equally efficient in their duties.

     The success of the exhibition was so great, that it was resolved to form a Club of Living Chess, with the object of—by public performances —aiding deserving causes and charities, and also to promote the theory and practice of the game generally. All who had taken part in the first  performances to be original members ; others to be elected Associates by the Committee; vacancies amongst the members to be filled by ballot from the Associates.

     The first Officers and Committee elected were :—
          President: Mrs. MAC DOWEL COSGRAVE.
          Manager: Mrs. A. F. BLOOD.
          Chess Director: T. B. ROWLAND.
          Mrs. Findlater, Miss Mills, Miss Wilson, G. W. T. Clarke,
          E. Mac Dowel Cosgrave, C. T. H. Wright.
          Hon. Sec. and Treasurer: E. R. McC. Dix.

     The first performances of the Club were given in the large Concert Hall of the Royal University, in support of the " Floral Fete," held on the 31st March and 1st April, 1891, with the object of raising an endowment for Botanical and Horticultural Scholarships, at the Alexandra College. Three performances were given. The vast hall, beautiful with floral decorations, was each time crowded. The players were W. H. S. Monck v. Mir Aulad AH, T. B. Rowland v. Dr. Cosgrave, and J. B. Pirn v. A. E. R. Joynt. The Countess of Zetland was present at one of the performances, and several hundred visitors had to be turned away owing to there not being room in the hall. The game played on this occasion was a Four Knights, between Dr. Cosgrave and T. B. Rowland.

     The next performances of the Club were two given in the Antient Concert Rooms, on behalf of Jervis St. Hospital The players were the Lord Mayor of Dublin v. W. H. S. Monck, T. B. Rowland v. Lt.-Col. W. Lynam, and Dr. Cosgrave v. T. B. Rowland. On this occasion problems were for the first time set up, the audience being allowed a definite time to solve them. In one game the Kings were the players and directed the moves from the board.

     The last performances of the season were given by the Club on May 10th, 1891, in the Ulster Hall, Belfast, on behalf of S. Luke's Church. The Club played both in the afternoon and evening to large audiences. Problems were again set, but this time diagrams of them were previously published, with an announcement that the first to send in a solution would be allowed to publicly solve the problem. All the problems were solved, and the solvers had the distinction of making the moves with the " Living Pieces." The players on this occasion were H. Seaver, C.E., v. T. B. Rowland, A. E. R. Joynt v. T. B. Rowland, D. E. Lowry v. A. E. R. . Joynt, W. Campbell v. Dr. Cosgrave.

     It may be of interest to state that up to the present the Club has played in public twenty-six games and six problems.

     This is the first occasion on which the games have been printed before being played. It is hoped that having the games before them the audience will follow the moves with greater ease and more interest.

     At the sound of a march played by a Military Band, the Pawns and Pieces enter, their order being emblematical of their position and value. The sides are dressed respectively in red and white, and their rank is plainly discernible. Reverence is paid by the Pawns to their Sovereigns, who, accompanied by their Chaplain Bishops, guarded by their Knights, and attended by their pages, take their places between the Castles, which defend either frontier. The Pawns then form the first line of defence. A martial blast is blown, and a diminutive page, acting on behalf of the challenging player, throws down the gauntlet, which is taken up by the page attached to the other side, whose bugler blows an answering, defiant blast.

     Play then commences, the moves being loudly called by the players; as each move is called the Piece takes up the proper position. All the striking positions of the game are emphasised by appropriate gestures and music. Taken Pieces kneel down, the taker threatening them with his weapon until a page leads them off. When " Check!" is called, a trumpet blast is blown, and a hostile weapon is pointed at the King, who keenly feels his jeopardy until a Piece interposes, or he is moved into safety.

     When " Checkmate !" is called, there is a double flourish of trumpets, all the defeated Pieces kneel, except the King and (if she is remaining on the board) the Queen, who stand with bowed heads, despondent and defeated.

     To the strains of " See the Conquering Hero comes," the Pieces reassemble on the Board, and then in two parti-coloured circles, moving in opposite directions, with quite a kaleidoscopic effect, they exchange positions, so that any vantage of ground may be equally shared. When the second match is played, the Pieces march off, either amicably together, or the winning side victoriously leading the way.

     When Problems are about to be set, the Pawns divide off in fours, and the Pieces step off the board, thus forming a square round it. The Kings then slowly step on to the board and take up their appointed positions, when immediately the other Pieces taking part in the Problem seek their places. At the end of the Problem the square is reformed, the Pawns in fours return to their places, the Pieces step on the board, and all are once more in position.

