Chess was originally brought to Europe via Spain from the Arab world. Now, a Canadian veteran is sending Chess sets back to the Middle East – with kings modeled after President Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden.
Jeff Train, who had been in the Canadian military until 1989, was working as a military contractor in Afghanistan when he noticed soldiers buying chess sets from local vendors. Train said he was concerned those vendors, in transporting their wares from Pakistan, were actually aiding the enemy.
“They have to drive through Taliban country and they have to pay the toll,” Train said. “So basically the soldiers were funding the insurgency.”
Train, 48, who lives in the Philippines, said he wanted to develop an alternative product for soldiers, one that would document the history they have lived. In 2009, he began making and selling sets of Canadian and American soldiers that played opposite Taliban chessmen under the company name Hobby Leisure Manufacturing. Then he began getting requests from soldiers from other countries and now manufactures British, Finnish, Norwegian, German and Australian soldiers as well. He also makes a set of Iraqi soldiers that fight Americans.
As Americans anticipate Obama’s impending announcement of troop withdrawals, Train is thinking ahead to how the soldiers will remember and represent their experiences in the Middle East. He said he wants them to be able to use the game to demonstrate actual events of the past decade.
“When a soldier gets older, he can sit down with his kids and his wife, who really don’t understand what’s going on, use the board and say, ‘The world went to war against this guy and these people,’ ” Train said.
And Train is serious about telling the story accurately. The board includes a map of either the Afghan or Iraqi stage.
The details on each resin-sculpted, hand-painted piece are specific, down to the colors used on the handles of weapons to denote whether they are made of wood or plastic depending on the nationality. The cuts of the helmets and the camouflage patterns on the uniforms are copied exactly. The hats on each Taliban piece are specifically selected and the Iraqi pieces are dressed in a combination of street clothes uniforms that had originally been issued to members of the Iraqi police force by the U.S., representing defectors. The Taliban queen, standing beside the king, Osama bin Laden, wears a sky blue burqa.
However precise the representation, Train said some people have found the equating of such a grave concept to a game to be inflammatory, most often because of the use of the World Trade Center as a rook on the American set. But sometimes the loss of a castle can eventually lead to a player taking out the enemy's king.
"Learn to play chess and your Twin Towers will play Osama bin Laden," Train said. "This isn’t politically correct history, it’s history."
Train said commemorative chess sets depict other wars, including those like the Civil War that are remembered for their particular brutality.
Train has been selling hundreds of sets out of three stores on Afghan airfields, but also through a Canadian distributor who sells them online. They are manufactured and painted in the Philippines, where Train and his wife live.
A March 2011 letter from the CEO of the German military PX exchange that carries the sets in Afghanistan said they have been one of the store's bestselling souvenir items, popular among soldiers of varying ranks. They cost about $290 each (with shipping.) Train said he thinks the popularity is due to a tendency among soldiers to collect articles from their pasts.
" All soldiers have their rooms," he said. "The war museum. When a guy leaves the army, most 15 years from now, guys are sitting in their basement looking at their junk. "
Train said he wanted the soldiers who will be coming home from Afghanistan in the coming years to be able to use the chess sets with the people they fought alongside. The idea is that the chess game will lead to discussion among stories, allowing them to remember their experiences and open up about the more painful ones.
"This is for the guys who have actually been there and done that, he said. "Half these games will never be played [to completion] because it’ll bring back the memories. It’s to invoke memories and help some of the healing."