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The Staunton Code: Part I Print E-mail
By Bob Basalla   
December 23, 2010
Fact:  There actually is a board game, popular worldwide, that goes by the name of chess.
Fact:  There actually was a strong 19th century English chess player named Howard Staunton.
Fact:  A chess set design named after Staunton is the standard chess set for serious play.
All descriptions of said Staunton design used in this story are accurate.


Robert Lackey panted as he hurried down the wet cobblestone side street toward the little Amsterdam antiques shop he knew was up ahead.  Drawing damp hanks of hair off his forehead every few steps he forged on, cursing himself for being in "scholar's shape."  Professors of history specializing in board games, especially chess, naturally fell into a sedentary lifestyle.  That was his excuse, anyway. 

And besides, this little excursion to Hans van Root's shop was supposed to be mostly for fun, visiting an old friend and getting a sneak peek at a major artifact find, a chess set of the Staunton design, allegedly owned by the great English chess master Howard Staunton himself at the end of his life.  Hans' specialty was restoring old chess sets, a skill for which he was employed regularly by the Royal Library at The Hague, one of the world's largest and most storied collections of chess literature and equipment.  It was there that the gregarious Dutchman had befriended the studious American Lackey, initiating the then socially shy and young scholar into the possibilities inherent in the Amsterdam nightlife.  That was more than twenty years ago.  Hearing that his oft-time drinking pal had arrived once again at the Royal Library, van Root had eagerly invited Lackey over for a private look-see at this most interesting of chess sets.  Something he had discovered about the Staunton find was spectacular and potentially explosive, Hans had whispered, somewhat cryptically.  But instead of coming by to Robert's hotel to pick him up at the appointed hour Hans had apparently been involved in a bad car accident.  Had the old craftsman started drinking without him?  A startling text message, sent to Robert's cell phone seemed to say otherwise.  It stated (in English): 


The message abruptly ended there.  Repeated calls to Hans' cell number had produced no results.  What was there to do but comply with his friend's wishes, even if it seemed to Robert to make no sense.  Who would want to kill Hans van Root?  Why would anyone want so badly to procure a moldy old chess set, however historically interesting, that they would attempt murder to get it?  What could possibly be so important about a two foot square block of inlaid wood and its standard carved allotment of men?  So now here he was trotting through the Amsterdam drizzle, avoiding a nice dry cab so as not to allow anyone to know where he was going, in compliance with Hans' odd dictate.  Professor Lackey's puffing increased in depth.  He once more pushed back the wet hanks of hair from his eyes. This was indeed all too much for a sedentary historian of chess.

Despite the constant trickle of misty droplets that eluded his inadequate jacket and rolled coldly down the back of his neck, a breathless Robert Lackey still felt disappointed upon arriving at Hans van Root's antiques shop.  For now some hard decisions had to be made.  Could he really get himself to break into his colleague's establishment, even at the owner's insistence?  And if so, should he really abscond with Staunton's Staunton chess set, a practically priceless item just procured by the Royal Library collection?  I'm not cut out to be a burglar.  And what would the Dutch authorities, lax though they may be in other Amsterdam contexts, think of this foreign thief?

Such worries turned out to be moot, though.  It was clear right off that van Root's shop had already been broken into.  So maybe van Root was not paranoid after all.  Robert tugged at the broken latch and the door pulled open easily.  He quickly stepped inside to evade the rain--and then froze.  What if the intruders are still here?  A different shiver of cold spread down the professor's back. As his gray-blue eyes rapidly scanned the shop, Lackey sized up his options.  If someone is here, they already know it, so running would just turn into a chase.  If they are gone, I must find out for Hans' sake if they have taken the Staunton set.  All was dead calm, dead still.

Of course Robert already knew where his friend had likely stashed the prize.  In the back of the shop Hans had installed what he called his "secure room," complete with a heavy-duty door and computerized locking mechanism.  It was there that the artisan protected and restored the most priceless artifacts entrusted to him.  Even Robert could only recall being in there once, but only after Hans had him turn around while he punched in the eight letters or numbers that allowed the vault-like door to draw open.  A couple more furtive glances around and several extra long strides later Robert was at the secure room's imposing door. 

Once again, it took no Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the lock had been tampered with, but this time to no avail.  The metal surface was barely scratched and the door's lit keypad blinked impassively waiting for the proper password sequence.  The naïve attempt, HANSROOT, had been left typed in and it obviously hadn't worked.  This meant the intruders had also surmised where the Staunton set must be.  And, Lackey chillingly realized, this also meant that the perpetrators would be returning to finish the job.  Soon.  With reinforcements.  What's more, he didn't even know whether Hans' "smart" door would allow only so many attempts at the password before shutting down or summoning the police.  Robert Lackey took a deep breath and stared at the floor.   Hans never told me the code.  Or had he?  Producing the cell phone from his jacket pocket he read the text message again.  It clearly mentioned SECURE ROOM followed by MAX HURR.  Obviously, these last "words" were the key, if there was one in this message.  It would have to be something that would mean something to both Robert and Hans as well as having something to do with the code. 

Well then, what did Robert and Hans have in common?  Alcohol certainly, but that couldn't be it.  Could MAX be short for "maximum?"  No, that would be only seven letters, and then where would that leave HURR?  Maybe MAX was a name-and then it struck Robert Lackey like a thunderbolt.  Yes, Max!  Max Euwe!  Why not?  Both Hans and I are chess history fanatics! 