     Such is a brief description of Chess played with Living Pieces. Words, however, cannot describe the beauty of the scene, the brilliant lights, the red and gold, and white and silver of the costumes, the crowns and sceptres of the Kings and Queens, their ermine-trimmed robes, the mitres and staves of the Bishops, the helmets, coats of mail, and mediaeval weapons of the Knights, the solid dignity of the banner-bearing Rooks, the dainty costumes and slender spears of the Pawns, the splendour of the Pages, the graceful movements of all.

     Some things, to be believed, must be seen, amongst them are the wonders of " Living Chess."

 Living Chess in Vancouver
     "Daily Province," Thursday, May 18, 1905
May 20, 1905
     "Considerable interest is being taken in living chess games that are to be played in the Drillhall next Saturday evening. There will be two games played, and in connection with each the orchestra will play an overture, entrance march and exit march. The entertainment is under the auspices of the Vancouver Chess and Checker Club, and the games will be between Mr. J. McA. Cameron and Mr. P. Dunne, and Mr. A. C. Brydone-Jack and Mr. W. Francis.

     The pieces will be represented as follows: Kings, Master H. Minchin and Master Harold Hall; queens, Miss Connie Lucas and Miss Zella Hawe; bishops, Miss Lyndall de la Capilaine, Miss Violet Gardiner, Miss K. Trendall and Miss Maude Ferguson; knights, Miss Ida Gardiner, Miss E. Burns, Miss M. Burns and Miss C. Trendall; Castles, Miss L. Hawe, Miss Alodia Heffing and the Misses Mawdsley; pawns, boys of Christ Church Boys' Brigade.

     The master of ceremonies will be Mr. J. Schmerl, and the costumes are being prepared by Miss Hicks."

     "Daily Province," Monday, May 22, 1905 
     "A fair attendance greeted the interesting and elaborately prepared human chess match played in the Drillhall on Saturday evening.

     The board was laid out on the floor of the large hall, white cardboard squares alternating with the dark of the natural floor. On these squares were stationed the living chessmen. The players were Messrs. J. McA. Cameron and P. Dunne for the red, and Messrs. A. C. Brydone-Jack and W. Francis for the white. The players occupied stations on the galleries at each end of the hall and as one moved on a small chessboard the other called the play and it was duplicated on the gigantic board on the floor below. Mr. Jacob Schmerl acted as master of ceremonies.

     In forty-six moves the first game went to the whites, and after fifty moves the second game was won by the reds. To save time both games had been previously played out on small boards. It took the players in the original instance four hours to play the first and six hours to play the second game.

     The band of the Sixth Duke's Own Regiment was in attendance, and its music greatly enlivened the proceedings. The kings, queens, bishops, knights and castles were becomingly attired in robes of crimson and white. With the exception of the two kings, the figures were represented by young girls. The pawns were boys who wore sashes of red and white."


Chess in Javea, Spain

     "The Live Chess performance has taken place, year after year, since 1996, usually on the evening of last Saturday of July or on the first Saturday of August. The event is held at the port fishing promenade of Jávea and it is organized by the Comisión de Fiestas Mare de Déu de Loreto in collaboration with the local Chess Club and the City Council.

     Live Chess is a particular and distinguished style of performance, a new approach to this century-old variety of the game of chess, performed on a chess board of extensive dimensions and featured by human characters.

     The outstanding character of the event lies in the fact that it is a play which, played out as a game of chess, develops into a plot, with different choreography and musical pieces, carefully selected for each edition. Another of the features which contributes to the singularity of the initiative is that the event is staged by 6 to 14 year old schoolchildren. 

     A narrator and two players read out the different moves of a game, included in the History of Chess: one of the players being the annual local champion chess player, of school age, and the other a Guest of Honour, a renowned Spanish celebrity invited for the occasion, either keen chess player or closely related to Jávea. The astronaut P. Duque, the former ATP first ranked tennis player J. C. Ferrero, the paleo-anthropologist J. L. Arsuaga and the judo Olympic medalist Isabel Fernandez have been some past guests.

     The Live Chess performance of Jávea may be described as a 'plot developed by the means of a play staged as a chess game and featured by schoolchildren.'

    It was awarded the Spanish prize of Festival of National Tourist Interest in 2002."


Compare the costumes use in Spain (top) with those used in Germany:



     One large staple that Harms and the other producers take pride in is the annual anime chess match. A staged combat show using a similar format from renaissance festivals, the show features stunt actors performing as anime and video game characters in a stylized chess match. This year’s theme included a Light vs. Dark theme; in previous years they have used anime characters against video game icons like Mario and Luigi.

     As the convention continues to grow in popularity, the entertainment has branched out to include other stunt shows using comic and video game characters. In addition to the chess match, this year the convention featured two additional fight shows, one featuring a Batman theme and another using characters from the television show 'Avatar: The Last Airbender.'

