December 18, 2013 9:05

A sculptor on chess

A sculptor on chess

In 1935 Max Euwe defeated Alexander Alekhine in a World Championship match organised in The Netherlands. Within 80 days, 30 games were played, in 13 cities. In pre-internet and pre-television times, it was the perfect way to get maximum public attention.

By Frits Fritschy1

The country became chess-mad. The match was the talk of the town, and newspapers devoted full-page reports to it. The last game in Amsterdam attracted 3,000 spectators to the venue halls, while hundreds of people waited outside in a blizzard. Mounted police was standing by.2 In Rotterdam, 400 people were given a live report3, rather like present-day football fans following a match on a big screen outside the stadium. In the following months, the membership of the Dutch Chess Federation quadrupled; new clubs were established everywhere.

My father, Frans Fritschy, then a 15-year old Rotterdam schoolboy, was one of those new adepts. Up till then, he had fought out most of his chess games on a pocket set, hidden under the school bench. Now he joined the strictly Roman Catholic chess club RSR, the acronym for Regina Sacratissimi Rosarii – there can be no doubt about the denomination. Until the 1960s, all social life in the Netherlands was segregated. Roman Catholic club teams played in a Roman Catholic league, boasting a Roman Catholic periodical. In which he published a simple, but neat three-mover.4

PGN string

Mate in 3 moves

In used school notebooks he pasted all clippings on chess he could find. He passed them on to me when I was about the same age, and they still are in my possession, forming a part of my chess background. Just imagine the direct reports on the 1938 AVRO tournament.

Following a slightly troublesome school career, he attended the Rotterdam Academy of Expressive Arts (now called the Willem de Kooning Academy), to be trained as a sculptor. This took place in the first four years of World War II, during the German occupation of the Netherlands. He kept on visiting the club, then in the parish hall of the Rotterdam cathedral. During blackouts (the RAF targeted German institutions such as the SS headquarters close by), the players analysed their games huddled together, striking matches for light when they needed any. In 1975, he made a terra cotta named ‘Analysis’, partly based on this memory (although the hairdo is typical of the 1970s).

Then, one night, without any alarm sounding, one bomb fell in front of the parish hall, and a second one in the middle of the cathedral. That put paid to chess club nights.

After the war, my father met my mother started a family and tried to make a living as a sculptor and with any other job he could find, such as giving art lessons to apprentices in a glassware factory. Sculptors were not in great demand those years, so until the mid-fifties the family lived in poverty5. In these circumstances, there was no time for chess. Things got better when he became a teacher at the Rotterdam Academy.

I arrived in 1956. As life stabilized, my father had time for other pastimes and one of them was playing chess with me. He taught me the rules when I was about six years old and to my mother’s chagrin never let me win. As it happened, that became unnecessary anyway a few years later, and he enlisted me to the same club he had left 27 years before. As I was still young, he accompanied me, and within two years he became the club chairman. As an all-round artist, he provided the club with a logo it still uses. For the club’s yearly open tournament he made a trophy (in 1979) that would befit a national championship. It was a spin-off of a greater work he had started a little earlier.

As a chess player, he probably stayed well under the 1800 Elo level, but he never took a game for granted. He went straight for the king, and if that didn’t work out, at least he tried to create as much chaos as possible. He was a danger to himself against weaker players, and sometimes a real threat to the top of the club, as I experienced a few times. A good example of his style is the next game:

PGN string

He loved to play, but he was also interested in the players themselves. In a club like RSR, people of all social strata came together and generally mixed well, but remained very individualistic, as is in the genes of chess players. He not only experienced this as a chairman, while making efforts to involve them in the club’s affairs; as an artist he also saw it.

In the 1980s, his career at the academy came to a close, and he had more time to get back to his artistic work. That wasn’t easy. Like so many people in the years 1960–1980, he had lost his religion and his main source of inspiration along with it. He used to be quite a traditional artist, using traditional materials, but the said changes may have prompted him to start experimenting. New materials he discovered included brass and Perspex. The change of style can easily be seen in the two photos above.

Already in 1976, he started with what he later considered to be his best work, and it was all about chess. It would take him 16 years to complete (including several long breaks). “They all sit differently”, he once told me, “Just watch their legs and feet, it’s even there.” He was, of course, talking about chess players. He embarked on the task of visualising this in a work of art, and what was better suited for this than a simultaneous display? Showing several chess players competing with each other would put the focus on the chessboards, and that was not his main point of interest. The challenge, of course, was how to show unity in this group of individuals.

We see twenty chess players (including one woman), understandably not set in the usual rectangle. They are made of brass, sitting behind brass tables that prop up chessboards with brass and copper pieces. Those tiny chess pieces were a real ‘monk’s work’, a Dutch expression relating to monastic book copying. He had to turn more than 400 of them on a lathe, and they are all recognizable. Besides being an artist who worked out concepts, he was also an artisan, proud of what his hands could make.

