This set is fine specimen of a not uncommon design, characterized by 1) the open mouths of the knights, which suggests to many that they are laughing, and 2) the ring or ball perched atop its bishops’ onion-shaped miters, echoing the globus cruciger found on the spires of many onion-shaped Orthodox church domes.
The kings are 97 mm tall and the pieces are unweighted. Coupled with the modest bases lack of weighting renders them more unstable than other unweighted Soviet sets, which compensate for the lack of weighting with substantial bases.
My specimen, as are many others, is finished in black and Stalin Red. Yet other specimens are finished in black and brown varnish. Here is a brown and black version in Lokahi Antonio’s collection.
The late Nick Lanier of the Chess Museum has suggested that this design may be of Tsarist origin, but his suggestion is offered without supporting research. I know of no direct or circumstantial evidence and no morphological analysis supporting his suggestion. His specimen is brown and black. He describes the pieces as “very well finished” and the knights as “happy.”
The design is generally thought to arise in the thirties. This is the view expressed in Russian auction sites and by knowledgeable dealers in Soviet chessmen. The photographic record supports this view. Here is a photo from the 1939 Moscow-Leningrad Match for the Deaf.
Here is a 1943 photo from the Evacuation Hospital in Vologda, which, according to chess historian Jorge Njegovic Drndak, specialized in infectious diseases that and treated the victims of the Great Patriotic War. The set appears to be a black and red version.
And here is a photo of what seems to be another black and red version of the set being used by schoolchildren in Udmurt Autonomous SSR in 1947, provided by Sergey Kovalenko.
The Laughing Knight set is thought to have been produced by Artel Kultsport in Moscow. Two dealers in the chain of title of my set represented that it originated with Kultsport. Although my set came in a box/board that had only remnants of a paper label, the board itself was nearly identical to another from the mid-1940s that bears an Artel Kultsport ink stamp. Moreover, Kultsport is known to have affixed paper labels prior to 1941, further supporting the pre-war Kultsport inferences of the set’s origins.
One of the interesting design elements in these chessmen is the almost spherical ring near the top of the peak of the bishop miter, echoing those on the spires of the onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.
But the defining characteristic of this set is the knight’s gaping mouth, which makes it appear to be heartily laughing. To be sure, some horses, like the American TV star, the late Mr. Ed, played by the palomino gelding Bamboo Harvester (1949-1971), have exhibited a sense of humor. Mr. Ed, America’s first “Stable Genius,” elsewhere has been described as “an obnoxious and inconsiderate troublemaker.”
As gaping mouths are a recurring theme in knight design, Soviet and otherwise, I did some cursory research into what it means when a horse opens its mouth. Here are some of the explanations offered:
- The horse has colic (who would send sick horses to war?);
- It has detected an unusual odor, as a mare in heat, and curls his lip in what’s called a “Flehmen Response” to get a better whiff (it would seem inappropriate to call them “Horny Knights”);
- It is relaxed in contentment (unlikely for a warhorse headed into battle);
- It indicates aggression (befitting a warrior steed); and
- It is vocalizing, as in neighing, opening the mouth and exposing the teeth to allow the sound to resonate, typically an expression of anxiety or excitement (largely consistent with our “laughing” interpretation).
The popular Laughing Knight design originated prior to the Great Patriotic War. It is named for the gaping mouth of its knights, which appears to be caught in mid-laugh. It seems to have been made by Artel Kultsport in Moscow, though the evidence for this is circumstantial and inferential.