Anime Chess


"Living Chess Match auditions for Fishers Renaissance Faire
March 20, 2008

The Fishers Renaissance Faire is currently seeking volunteers interested in participating in the Living Chess Match at this years Faire. The stage combat auditions will be held at the Fishers Public Library on April 6 between 1:30pm and 5pm. Dress to move, weapons will be provided. Must be 16 to participate. Volunteers will need to have an renfaire approved 16th cent. renaissance costume for the faire. Experience in dance, improv, martial arts, gymnastics or stage combat experience wanted. The choreographed Living Chess Match is a live combat chess game similiar in appearance to a chess match shown in the first Harry Potter movie. People portray the chess pieces and when two pieces meet, they then battle it out for that space. The Fishers Renaissance Faire will be held this year on the grounds of Connor Prairie, Oct. 4 and 5. This is a non-profit fundraising event sponsored by Sister Cities of Fishers, IN." 

Living Chess at the Renaissance Fair



     Even if you don’t speak Italian, many games transcend language altogether so you don’t need to speak to understand them. Chess is one of those games, and it’s even more universally understood when you combine it with the notion of two men vying for the hand of a lovely young woman! What we’re talking about here is a tradition dating back to the mid-15th century, when a chess match instead of a duel was used to decide who of the two eligible suitors would marry the woman in question. But commemorating that occasion with a regular chess match wouldn’t be very interesting, would it? Not interesting enough for the town of Marostica, Italy, which makes recreating a chess match a spectator sport.

     Every even-numbered year in Marostica, which is in the Veneto region of Italy roughly an hour northwest of Venice (but not on a train line), to mark the occasion of that 1450s chess match they hold a life-size chess match in the town’s main square. It’s called “La Partita a Scacchi con Personaggi Viventi,” and you may be able to gather from that title what makes this chess match so special - instead of chess pieces, it’s played with human beings and horses (in period dress, of course) on a gigantic board.

     In addition to the chess match, which takes place the second weekend in September of even-numbered years, there are also period dances and music throughout the weekend and fireworks displays at night. The people playing the two suitors are the ones who decide the moves the chess “pieces” take, and there are also people playing the roles of the court - including the woman who the two men are both hoping to marry. The instructions which are given to the players before the chess match commences are still given not in Italian, but in the local dialect."

Marostica, 1955 



PORTMEIRION, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 24: Members of "SixofOne" the fan club of 60's television series The Prisoner, reenact a game of human chess from the programme on March 24, 2007 in Portmeirion, United Kingdom. The annual three day event entitled "Portmeiricon" is this year celebrating the 40th anniversary of the cult TV show where the unnamed character played by Patrick McGoohan tries week after week to escape the confines of a colourful prison village.

Photos of the Human Chess Game at Portmeirion


     One of the last actions of Lionel Kieseritsky before abandoning Dorpat for Paris was to direct a living chess dramatization.


      Capablanca was involved in a couple Living Chess Games.

Original caption: Jose Capablanca and Herman Steiner, chess masters engage in a game of living chess with Cecil B. DeMille as referee at Los Angeles, California.


     Sir George Thomas and Capablanca play game with human chess pieces.


Living Chess played at Lee Place at the 1933 Carnival of Charlbury


Living Chess played in Ströbeck, Germany, 1932



Living Chess: Hollywood style-

The 1945 Pan-American Chess Championship was held in Hollywood, California. Besides the tournaments, there was a living chess game - "Many movie stars attended the special events and the tournament games. A Living Chess Game was won by a team of Reshevsky, Fine, Horowitz, Steiner, Adams and Borochow. The defeated Pilnik, Rossetto, Cruz, Araiza and Camarena. The game was played with "living chess pieces" as Earl Carroll girls in white bathing suits were White pieces while Latin American beauties in formal gowns were the Black pieces. Bud [Bill] Williams and Barbara Hale of RKO were the Black king and queen. P. Clagett and Rosanne Murray of MGM were the White king and queen. Linda Darnell announced the moves. A suggestion that each team keep the captured pieces was turned down by the tournament committee!"  - Jack Spence, reporting for the "Ameican Chess Bulletin"


Chess glamour in the Hollywood manner :  a scene from the colorful Living Game.  The white Pawns are Earl Carroll girls in white bathing suits ;  Latin American beauties in formal gowns are the black Pawns.
The Living Chess Game  went 32 moves, ended with a checkmate administered by the Black teams made up of Reshevsky,  Fine,  Horowitz,  Steiner,  Borochow. Losers :  Pilnik,   Rossetto,  Cruz,  Broderman,  Araiza and Camerena.


Bill Williams, King of the black pieces, takes time out for a comfortable chat with Barbara Hale (left) and Queen of Ceremonies Linda Darnell (right), who announced the moves of the Living Chess Game. 

and more recently . . .


Live Chess Ballet at the Scottish Junior Chess Association Educational Trust -



Live Chess as dramatized in Odessa in 2007


Living Chess in Mexico 2006


Chess in Marostica, 2007



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