The games on display were games he played himself, and he took care to select positions after about the same number of moves. Some years ago, a Spanish artist designed a giant chessboard for Trafalgar Square, and of course it had the white square on the left. Not a chance of that happening to my dad. I still have the scores of these games, and immediately recognized a game I lost to him (while I had completely forgotten a game I won – recognize this?). That would mean he portrayed himself to the left and me to the right of the simul giver – there is some resemblance, my 1970’s shoulder-long hair for instance, but his beard is missing.

Brass sheeting was heated and moulded to form more or less stylised figures. Anatomy was one of the subjects he taught, and it shows. He didn’t need much to suggest the human form, and you won’t find any mistakes in it.

For chess players the postures will be very recognizable. Most contestants are focused, some even seem completely retreated from the outside world. There is tension, nervousness, nail biting, smoking. The figure to the left of the simul giver has just put down his king. You don’t need to see the board to know: it’s resignation all over.

The simul giver is made of Perspex. To bend it, it had to be heated. When Perspex is heated, it can melt, form bubbles, burn. When it isn’t heated enough, it will break. When it cools down, it may change shape. All of this happened, and not just once. But in the end, his glassware factory job 35 years earlier may have come in handy.

The simul giver clearly stands out from his opponents. More god-like than ghost-like, in my opinion, in line with how a common chess player sees a grandmaster. My father once told my eldest sister that you could see him as Death, who in the end will overcome all. I don’t know – you shouldn’t believe every single word an artist says about his work; explanations may reflect a temporary mood. Even though he is on another level, the grandmaster doesn’t stand apart from his opponents. The material is different, but not the technique: bended sheets creating an openwork suggestion of form. Frustrating though the work on it may have been, it did serve a purpose.

What else unifies the scene? Look at the overall picture and ask yourself in what direction the simul giver is going – left to right, isn’t he? That’s not only clear from his posture, it can also be seen in his opponents. To his left , there is deep concentration.

To his right, it is all nerves, awaiting his arrival. Three smokers there, one clutching his tie, one probably drumming his fingers on the table. On either side, the corner players seem the most relaxed, being farthest away from danger.

Is it a great work of art? For my father it was and so it is for me. In the years he had started the project, I wasn’t as proud of it as I should have been. Chess was my thing, what was he doing with it? Trying to connect? The normal self-centered thoughts of a 20-year-old. But as this story suggests, he may have given me something that was his.

It certainly doesn’t fit a known category. Although he could enjoy the non-figurative, a work of art for him should not be just a concept – and that didn’t seem to go well with the mainstream of art in his later Academy years. In a way, without being reactionary, it may well have been a reaction: using all your skills just for the fun of creating, without the need of too much explanation. But the downside of staying in your own world is that your work won’t become well-known that easily.

Frans Fritschy died on March 2nd, 2010. His wish was that after his death ‘The Chess Simul’ would be shown in a museum. This proved to be not entirely realistic: museums usually have far more in depot than they have on display, so what they are willing to acquire should fit their collection. Being the only chess player in the family, I got to take care of it. It seemed only fair to accommodate his wish by at least showing it to the chess world.

Frans Fritschy

For three years, the disassembled parts of ‘The Chess Simul’ were safely packed. Then, time passed, and things gently fell into place. I made some preparations, such as designing a fitting pedestal and commissioning the local smithy, but I had too much work, was decorating the room, had things on my mind, and was generally waiting for the right moment. When that moment at last came, I felt I had to rewrite the story I had written some time after his death, greatly helped by slowly reassembling the piece, polishing the parts, seeing all the beautiful details in it, the love with which it was made.

Chess sites generally concern themselves with the top professionals, and rightly so. But apart from them, there are hundreds of thousands of chess players who have dreamed or are still dreaming to be in their place, who are enthralled by the beauty of the game, or use it as their retreat. In ‘The Chess Simul’, the professional may have been depicted as that dream: transparent, aloof. But the real focus is on those lovers of the game: heavy, metallic, but totally dedicated.

They might show you.

1)  This article is a loose adaptation of a chapter I wrote in Wantje Fritschy (2011), Een kunstenaarsbestaan in de twintigste eeuw – Frans Fritschy, beeldhouwer 1920–2010 [An artist’s existence in the 20th century]. Nijmegen: Valkhof Pers.
Many thanks to Josée Koning for proofreading the English version. Any remaining language errors are due to my later alterations.
Photos by Anneke Stakenburg, Frits Fritschy and Gerda Fritschy-Hollander.
2)  A. Münninghof (1976), Max Euwe – Biografie van een wereldkampioen. Amsterdam: Andriessen/Keesing.
3)  W. Dobbinga, in: RSR Ivoren Toren 75 jaar (1994).
4)  1 Qh1 e3 2 Qa8 e2 3 Bc5‡
5)  My eldest sister, an emeritus professor on economic history, decribed these years evocatively in the book mentioned in note 1.

Frits Fritschy is one of the earliest readers of ChessVibes and still regularly contributes to discussions in the comments. When he asked whether this article would suit our website, we didn't hesitate for a moment. We do hope this wonderful work of art will eventually be displayed to a wider audience.


