Queensland Gambit

by Judith Hickson, Curator, Social History, Queensland Museum

In mid-2019, buying a chess set for my granddaughter’s birthday proved to be more difficult than I imagined. I was looking for something special – not too expensive – a set that might last her until she could afford a better one of her own one day.

The range of sets I found in toy and department stores was small and uninspiring.  Sales staff reported that chess sets weren’t very much in demand with children.

Then, strangely, last year, chess sets started to appear … everywhere!

Watched by 62 million households in its first four weeks, the 2020 Netflix series, ‘Queen’s Gambit’, based on a novel by American novelist and short story writer, Walter Tevis, sparked an unprecedented boom in chess sales around the world. Even before the series went to air, chess sales on eBay were reported to have risen by over sixty percent, the growth attributed to the amount of time people had spent at home during the pandemic.  

Qing Dynasty Chess set donated to Queensland Museum in 1941.

With the worldwide resurgence in chess playing, we were prompted to search for chess sets in our own collections and delighted to discover this beautiful 19th century Qing dynasty set.

Gifted to Queensland Museum in 1941 through the estate of Miss Helen Perry of Camden Street, Albion, the finely carved red-stained and natural ivory shows members of the Chinese court mounted on oval-shaped bases, the emperor and empress enthroned, the knights and pawns as mounted soldiers. Each exquisitely crafted piece speaks a body language all its own, from facial expressions and gesture to physical appearance and pose.

Unfortunately, when Miss Perry’s chess set was acquired by the Museum, nothing of its history or of Miss Perry herself was recorded.

In Miss Perry’s time, societal and cultural expectations of women as housekeepers and carers had a stifling effect on their confidence and interest in the game. But despite these gender-based barriers, we would love to think that she, like our Netflix heroine and countless women before her, was able to shun prejudice and tradition and to pit her creative, problem-solving and critical thinking skills in the male-dominated world of chess.

What other stories can these chess pieces tell us about the places they come from, the people who created them, traded them and owned them and about the history of chess itself? We’d love to hear from anyone who could help us fill in the missing pieces of this story!