Since its invention in India, chess pieces have evolved in appearance. Although chess organizations have set standards for chess pieces, enthusiasts still seek vintage chess sets for their allure and background.
Throughout history, different regions and cultures developed their styles of crafting chess pieces. What started as a strategy game involving infantries and chariots, chess encountered its breakthrough in Europe as the pieces appeared with religious motifs.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane as we rediscover the background of chess sets, and explore the top 5 best vintage chess sets throughout the game’s history.
The History of Chess Sets
Chess started as a board game in ancient India, first known as chaturanga. It was played on an unmarked 8×8 player board, and the game pieces were made up of elephants, infantries, cavalries, and chariots.
Some chaturanga pieces were found in Uzbekistan and they were believed to be made from ivory. Further, the earliest chess pieces were called:
- Shah (King)
- Fil (Bishop)
- Wazir (Counselor)
- Asp (Knight)
- Rukh (Rook)
- Piyade (Pawn)
Later, when the game made it into the Arab region, they were interpreted into Arabic, and the game was called shatranj. The pieces, however, lost their shapes and intricate details.
This is because the creation of life-like figures is considered idolatry and prohibited by Islamic teachings. Thus, the Arabs made their game pieces from stones and clay.
Although made from different materials, the pieces still followed the shape and proportion of the Indian chess sets.
When inter-continental trades started, chess would be known in Japan and China, where variants were created, such as shogi, xiangqi, and go.
Once the game reached the Western world, the Europeans translated the game pieces’ names as closely as possible. Then, they made the pieces into the likeness of medieval characters – knights, kings, queens, bishops, and pawns.
Moreover, while the rules of chaturanga and shatranj are still being discovered, the Europeans developed the chess rules we all know today. Additionally, they have invented different concepts, such as en passant and castling.
In the next section, we’ll look into the best vintage chess sets ever made.
Top 5 Best Vintage Chess Sets
The Europeans shaped the chess game as we know it today. Further, they have standardized the proportions and sizes of the chess pieces as the following:
- King – 9.5 cm/3.7 in
- Queen – 8.5 cm/3.34 in
- Bishop – 7 cm/2.76 in
- Knight – 6 cm/2.36 in
- Rook – 5.5 cm/2.16 in
- Pawn – 5 cm/1.96 in
Although some makers create differently-sized chess sets, the proportions must always stay the same. Now, let’s look into the top 5 best vintage chess sets that have shaped the game.
When chess players met for a game or a tournament, the common practice was to bring your chess set to the game. However, players would bring different chess sets, and others refused to participate – especially if the pieces were difficult to distinguish.
In 1984, Nathaniel Cook, the editor for The Illustrated London News, then designed easily identifiable chess pieces. The Pawn had a ball for a head, the Rook was a castle tower, and the Knight was a horse head.
Further, the Bishop had a miter, the Queen wears a coronet, and the King featured a crown with a cross on top. Additionally, the chess pieces were supported by a broad and sturdy base, providing enhanced stability during gameplay.
John Jaques, or Jaques of London, owned a woodcarving business and was Nathaniel Cooke’s brother-in-law. He created the first Jaques Staunton chess set. Later on, Howard Staunton, a famous chess player of the time, endorsed the chess set to the public.
This chess set’s simplicity and ease of play catapulted it into success. By the 1920s, the Staunton chess set became the standard used in tournaments by different international chess organizations.
The Dubrovnik chess set has had a significant impact on the game’s history. Before the 9th Chess Olympiad, the organization requested a re-design of new chessmen.
Pero Poček, a Yugoslavian sculptor and painter, was tapped to do the job. By 1950, he was able to produce 50 sets. Collectors seek after these sets as they’re rare and impossible to locate.
The major distinction between the Dubrovnik chess sets to the already famous Staunton chess sets was the omission of religious symbols on the pieces. The King’s cross, Queen’s coronet, and the Bishop’s miter were replaced with a small ball on top of the pieces.
Chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer favored the Dubrovnik chess sets and used them during his 1972 and 1992 matches with Boris Spassky. He won both games and declared that the Dubrovnik chessmen were the best sets he’s played with.
The Russian Zagreb chess set can be said to be a variant of the Staunton chessmen. Typically made from wood or ivory, it features a few twists.
One detail that sets it apart is its Knight. The horse’s head faces forward, which gives it a bold appearance. Additionally, the piece is sculpted to include a mane and tail in its design.
Aside from the Knight, the King, Queen, and Bishops have distinctive crowns and miters on their heads, often created with the opposing color.
These unique chess pieces were found (yes, they were literally just found) in 1831, on a beach in Lewis, Scotland. The Isle of Lewis is where it got its name. Today, 11 out of the 93 pieces are on permanent display in National Museums Scotland. The other 82 pieces are in the British Museum in London.
The dating of these pieces indicates that they were created at the very least during the 12 century. Each piece was made from walrus ivory or sperm whale teeth and is believed to have been designed with Nordic and Celtic influences in mind.
The chessmen are so detailed that they have carved-out, expressive faces. The kings and queens are seated on thrones. The Queens can be seen cradling their faces with their hands, while the Kings held swords across their laps.
Perhaps the most striking piece in the collection is the Knight, seen mounting a horse while wielding a spear and a shield.
This chess set is so fascinating that chess enthusiasts around the world travel just to see them in their displays.
The English Barleycorn chess set, also known as the English Bone chess set, is hand-carved from bone. They’re characterized by broad mid-sections, almost shaped like barrels.
Although cylindrical in appearance, the pieces maintained their shapes on the top. The English Barleycorn has its roots in the 18th century and has become widely popular primarily due to its elegance and intricacy.
Due to its easily recognizable design, chess enthusiasts and collectors try to seek out original chess sets. Today, the chess set is used for casual play or display.
Vintage chess sets hold a timeless appeal for both collectors and enthusiasts. Coming from India, the chessmen have gone through various revisions and craftsmanship.
The top five best chess sets represent unparalleled beauty and irreplaceable historical significance. Whether it’s the classic Staunton sets or the whimsical Lewis chess sets, each piece shows the artistry put into creating each piece that speaks of strategic brilliance.