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Editors's picture
Author: Editors


HK's picture

This article for me shows again the potential of humankind. 'We' can make this world a brilliant place by truly creating things intead of tearing it down (a nice contrast with the mentioned bombing).
Beautifull creation from father (sculptures) and son (article).
Thank you Mr. Fritschy!

WOW!'s picture

Beautiful story,Thank you very much !

Erik Fokke's picture

What an amazing story and what a superb collection of interesting and well crafted chess sculptures. Thank you for sharing this with the community.

McTynnies's picture

Thanks for this wonderful article.
I find the simul sculpture as an outstanding piece of mastery and an amazing work of art (hope my english is good enough to show my admiration).
Thank a lot
from Italy,

chesshire cat's picture

Now that really is an extraordinary piece of art!

Tim's picture

I thoroughly enjoyed that read. What a genuine, great father-son story. Thank you.

Anonymous's picture

What a wonderful story. Chess beauty on so many different levels. What a personal gift to us, the readers.

Anonymous's picture

why wont the max Euwe chess centre take it ???

Frits Fritschy's picture

My father did consider this, but chose not to do it.

SpmSL's picture

This is brilliant. Would love to see more pictures of the piece though.

Robbert van het Kaar's picture

Dear Frits. Beautiful! Maybe it can be shown in the Rijksmuseum (!) when Tata plays one of its the rounds there. Or maybe Groningen in the tournament around Christmas. They play, so I believe (all or part of the games) in het Groninger Museum. That would be fitting...
Greetings, Robbert

Bronkenstein's picture

Nice idea inspired by a nice article. If nothing else, I hope that this story will at least reach few other sites, be it chess or whatever =)

Eric's picture

That would be great!

Thomas Richter's picture

Yes, very nice and "quite different" story - thanks Frits (and Frans) Fritschy! As far as Groningen is concerned: according to the homepage, the main tournament will take place in the Sportscentre, while the Groninger Museum hosts a Timman-Karpov match.

Frits Fritschy's picture

Hi Robbert, didn't we play a game some time (...) ago in Doetinchem?
Think it's a thrilling idea - now find someone to be willing to pay the costs of packing, transport and insurance...

Coco Loco's picture

Fantastic! Thank you for sharing this with everyone.

Pandolfi FICS's picture

Beautiful Story. Thanks for sharing.

Wim's picture

Excellent read, thanks for sharing!

Eric's picture

Wonderful! I hope the piece finds a place in a museum, it would be fully deserved.

Bert de Bruut's picture

A wonderful tribute to your father Frits, and a compelling tribute to chess!

the real s3's picture

Nice article. Can't say it's my kind of art but it's certainly creative and beautifully made. Im sure you'll be able to find a good place for it.

Robbert van het Kaar's picture

Dear Frits,
Yes, we probably played in Doetinchem. Must have been 1974 or 1975. I do not remember the result...., so I probably lost
I admit there are a lot of practical problems to 'arrange' a museum, and Tata or Groningen this year may be out of the question (apart from the costs). But in the long run?
Best, Robbert

Mark De Smedt's picture

An amazing story and work of art. Thank you for sharing it with us, Frits, and good luck in finding an appropriate home for your father's masterpiece !

anna's picture

Wonderful !

FP's picture

Great story, thanks. A shame if your fathers work will not be displayed.

Martin Smith's picture

Thanks for a lovely post. I have linked to it from the Streatham and Brixton Chess Blog.
As for "Some years ago, a Spanish artist designed a giant chessboard for Trafalgar Square, and of course it had the white square on the left." I'm not sure Jaime Hayon would agree! See here.
Thanks again for showing us your father's fabulous sculptures.

Frits Fritschy's picture

Thanks, Martin, very nice of you.
On Trafalgar Square: it is quite possible Jaime Hayon didn't have anything to do with it, but on the website that showed the design, the chessboard really had the white square on the left (as was also noticed in the comments under the Chessvibes report on it, see
In your article, you yourself provide a link to the mentioned website ('I read T.C’s announcement ...').
Maybe it was the designer of the website who thought it nicer to mirror the image.

Andrei's picture

The Chess Simul is an absolute masterpiece! I would be very much obliged if you could post pictures on fliker or photobucket and a linking url. I travel to The Netherlands from New Zealand regularly and would love to see them in the flesh.

Eduardo's picture

Es una obra de arte. Las expresiones "corporales" son como la de la mayoría de los ajedrecistas que juegan una simultánea con un GM.
Verdaderamente excelente el articulo.
Muchas gracias.

Leo's picture

I only just had the opportunity read this piece, and what a pleasant read it was! Clearly your father had a very keen sense of form, and in particular of the subtle motions of the human body. I appreciated these works very much (and trust me, I'm not easily impressed!) - thank you for sharing them.

rajeshv's picture

This is an amazing work of art! Thanks for sharing!!

Frits Fritschy's picture

Before this article falls off the page, to everybody many thanks for the nice and inspiring comments!

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