The Dubrovnik Chess Set

There's a legend of the most beautiful chess set ever that is impossible to buy, made in a country that no longer exists.

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The Dubrovnik.



The year was 1950. A Serbian painter Petar Poček was commissioned to design new chessmen for the upcoming IX. Chess Olympiad in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia. The event was held with an impressive flourish as state authorities with marshal Tito in the forefront were involved. No expense was spared. In the spirit of the times a special ad hoc art committee of the ruling Communist Party was formed to approve the design.

(Update: Petar Poček's involvement in designing the Dubrovnik is heavily disputed in Croatia. The claim is that Croatian cartoonist Andrija Maurović was the sole author of Dubrovnik chessmen design. We are in process of verifying this information, please stay tuned.)

Photo below (and video above) featuring IM Branko Grosek's 1950 Dubrovnik, currently in care of the Grosek family, Ljubljana, Slovenia:
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No religious symbols was the order of the day. The designer came up with a beautiful set with smooth curves, opposite capped bishops (for easier bishop/pawn distinction) and surprisingly elegant knights done differently than the usual Staunton Elgin marbles style. Unconventionally wide at base, felted in green, light, sturdy, utilitarian but elegant chessmen with a nod to great Staunton/Jaques of London tradition, the pieces were made out of maple and chestnut in natural color. No extra queens were included, a laughable idea at this side of the iron curtain, (where an upside-down rook is traditionally used in an unlikely event of promoting to another queen). Every set was boxed in a big folding veneered chessboard felted with baize, field size 60 mm. Big mother of a board folding into a box with a simple hook latch. A small metal badge with inscription “IX. šah olimpijada 1950 Dubrovnik Jugoslavija” adorned the inside of the box.

Below are photos of GM Vasja Pirc's (of the Pirc Defense fame) original Dubrovnik, currently in care of the Pirc family in Idria, Slovenia. The set is in astonishing mint condition. There's nary a scratch on this particular 1950 jaw-dropping chess set.
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The unweighted (!) pieces were according to late Mr. Karakljajić produced in an unknown workshop in Serbia. (Alas, this information is not yet verified.) About 50 sets were made by hand. Seven of them were gifted to the victorious Yugoslav team after the tournament:


  • The rest were sold off at a price equivalent to one average months pay in 1950’s Yugoslavia. Only a handful remain today.
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The Dubrovnik design was used again in 1958 Interzonal tournament in Portorož, Yugoslavia with young Bobby Ficher competing and earning his Grandmaster title at age 15. This was his first encounter with the Dubrovnik, later proclaimed as his favorite chess set. Again, a limited number of sets was produced. We have no information on what happened to them. The same goes for Dubrovnik sets from the 1961 International Tournament in Bled, again with Fischer competing (and winning second place behind Mikhail Tal.)

In the Sixties the renowned Croatian cartoonist Andrija Maurović designed a reissue of the famous 1950 Dubrovnik set to be mass produced and sold to general public., Some minor details were changed, most notably the size of the pieces (all pieces a bit fatter and taller by about 2 mm), carving of the knights (simplified carving, larger head) and the number of cuts in the queen crowns (only 5 as opposed to original 12 to 15). Pieces were made in the Vjekoslav Jakopović workshop in Zagreb, Croatia.

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Dubrovnik II chessmen were used in most events on the Yugoslav soil in the sixties. Here's a video from the 1968 Svetozar Gligorić vs. Mikhail Tal WC candidate match in Dom sindikata, Belgrade, Yugoslavia:



Dubrovnik II sets were available for sale in chess shops and were usually purchased as prizes in local tournaments. Here’s an example of such a set awarded to a tournament winner in Deskle, Slovenia on December 22nd 1968. Note the added ornamentation at the bases of chessmen:
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The lower price & quality replicas of the Dubrovnik II were sold wildly in early seventies in Yugoslavia and neighboring countries. There was a lot of variety in carving quality and coloring of the pieces, the cheapest sets were often lacquered in black. They were later discontinued as the cheaper and simpler Subozan sets from Subotica flooded the market. By his own admission, world champion Bobby Fischer bought his Dubrovnik II in 1970 in Zagreb. He can be seen analyzing with his Dubrovnik II in numerous photographs and film clips. This set was put in Bekins Storage Co. warehouse storage room in Pasadena, California. The contents of the storage room were sold at a public auction, because Fischer's account—maintained by a Pasadena businessman named Bob Ellsworth, was in arrears. Fischer since claimed his Dubrovnik II set was "stolen".

Here is the transcript of his radio interview, discussing the original 1950 Dubrovnik:

"What I played with with Spassky in 92 was the original Dubrovnik set, and it's very, very rare, I mean, it's almost impossible to get one, … To get one, if you can get one in good condition, you know, but it's absolutely … I think it's the best chess set I've ever played on, ... you remember, Eugenio, no? It's just a joy to play with, a joy to hold, the definition of the pieces, the design, … it's just a marvelous set, but it's very hard to get, I don't have it."

Discussing his 1970 Dubrovnik II:

"On photos you see me playing and analyzing, that's another Dubrovnik set, that was made later in Croatia, I got that in Zagreb around '68 or '70 and that's a great set, but they stole it, … That was one of the things ... That was on the cover on Life Magazine and many other pictures. I used ... That was my set that I always used to analyze with, I took it all over the world with me for years, I just loved that set ..."

"On the cover of Life Magazine, you know, that was stolen too, and I loved to play with that ... The wood was so hard, it was very hard to break it, it was very very light, perfect for traveling with, you know. And the balance of the pieces, the pieces didn't fall over, and the design, just great, great set."