Machgielis (Max) Euwe was the Grandmaster who upset the heavily favored champion, Alexander Alekhine, to capture the world chess title, one of only a handful of players and the only Dutch one ever to hold the crown.  Although losing his title back to Alekhine a couple years later, the mathematician by training continued a distinguished playing career and finished up as president of the international chess federation, FIDE.  EUWE, that would be four letters, halfway to the goal.  But what does that HURR mean?  A second wave of insight washed over Lackey.  HURR might mean nothing at all.  Maybe Hans was texting the word "hurry" and was interrupted, an ominous thought, considering.  If true, Robert reasoned, MAX must be the key for all eight characters of the password.  Perhaps a significant moment in Euwe's life would do the trick.  Robert briefly considered Euwe's birth year (1901) or FIDE itself -- but then his gray-blue eyes flashed again.  Hans was proud of his countryman and would certainly have used his hero's year of triumph to fill out the password, wouldn't he?  Rubbing fingers and thumb together like some novice safecracker, Lackey played his hunch on the keyboard, EUWE1935, and was rewarded with a series of clicking bolts.  The massive security door swung open with surprising ease.  Despite the continuing danger of his circumstances Robert Lackey could not help but smirk at his own cleverness, and that of his stricken friend.  Stepping inside he drew the door closed behind him.  He hadn't recalled any code required to leave the room when Hans had invited him in a few years back, so safety first. 

Robert had no trouble finding the light switch.  The fluorescent overheads flickered briefly before revealing the contents of the room.  It was outfitted like an oversized garage workshop with tool-strewn counters and multiple half-finished projects.  And pride of place in the center of the room was a large work bench with a single restoration project underway.  Though he shouldn't have been, Lackey was initially disappointed at how dull and ordinary Staunton's chess set appeared.  All this mayhem for these few bits of painted wood? 

The job of restoration had progressed about half way.  The pawns were a clean, uniform color, shiny with varnish and standing upon unworn circles of new green felt.  The rest of the familiar Staunton design men, castle turreted rooks, horse head bust knights, mitered bishops, scallop tiara-topped queens and cross tipped kings, still looked dull and worn from use and just plain old age.  Robert bent down and leaned in for a closer inspection.  Something else Hans had written now percolated up to his consciousness.  Lifting the white queen's rook from the board he turned it over several times, hefting it in his hand.  The dull felt on the rook's base was quite thin from wear and not fully attached on one side, he noticed.  Reaching for one of Hans' pick instruments, Robert carefully pried at the edge of the metal disc weight peeking out from beneath the worn felt.  Achieving purchase, he alternately pressed and rotated the pick until the disc dislodged, revealing a hollowed out chamber.  A quick rummaging of a few drawers produced a small pair of tweezers.  Robert used these to draw out a tightly rolled up piece of paper. 

He gingerly placed the yellowed roll on the bench and flattened it out, pinning the corners down with other weighted chessmen.  It appeared to be a hand written chess game score in an old version of the English descriptive style of chess notation, "Pawn to king's fourth sq.," and the like, dated January 4th, 1874.  But what really caught Professor Lackey's attention was the name of the player of the white pieces in this game: Howard Staunton, it said in clearly legible script.  A few years back a colleague of Lackey's had shown him some actual Staunton writings, and the lettering here looked quite similar from what he could recall.

A previously unknown game played by one of the top 19th century masters, written down in his own hand-what a find!  Robert broke out of his reverie.  He had no idea how long he had been staring at this remarkable document, but it was too long.  He had to "HURR" as Hans had warned.  Upending the white queen's knight from the Staunton set, Robert applied the same prying technique to its felt base.  Another chamber appeared, and within it another yellowed game score.  The same was true of the queen's bishop and the queen, and so on through the set.  A paper roll was secreted in each of first rank pieces, both the whites and the blacks, sixteen scraps in all.  Only the pawns were found to be chamberless.  Lackey felt a brief pang of regret for ruining Hans' finished work on them, but he had to be sure he had recovered everything. 

As he worked Robert conceived a gambit of sorts.  Maybe he could throw off any pursuers by simple means.  Finding a professional quality vial of glue nearby Robert reattached the metal disc weights and felt to the base of each chessman as neatly as he could manage.  Perfectionist Hans would see his efforts as unforgivably sloppy, but this was an emergency.  Sorry, Hans.

Then Robert gathered up the priceless rolls and tucked them into the case that held his superfluous sunglasses, relegating the specs to another pocket in his damp jacket.  Closing the secure room door behind him, he strode swiftly toward the shop's door, flipping over his gambit's reasoning one last time. 

Someone badly wants to possess the Staunton chess set.  They may know of the treasure stash inside, but how could they, considering Hans just made the discovery the other day?  Regardless, Hans instructed me in the text message to secure the "Staunton contents," not the Staunton set, which is how he certainly would have worded things if that is what he intended, even under duress.  Anyway, it might not be easy to pass through customs carrying an antique chess set with no proof of ownership.

Reckoning he now had all his pawns in a row, professor turned reluctant agent Robert Lackey took one last glance around before stepping into the inky anonymity of the misty Amsterdam night.

It wasn't until he reached his Ohio home the next day that Robert learned that Hans van Root had died in hospital the previous evening.  To distortedly paraphrase Alice, things were getting seriouser and seriouser.

December - Chess Life Online 2010

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