Sunday, May 13, 2001

Prized possessions

Retired prof moved by chess sets

By Marsie Hall Newbold
by Enquirer contributor

Alan Engel shows a replica chess piece made of walrus ivory.
(Dick Swaim photo)
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        • Who: Dr. Alan S. Engel, 69, professor emeritus at Miami University (he taught political science and constitutional law) and collector of unusual chess sets.

        • On display: Seventy chess sets of all shapes and sizes.

        • Where: Throughout the Oxford home he shares with wife, Sondra.

        • Opening: Dr. Engel received his first chess set as a Christmas present when he was 12 years old.

        • En passant: “I still have it,” he says. “It is just a cheap little Milton Bradley set. But I didn't start collecting until I was in college. I remember coming up to my room and there was a wonderful chess set set up for me. My parents were antique dealers and they had tripped across this wonderful set. So, they decided to surprise me with it. I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

        • Middle game: “That was fifty years ago,” he adds. “I started looking for more and somewhere along the line, I fell in love with chess sets. I was taken with them because of the artistry I saw in the pieces.

        “When you think about a chess set,” he says, “You say to yourself, what's the big deal? There are six different pieces in a thirty-two piece set, but what I discovered was that they can be made out of all kinds of materials. I mean, you name it, metal, wood, ivory, bone, Lucite, glass, even gutta-percha, which is what a dentist uses for temporary fillings.

        • It's a small, small world: Looking at Dr. Engel's collection is a bit of a geography lesson because his sets represent countries as varied as England, Mexico, Russia, China and Japan. One of his more unusual sets is a folk art “Cold War” set representing the Soviet Union vs. the United States.

        “It's my favorite,” he quips. “Until we get to the next set.”

        • Today, I am a man: Dr. Engel has been playing chess since his father taught him at age 12.

        “My great goal in life was to beat my dad,” he admits. “Eventually I did. That's how every kid starts out, I think. It felt great.”

        • End play: Even though he has a high rating, Dr. Engel is modest about his skill as a player.

        “Good is such a relative term,” he says. “I'm an OK player. I can hold my own, but I win some games, I lose some games. I'm not at the masters level, but I do enjoy playing.”

        “I'm always up for a game,” he says with a grin.

        What are your prize possessions? Show them off by writing to Marsie Hall Newbold at


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