Antique and Vintage Chess Sets

Few board games can claim the same breadth of history as chess, which spans the globe, transcending borders and languages. It is taught to elementary school students, many of whom simply enjoy the shapes of the pieces, and also played by serious grandmasters, a title some say was first bestowed by Czar Nicholas II of Russia in 1914.

In many ways, the expansion of chess’s popularity has paralleled world events. The game required no common tongue, so when one empire conquered another, this war game was often passed from one army to another.

The game of chess as played in 6th-century India used a die to determine which figure would be moved. The pieces represented the king and his four military divisions: foot soldiers, cavalry, charioteers, and troops atop elephants. When the game later expanded into Persia, a wise man, which would later become what we now know as a queen, was added.

The Persian pastime soon spread to Arab nations, who checkmated the Persians in real battle in the 7th century. With the takeover came the appropriation of culture, including the passing of chess into the Arab world. The Arabs had a great deal of influence on the development of chess because of their strict Muslim beliefs that prohibited them from creating images of living things. Hence, the abstract designs of Arab chess pieces. Today, abstract design versus realistic representation is a major differentiator between collectible chess sets.

Middle Eastern chess pieces were normally carved from ivory, bone, or stone. Though they rarely come up for sale, a few of these 7th- and 8th-century chess sets still surface today. It wasn’t until the 10th century that chess boards were given dark and light squares.

Arab cultures introduced chess to the Western world. By the 16th century, rolling the die was a thing of the past, and the game essentially took the form it has today. Chess pieces from this period came in all shapes and sizes. Many were quite literal, depicting, for example, a king sitting on his throne or a knight riding a horse. Designers added even more variety by intricately carving the pieces from ivory, wood, and even glass.

While chess sets from the 18th century are prized by collectors, some of those from the 19th century are even more sought after. In 1849, Nathaniel Cooke designed the Staunton ch...

Staunton chess sets had semi-abstract pieces, though with ample differentiation between them—in the years leading up to the Staunton set, players often had trouble distinguishing rooks from knights. Capitalizing on Staunton’s fame, these sets quickly became the norm for tournaments, and most modern chess sets are modeled after them.

Jaques produced Staunton sets in both ivory and wood. The pieces came in various sizes, with the most common sets having a 3 ½-inch-tall king. While it is difficult to date many of these early Staunton sets, it isn’t too tough to ensure that a set is indeed a Staunton. The identifying marks are the small crowns stamped on the top of one of the rooks and knights of each color, indicating they are king-side pieces. Some of the kings also have an inscription reading “J. Jaques, London” on their bases.

Although the Staunton is the most famous chess set design (it is still used for tournaments today), it is by no means the only collectible type of set. Because chess is such a widely played game, collectors have a lot of choice. Some prefer ornamental sets, while others like to accumulate sets from a particular region of the world. Some go for sets made of one material, while others enjoy modern sets littered with pop-culture references.

Those who choose to collect by region have many options. You can collect Asian chess sets, which are almost exclusively made of ivory; fancier sets feature gold and silver. Some of the finest carved figures substitute Japanese samurai soldiers for knights and temples for rooks. Then there are the Indian sets, which have figures riding camels and elephants—an homage to the earliest form of the game played by its originators.

In the United Kingdom there have been dozens of memorable designs, such as the stone and ivory Calvert sets made between 1791 and 1840. Calvert sets were known for their pristine, sleek design and can be identified by their “Calvert 189 Fleet Stt” stamp. Another popular British style was St. George’s, which was common throughout the 19th century and featured ovals up and down the shafts of each piece.

Vintage chess sets from Germany, Austria, Poland, and the former Czechoslovakia also have their own styles, as do sets from the Philippines, locales in Africa, and various countries in Central and South America. Modern American and European sets, in contrast, are nearly identical, although there are slight variations—bishops are often jesters in France and runners in Germany.

In the 20th-century, the Cold War tensions between the United States and the USSR were played out on the chess board. Chess was a big deal in Eastern Europe long before the Cold War, and chess masters such as Boris Spassky, Anatoly Karpov, and Garry Kasparov were seen in the West as unassailable powerhouses—until Bobby Fischer appeared on the scene, the United States’ great chess hope. Fischer broke down the wall of Soviet chess dominance once and for all when he became the undisputed world chess champion from 1972 to 1975.

There is a wide variety of Russian and Soviet chess sets, often depending on the particular region where the set was made. In some sets, rooks are replaced by boats, while Russian sets in general are known for their spire tops. The Soviets were also pioneers in the use of plastic to make their chess pieces.

Today, most chess sets are plastic- and machine-made, but collectors look for sets whose pieces are made of porcelain, glass, stone, ivory, wood, and metal. In some cases, sets are hand-painted as well as hand-carved, making each piece a small work of art. In other cases, the relief on a piece is more functional, such as in sets that include Braille for unsighted players.

Another trend in contemporary chess sets is to use the game as a branding opportunity for entertainment franchises. There are wizarding chess sets based on images and events from the “Harry Potter” books and movies, as well as three-dimensional “Star Trek” chess sets.

