"Crossing Games": an exhibition in Lisbon on chess, games and cultural exchange

by Stefan Löffler
9/2/2022 – One of the most magnificent collections of historical chess sets is currently on display at the Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon. The collection is part of an exhibition on games and cultural exchange between Europe and Asia, reports Stefan Löffler from Portugal. The exhibition, curated by Ulrich Schädler and Thomas Thomsen, can be seen until 25 September. | Photos: Museo Nacional De Arte Antiga

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After an international career as a banker, most recently at the helm of Lloyds Banking Group and Crédit Suisse, António Horta-Osório returned to his native Portugal this year. Together with his wife Ana, he has built up an extensive Asian collection with a special focus on games and chess.

It forms the basis of the exhibition "Jogos Cruzados", which is on show at the renowned Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon until 25 September.

Games tell of the exchange between Europe and Asia. The curators of the exhibition are the director of the Swiss Games Museum Ulrich Schädler and the German chess collector Thomas Thomsen. The Museum of Ancient Art also has a long-standing connection to chess itself: its curator Dagoberto Markl, who died in 2010, wrote a book about Alekhine's death in Estoril, among other things. From Markl's collection, a travelling chess hidden in a walking stick has found its way into the exhibition (see teaser image).

It starts with card and board games originating in China, the Indian dice game Pachisi and the "goose game", popular across Europe in the 17th century. Backgammon and Asian chess variants such as Qiangqi and Shogi also feature.

Of course, the most extensive parts are the two sections on chess as we know it, because the variety of its pieces inspired different designs and it was often combined with other games, such as chess sets that have backgammon or mill on the back. Above all, chess sets were produced in great quantity and variety for representative purposes and have survived as collectors' items in good condition.

Especially in the 19th century, the trade in colonial chess sets from Indian, Chinese and occasionally Japanese manufactories flourished. The East India Company and other colonial companies dominated the production, which was aimed exclusively at export. This had nothing to do with the types of chess actually played in Asia. Our international or European chess only came to India and China under late colonial auspices, where, incidentally, cheap chess sets are manufactured industrially today.

The most outstanding exhibits are, of course, the unique pieces such as the Augsburg game, which is made of materials that are as varied as they are valuable: Tortoise shell, ivory, precious stones, porcelain. 

Those who decide at short notice can combine the visit to the museum with the highly remunerated rapid tournament this weekend, 3 and 4 September, in Lisbon. A guided tour is planned for the participants after the last round on Sunday afternoon. Participants from the ongoing Maia Chess Festival, which includes an Open and an English-language conference this Friday, are also expected. 

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Stefan Löffler, a journalist and International Master based in Vienna and Lisbon, is member of FIDE's Education Commission, a consultant at ChessPlus Ltd. www.chessplus.net and Programme Director of the London Chess Conference: www.londonchessconference.com.
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