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From the Island of Misfit Toys at Christmas: Giants under the Tree.
Don't look under the Christmas Tree!
I am sure many of us remember growing up in the nineteen sixties. This was probably the last decade that still held the magic of innocence; and Christmas day was the most wonderful time of the year. As rosy-fingered dawn would cast forth her light from her golden throne on December 25th,, boys and girls would run downstairs to unwrap all of the beautifully decorated gifts that Santa (aka parents and relatives) had left for them. They did not always get exactly what they wanted, but Santa knew that if it came in a big box, it would somehow be enough. This was often the selected item of the year in the one stop shopping that was common at John Wanamaker’s, Gimbels department store, or Strawbridge & Clothier.
Big was what America was all about back then. Everything came in large sizes, cars, boats, motorcycles, houses, and food. But as Christmas approached, the big department stores would have big sales, and of course the toys and games of the era matched the mantra. The accent on large size objects often resulted in “Christmas Turkeys” (Please, forgive the pun, I could not resist).These were gifts that seemed like a good idea, and came in an oversized box, but never delivered on what was promised. .
I would like to use one example. You probably never heard of this game. It flashed by like a comet in 1966-67, and joined the rest of the stranded failures on the island of misfit toys. I can imagine the toy agency and their expectation of success. Here was the American answer to that complicated game of antiquity, Chess. Yes, someone came up with the bright idea that if you replaced the standard Chess pieces of Pawn, Rook, Knight, Bishop, Queen, etc. with football players it meant that Americans would suddenly “discover” Chess.
On the surface, this “dumb American” attitude seems ludicrous, but I can give examples of European games that were “dumbed down” in the belief that Americans were viewed as simple minded. One of these is the popular game known as Stratego. This game originated in Holland in 1949. When it was issued, the Europeans were familiar with military ranks and all of the playing pieces were identified by their Franco-Prussian war uniform profiles. When Milton Bradley acquired the rights to sell the title in America in 1960, they changed the design of the pieces to include numbers. The highest rank thus became “1”, the next “2” and so on. This made the American game just one of lower numbers capturing higher ones. Also, rules for some reason must be written on the inside of the box top, or else no American would have the patience to read them.
So, along comes Official Football Chess: Newest and most exciting chess set in America, by Diversified Creations, Inc. 1966. Here was the answer to that medieval snobbery of Chess, rendered into that uniquely American game that we could all understand. The basic rules of play were shown inside the box top cover. There was also a booklet included to cover more difficult moves, and of course the real appeal was that the game only required eleven football pieces, not sixteen per side.
The descriptive term for the box should be “humongous”. The container for this game measures: 24”X 18” X 4” Depth, and to this should be added the word “imaginative”, because the contents pictured on the cover don’t match the design of what you actually receive. The largest disappointment is the End. We are shown a drawing of a mercurial wonder, streamlined and “in the air”, gracefully catching a pass. What you actually receive you can see in the comparison photos below, a figure that looks like he is surrendering. Another foible is the Center; his arms are so outstretched he appears to be attempting to flap them to fly. You could say this is true, because the piece replaces the Knight and can jump over other pieces.
The pieces are archaic in design, representing what was important in football long ago. For example, the fullback and halfback, in company with Quarterbacks, were among the highest paid positions. In our modern age, the fullback has almost disappeared, and the halfback is no longer the must have position in football as it was when Terry Metcalf, Tony Dorsett, and Wilbert Montgomery were the monsters of the NFC east.
Notice the term: “Play Value” on the inside box lid description. In the culture of the period, all things American were of the type that should receive the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval”. No one keeps house anymore, therefore no need for approval. So, the value of the day lay in the fact that it is modern, which means “can never be bad”, the term also implies a certain amount of “cleanliness” can be expected since it is new and not old. Next, it is “real chess” but “Americanized”, which means “better” automatically. It is also made known that the game is “faster”. This means you won’t be tied up like regular chess, where it may take hours of play to resolve one game. “Faster” is also a code word in America, meaning better, streamlined, and can we say it? Simpler!
Yes, you may have been an embarrassing idiot at chess at one time in your life, but now, with your superior knowledge of football, that great American game, you too can become a Master. Any gridiron gorilla can now be a Fischer, Petrosian, Capablanca, Alekhine, Karpov or Kasparov. All it takes is American know how, some football rules, and the willingness to win.
I am sure that you can remember one of these delightful experiments of Christmas past. I was happy with quite a bit of the games that I received. Eventually I became a serious war game collector and player in competition around the country. Games are now better than they ever were and Essen, Germany is the headquarters of the world for introducing new games from inventors both small and great to the public. The award that they issue for “Game of the Year” can make a difference in sales amounting to millions of dollars. So the attendance and central activity each year at Essen provides a constant flow of opportunity.
If I were to recommend a single game for you to enjoy, the current number one game in the ranks is entitled: Twilight Struggle from GMT games. It is a fascinating look at the Cold War and you represent either America or the Soviet Union and spend your time allocating influence around the world in an attempt to gain political alliances and objectives important to your struggle for dominance. A series of true event cards will have a tendency either to enhance or inhibit your plans and you must be very careful that your actions do not touch off a nuclear world- wide confrontation! There are no “lucky dice” involved either, so it is on you. Also, you will be happy to know that today’s games generally come in very manageable boxes. They are designed to fit into a bookcase just like a large volume of forgotten lore. Perhaps “Official Football Chess” might have been a success if it had been reduced to fit to a modern standard, but then again, according to our heritage of tradition in Western literature and all of our fairy tales as well, all “Giants” are only worthy of some form of extinction. So, we consign our football chess to the island of misfit toys, and pray that Ulysses never wanders there by the will of the Gods.