Gala (John, November 2012)

In the first edition (1994) of The Encyclopedia of Chess Variants, David Pritchard described Gala, a chess-like game allegedly once played in the Dithmarschen region of Schleswig-Holstein but now extinct. While I was working on The Classified Encyclopedia of Chess Variants (2007), Peter Michaelsen warned me that the evidence for this game appeared to be very suspect, but David had written in good faith with extensive references, and I did not think it appropriate to do more than add an editorial note to his entry for the game. I now think it is time to say more.

In short, Gala appears not to have been a traditional game at all but to have been an 1930s invention. Peter tells me that neither Arnold Meyer nor he has been able to find any trace of it in the region where it is alleged to have been played, and the earliest claim for its existence appears to have been in a book Brettspiele by Arbeiter and Ruhnke, published in Potsdam in 1937. Peter asked the curator of the Dithmarscher Landesmuseum in Meldorf about the game, but the latter had never been able to find any information about it and knew it only from references in books which games researchers had sent him. In essence, therefore, the sole authority for a game which is quite sophisticated and complicated, but is nevertheless alleged to have been played in ancient times by country peasants, is a book from the 1930s, and there is no corroborative evidence whatever. David's sources all postdate this book, the "Brettspiele" he cites being a later book by a different author, and they all appear to have relied on it either directly or indirectly.

But why should somebody, whether Arbeiter and Runkhe themselves or somebody whom they were quoting in good faith, have invented such a game and presented it as a folk survival? One can only guess, but the 1930s was a period of Nazi-inspired German expansionism, and it appears to have been not unknown for items of apparently ancient proto-Germanic culture to have been fabricated and planted in the border regions. The most notorious case is perhaps that of the "Königsberg eagle", a gold brooch with jewels which was allegedly discovered in the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia in 1936. My authority for this is The Guinness Book of Fakes, Frauds & Forgeries (Richard Newnham, 1991, pages 72-75), which is not normally regarded as a definitive academic source, but I have little doubt that more authoritative sources could be located if necessary.

The Königsberg eagle was exposed as a fraud quite quickly. Not only was it stylistically somewhat implausible, but both the method of working the gold and the gold itself were soon shown to be modern. In the case of Gala, we have only the style of the alleged game to go on, together with the apparent absence of any sort of corroborative evidence prior to 1937. In the last resort, there can be no proof, and the matter has to be one of personal judgement; but on the evidence presented to me by Peter, my vote has to be against it.