As a teenager, Chuck Olson was the kind of chess devotee who had the gumption to challenge strangers to a game. But it wasn't until he dated now-wife Nikki that it became a family tradition.
The two met in 2010 while both were working—her temporarily, him supposedly permanently—in Uganda. Nikki's return to the United States had the couple figuring out their long-distance relationship, and seeking ways to stay connected.
On a trip to Bali, Nikki found a striking Balinese-style chess set. "I thought that would be a great thing to bring back," she says, "kind of hearkening back to our time together." Chuck, in turn, had bought a chess set in Africa, and their tradition was born.
They have 18 sets from all around the world, including places like Cambridge, Cyprus, Santa Fe, Rome, Scotland, and Prague. Whenever the couple and their two children, Chloe and Alexander, travel somewhere new, they know exactly what kind of souvenir they're bringing home. "It's not the easiest souvenir to find, right?" Nikki says. "But when you find them they're often just so interesting."
Nikki on what makes a collection-worthy chess set
"It definitely needs to have some kinds of unique characteristics. In some cases, it's unique to the place where we get it. So for example, the one that we got in Rome, it's made of wood but the olive wood from the region.... It's not just your average normal-looking pawns, right? The pieces are artistic in some way."
"There's one that I think was a little bit of a stretch, but we got it anyway. We were in Leavenworth and we were with Chuck's family at the time. They're super into rocks, which is why we went into this rock shop. [The chess set pieces] look like stacks of rocks that people leave at trailheads and that just reminds me of the Pacific Northwest area."
Nikki on the chess set that got away
"It was in Alaska, and we ended up going to a Native American store with a lot of handmade crafts. And we asked if they had a chess set and they did. They had one chess set; it was a pretty big one, and it was gorgeous. It was probably like one of the most beautiful chess sets we've seen because it was entirely beaded, the whole thing, like every single surface—the board itself, every single piece was these tiny, tiny little beads, all handmade."
"Not all of them are in this range but we've spent like $300 on a chess set before. And we're like, We'd be willing to spend even more than that just because it's so gorgeous."
"The person who showed it to us was like, 'I don't think it's in your price range.' So we're just like, No, how much does it cost? We might be willing to get it."
"It was $10,000. We definitely could not afford that."
Nikki on chess, family, and finding room
"Life got super busy. We had kids and all that. I don't even remember the last time we've tried playing. So I think now we just kind of consider ourselves collectors as opposed to actual chess players."
"Chloe legitimately, actually wants to start playing chess, and that might get Chuck back into chess."
"Xander's younger. He just likes to play with the pieces because they're all unique pieces. So he's just playing with them like, 'Oh, this is Alice.'"
"I think we'll always try to find a way [to make room for another chess set.] So far our strategy has been buy a new bookshelf. Now we need to get more creative with how we make more space."