Bobby Fischer Dubrovnik
Bobby Fischer 03 - Dubrovnik
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Below are three fantastic and copyrighted photos by David Attie, showing Fischer's Dubrovnik in great detail. The original prints can be purchased at Rock Paper Photo, we strongly encourage visitors of this blog to do so:
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In January 1972 when interviewed by Ira Berkow, Fischer mentions his Dubrovnik II thusly:

"Look at these pieces. Smooth and light, no hard edges, beautifully carved. The best set for playing with that I've ever seen. Here, feel this knight!"

By his request, the original 1950 pieces from a private Belgrade collection were used in 1992 Fischer/Spassky World Championship Rematch at Sveti Stefan, Montenegro that year. Fischer later proclaimed it as "the best chess set I have ever played on".

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This particular chess set from the 1992 Sveti Stefan match was actually a combination of *two* original 1950 Dubrovnik chess sets, a cleaned up and refinished hybrid, as the organizers were unable to locate a complete set in good enough condition (pieces missing, pawn collars broken) to be used in such a prestigious event. After the match the one of the arbiters IM Nikola Karakljajić sold this hybrid to a Serbian collector Novica Matić and it was since offered for sale on (and later removed from) GM Siniša Dražić's blog, a friend of Mr. Matić.

The set was not sold as the asking price was ridiculously high. A chess collector from Brazil contacted Mr. Matić in 2014 and was given the hybrid (in exchange for an undisclosed sum of money) with an understanding that it will be returned to Republic of Serbia in the future. No contract was signed. Here is the video of this chess set, filmed in Dubrovnik, Croatia by the set's current caretaker that wishes to remain anonymous:



Today the original 1950 sets are almost impossible to find and cannot be bought. An old grandmaster friend of mine showed me six pieces of unknown origin but does not have a complete set. On a short visit I shot a picture on his coffee table:

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A few of the originals are still owned by the families of the IX. Olympiad participants, as the sets were gifted to them at the end of the tournament. Some were sold at a somewhat high price (equal to about average Yugoslav one month salary) to general public at the premises during the Olympiad. At the time of this writing (spring 2015) the following originals have been located and documented, historically owned by:

  • GM Milan Vidmar, chief arbiter at IX. Chess Olympiad in Dubrovnik 1950. Set was donated to Ljubljana Chess Museum and is currently in care of Izmet Fekali. Located in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
  • GM Vasja Pirc, Idrija, Slovenia, Olympic team Yugoslavia 1950. Set currently in care of the Pirc family. Located in Idrija, Slovenia.
  • GM Stojan Puc, Ljubljana, Slovenia, Olympic team Yugoslavia 1950. Set currently in care of the Puc family. Located and displayed in offices of Noj, d. o. o., Brezovica, Slovenia.
  • Unknown origin hybrid (from two damaged and incomplete sets, original owners not known), used in Fischer/Spassky match in 1992 at Sveti Stefan, Montenegro. Set currently in care of anonymous collector. Located in Brazil.
  • IM Branko Grosek (bought the set on the Olympiad premises in 1950 in Dubrovnik). Set currently in care of the Grosek family, located in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

None of these sets can be purchased. Don't even ask.

Another set was owned by GM Svetozar Gligorić, Belgrade, Serbia, Olympic team Yugoslavia 1950. His set was supposedly gifted to Bobby Fischer in early sixties and supposedly stolen in the seventies. This is not verified, Fischer never mentions this particular story in any interview, the set cannot be located. (Not to be confused with his Croatian made Dubrovnik II, sold off by Bekins storage warehouse landlord, claimed "stolen" by Fischer as a part of "Jewish conspiracy" against him.)

The spirit of the new design lives on. Today a rough and simplified plastic replicas of the Dubrovnik set are being sold in Serbia and Croatia.

Some setmakers are using the basic idea only but introducing own designs and naming conventions like “Zagreb” or “Yugoslavia”. Note the opposite colored finials on kings and queens in the modern variants -- in the original Dubrovnik only the bishops enjoyed the privilege. However, these sets are not even close to utility and specifications of the original pieces and have dubious historical origin. Their supposed Yugoslavian heritage is pure marketing fiction.

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These designs were never used in any tournament on Yugoslav soil.

A small family business in Slovenia is still producing exact replicas of the historic Dubrovnik chess sets, both 1950 and Dubrovnik II designs. Original 1950 pieces used in the 1992 Fischer vs. Spassky rematch were used as a reference, courtesy of a Belgrade collector Novica Matić. Yes, these were handled by Bobby and Boris themselves, here's a photo:

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The knights are the trademark of the Dubrovnik set. At this time there are only two artisans in the world (in Brezovica and Slovenske Konjice, Slovenia) having the necessary carving skills to do the Dubrovnik knights properly. Just take a look at the prestigious House of Staunton’s try at it, I rest my case. It is a dying art.

The Dubrovnik II replicas are based on original blueprints and drawings provided by Šahovska naklada of Croatia. This organization is claiming copyright over the Dubrovnik design and awarded explicit permission to Noj, d. o. o. for copying it in their replica chess sets. However, they did not take any legal action against any manufacturer for unauthorized use of said design to date.

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Here’s a pic and a video of my personal red stained Dubrovnik II, modified with DGT coils:

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And here’s the Noj, d. o. o. 1950 reissue Dubrovnik:

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-Izmet

P. S. This essay is and will be constantly updated as the new information is gathered. The information is presented as is and some of my sources will for various reasons not be revealed. It's a dog eat dog in the chess collecting world. It is only natural that some collectors are cherry-picking and hiding (and others revealing) the information in an attempt to enhance the value of their particular collections. I try to reveal the truth under the layers of various admissions and stories to the best of my abilities. Nevertheless, be advised I am one of the collectors also. :)

Caveat emptor!