Backyard Chess

In Ellicott City, chain-saw chess is a backyard pursuit

By Janet Gilbert

November 10, 2006

Bobby Fischer may have said it best: “You can only get good at chess if you love the game.”

From the looks of his backyard patio, Mike Kelley of Ellicott City must be quite a chess player. He built a stone-and-granite chessboard measuring 8 feet square in a 12-foot-by-18-foot patio, and he carved all of the game’s 32 pieces with a chain saw. Tucked under the canopy of a huge maple, the giant chess set has an almost surreal look - as if pulled from an early edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. One can’t help but wonder: Will a giant rabbit emerge from behind that tree?

Instead, Kelley’s friend, Ywain Ferguson of Catonsville - “Fergy” - appeared for a quick game. Fergy would often stop by to help with construction of the platform patio chessboard, which was begun June 10 and was completed at the end of July.

“But sometimes, I would just be playing with [Kelley’s two] dogs and hanging out, maybe firing up the grill,” he said.

Kelley and Fergy are enjoying the chess set these days - playing two or three times a week. “I’m learning the finer art to the game from the master,” Fergy said.

“When it snows, we’ll probably just shovel it off to play,” he added.

Right now, the memory of the summer project is fresh.

“Betsy [Kelley’s wife] wanted a deck, but I didn’t want to put a deck in,” said Kelley, who liked the idea of a patio.

Betsy Kelley said she was concerned about a patio being level because of the maple tree’s roots.

“It just kind of happened,” Mike Kelley said of the elevated chessboard. “It’s like a patio, but at the same time, you can play chess.”

“Did you mention that the only way we let you do it was [a deal] to get us a hot tub?” asked his wife.

“Yeah, they laughed at me, they teased me,” Kelley said of the reactions of his wife and two daughters to the chessboard idea. Kelley, who has a business degree and an aptitude for mathematics, had no experience in construction or carving before creating the outdoor chess set.

“We [Fergy and Kelley] kind of needed the exercise,” he said, of the decision to take on a project that would involve hard physical labor. The patio chessboard sits on a frame of cinderblocks with slabs of granite around the perimeter and is filled with three pickup truck loads of gravel that Kelley and Fergy shoveled in.

“Yeah, it took three loads of gravel, and 19 bottles of insect repellent,” Fergy said, recalling the summer’s particularly vicious mosquitoes.

When it came time to create the chess pieces, Kelley took out the wooden pieces of a chess set from Tijuana, Mexico, that he has had since he was 8. He did precise calculations to fashion each piece for his patio in scale to his childhood set.

“The first one [the model of a pawn], I did in a skeleton of cardboard,” Kelley said. Later, he experimented with fiberglass, but he said, “After the third fiberglass one, my hands were on fire, my eyes were burning.”

Kelley made a batch of modeling compound, formed it to the shape of a pawn and molded fiberglass sheets around it to create a mold, into which he poured plaster of Paris.

He was not happy with the results and decided to look into wood for his pieces.

“The Howard County Fair [in August] had a guy who was a chain saw master,” said Kelley. “I talked to him and asked him what it would cost to do the pieces for me. He said the smallest pieces” would cost $250 each. And “that he could probably do the set” for $8,000.

The artist encouraged Kelley to try carving the pieces himself.

Kelley went back to the fair three times to ask questions of the carver. Then he purchased a “carving bar” for his chain saw. He also bought a lightweight chain saw - weighing 7 1/2 pounds - for carving. Next, he needed to find wood of the proper circumference for his chess pieces.

“I found some trees down in a park and dragged them out of the woods,” he said. Later, he explained his project to a woman who works at Alpha Ridge Landfill, and she invited him to her family’s farm to pick up poplar logs.

Kelley created cardboard templates for each chess piece. He positioned the template on the logs, made markings and started carving. .

“The last pieces are a lot better than the first ones,” he said.

Kelley carved in his yard and on his driveway until he had finished the pieces. He amassed an 8- to 10-inch-high pile of sawdust that was 10 feet in circumference.

The set took about five weeks and was completed in mid-September. The pieces range in size from the king, which stands 30 inches high and 11 inches in diameter, to the pawns, which are 14 inches high and 7 inches in diameter.

Kelley’s daughter, Maureen, 20, a junior at University of Maryland, College Park, said, “At first, I thought the whole thing was a little … stupid. But then, as it came together, I thought it was a pretty neat thing because he’d never carved before.”

Though she has not played chess in a while, she said, “I wouldn’t mind playing now that it’s out there.”

Excellent opening move.

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