Capturing Imagination: Pop Culture and Chess showcases 16 popular culture-inspired chess sets and related artifacts from the collection of the World Chess Hall of Fame (WCHOF). With characters from fictional locations as varied as the fantastical land of Middle-earth and the prehistoric town of Bedrock, the sets show how creators have reinterpreted the game’s familiar pieces. Chess, with its two opposing sides and iconic pieces, lends itself well to telling stories about good and evil, as in the Marvel Characters set on view here. However, many of the others simply offer a chance to see beloved characters as royalty or pawns.
Objects Featured in the Exhibition
Muppets don the costumes of kings and queens in this pair of humorous sets. Created by Jim Henson in 1955, the Muppets are a group of puppets that have appeared in television, films, and advertisements. In 1969, Joan Gaenz of the Children’s Television workshop invited Henson to collaborate on Sesame Street, a show blending education and entertainment. He created some of the show’s most iconic characters, including Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie, and Cookie Monster, all of whom appear in this chess set celebrating the show’s 35th anniversary.
Seven years after working on Sesame Street, Henson produced The Muppet Show. Featuring a wacky cast of Muppets led by showrunner Kermit the Frog, the series showed a vaudeville or variety show, featuring song and dance, skits, and glimpses of backstage antics by beloved characters such as Gonzo, Animal, Miss Piggy, and Scooter. The show also famously featured appearances by celebrities including Mark Hamill, Harry Belafonte, Elton John, Rita Moreno, and Lena Horne. It aired for five seasons with a total of 120 episodes from September 13, 1976, to March 15, 1981, on CBS.
The Marvel Characters Chess Set depicts an epic clash between good and evil featuring some of the best-known characters in the Marvel Comics universe. In 1963, Marvel introduced the Avengers, a team of superheroes that fights supervillains too tough for one hero to battle alone. The founding members of the team included characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby: Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Wasp, and the Hulk, some of whom are present in this chess set. Since the comic’s introduction, the team’s lineup has changed dramatically, sometimes growing to include a number of new heroes as well as gaining a new lineup when the previous Avengers are killed off or disbanded. A film inspired by the series, Avengers: Infinity War premiered on April 27, 2018.
Three classic works of literature are transported to the chess board in this trio of sets. A map of Middle-earth is laid over the board in the Lord of the Rings Chess Set. The set is inspired by the film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings (1937-1949), a series of fantasy novels written by English author J.R.R. Tolkien. The story follows Frodo, a hobbit, as he and his companions seek to destroy the One Ring, which would allow the evil Sauron to enslave Middle-earth.
The other two literary tales interpreted in this case feature more lighthearted children’s stories: that of Babar the Elephant and Winnie the Pooh. Babar debuted in 1931 in Histoire de Babar by Jean de Brunhoff. It tells the story of an orphaned elephant who goes on to become a king. In this playful set, Babar and his court are opposed to that of Lord Rataxes, a rhino ruler.
Histoire de Babar was translated into English by A.A. Milne, the author of Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), the third literary work on view in this case. Winnie the Pooh, a bear, and his friends, who appear here as the pieces, were modeled upon toys owned by Milne’s son.
This pair of sets depicts two of the most famous families in animation: the Flintstones and the Simpsons. The Flintstones, the first animated primetime sitcom, premiered September 30, 1960, and was produced by Hanna-Barbera. The show followed the Flintstone and Rubble families, who make up the two sides of this set. Until The Simpsons surpassed The Flintstones, the show held the record for the longest-running primetime animated series with 166 episodes.
Created by Matt Groening, The Simpsons, which follows the adventures of the dysfunctional titular family, premiered on December 17, 1989. The show takes place in a fictional town called Springfield and makes constant pop cultural references parodying the middle-class American lifestyle. The set is accompanied by a board that depicts many of the supporting characters from their hometown of Springfield as well as two Simpsons comics with chess-themed covers.
Two well-loved cartoon characters and their friends appear in these sets. Charlie Brown and the “Peanuts gang,” who appeared in Charles Schulz’s long-running Peanuts comic strip, are a humorous version of the pieces in this set.
Made in honor of Hello Kitty’s 30th anniversary, the set on the right features the titular character and her friends as adorable pieces, complete with rocking horse knights that actually wobble. Designer Yuko Yamaguchi created Hello Kitty in 1974. The character soon appeared on a wide variety of consumer projects, but her popularity exploded in the 1980s, when Sanrio made a concerted effort to adapt her appearance to market to older children.
Even in stories set far away from Earth, chess, one of the world’s oldest and best-known games appears. This pair of chess sets are inspired by two beloved series set in space, one in the distant past and another in the future: Star Wars and Star Trek. Created by George Lucas, Star Wars debuted in 1977. Inspired by the original Star Wars trilogy, the first set pits the Jedi against the Sith and includes some of its most memorable characters including Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, and of course, Darth Vader.
The second set and book are inspired by tridimensional chess, a complex version of the game that was introduced in Star Trek: The Original Series, which followed the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Star Trek is an American science fiction television series created by Gene Roddenberry in 1966, which has since become a franchise with multiple series and movies. Chess appears in many of the subsequent series, including Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.