If you love chess but aren’t in a position to collect chess sets, you can still marvel at their beautiful artistry. Various museums around the world that have numerous fine chess sets on display. These include the British Museum in London, The International Museum of Chess in Château de Clairvaux France, the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, the L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art in Jersusalem, and the Cleveland Public Library.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Chess Museum

Chess Museum

Many chess websites focus on the principles of the game and the tactics and strategies to help you win. Nicholas R.… [read review or visit site]

Museum of Talking Boards

Museum of Talking Boards

Prepare to enter the strange world of Ouija, the Wonderful Talking Board game, which captured imaginations en masse… [read review or visit site]

Elliot Avedon Games Museum

Elliot Avedon Games Museum

This in-depth University of Waterloo virtual exhibit showcases vintage games in a variety of categories, from class… [read review or visit site]

From Tomy to Coleco to Mattel and Nintendo, check out this collection of over 660 handheld and tabletop videogames … [read review or visit site]

Pong Story

Pong Story

David Winter's tribute to early video games, and to Ralph H. Baer, 'inventor of the video game.' Offers a detailed … [read review or visit site]

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique C 1890 Victorian Bone Staunton Pattern Chess Set In Box1960's Anri Montsalvat King Richard Hand Carved Wood Chess Set W/ Wood CaseVintage Drueke's Chess Set Complete Beautiful Inlaid Board 17"x17" Drueke 4"kingThe Parthenon Seroes Luxury Chess Set - 4.4" King - Blood RosewoodSaitek Mephisto Rosewood Chess Board 'exclusive' Electronic Computer Module MmviVintage Staunton Boxwood Chess Set Circa Early 1900sThe Buenos Aires 1927 Commemorative Luxury Chess Set - 4.4" King - RosewoodThe Parthenon Seroes Luxury Chess Set - 4.4" King - Blood RosewoodAnri Wooden Chess Set With Case Handpainted And Handcarved Made In Italy Antique Chess Board Inlaid In Walnut .New Novag Carnelian Ii Chess Computer Board Game With Batteries No Ac/dc AdaptorPewter American Revolutionary War Chess Set W/ Storage Board 17"The New York 1924 Commemorative Luxury Chess Set - 4.4" King - Genuine EbonyThe New York 1924 Commemorative Luxury Chess Set - 4.4" King - Genuine EbonyAntique 19th Century Cow Bone Chess Set Old English BarleycornRare Vintage 6 Piece Mary Chess Set Mini Perfume Bottles W/ Box (5 With Perfume)Antique Traveling Chess Board Box W/ Pieces C. 1820Howlin' Wolf The Chess Box Set 5-lp Vinyl + 32 Page Booklet32 Pc Frederick Remington Bronze Western Chess Set Cowboy & Native American '91Chess Board, Antique Inlaid Wooden Folk Art, Vintage Wood Checker BoardSpain Rechapados Ferrer Mahogany & Maple Classic Chess Board - 2.375" SquaresVintage Backgammon Checkers Chess Game Board Box Inlaid Wood Marquetry Nice!Nice Quality Large Old Wooden Chess Set Pieces No BoardChess Set Jaques? 19th C. Antique Traveling Mahogany CaseScooby-doo Chess Set In Metal Case NibA Vintage 1945 Tournament Lowe Chess Men Set Alice In Wonderland Needlepoint Chess Set With Playing PiecesVtg Anri Toriart Charlemagne Chess Set With Case Italy Complete 3-5/8" Tall KingHos House Of Staunton 4" Ebony Collector Ii Chess Set, Excl Cond, NrJaques? Royal? Sheffield? Suitan? Imperial? Rare Vintage Chess Set Star Wars Saga Edition Complete 2005 Chess Set -- All 32 Pieces And Board!Vtg 50s 60s Chad Valley Chessmen Wood Wooden Chess Pieces Men Set In BoxOld Vintage Chess Set - Handmade & Homemade €Vintage Game Board C.1920 Chess Carrom C No.1 Archarena Style E W. Orig Pieces +Mosaic Inlaid Chess Checkers Board Set Backgammon GameVintage,wooden Large Chess Set,carved Wood Complete Chess Set.lead WeightedStaunton House Liberty Series Laquered 4.0 Chess Box Set Ebony/natiral, NewVintage Wood Chess Board Folding Type And Large 2' Squares 17 1/2 X 17 1/2 Great Old Vintage Chess Set - Gallant Knight Chessmen Of Champions - Staunton Aliens Vs Predator Chess Set Autographed!Rare Chinese Dragon Wood Leather Box With 32 Chess Set MnLot Of 16 Classic Blues Cds + Chess Blues Boxed Set Of 4 Muddy Waters Bo DiddleyLarge Wooden Staunton Chess Set '60's VintageHandsome Chess Or Checker Board Wood Inlay. Vintage Gameboard. NrVintage Drueke Luxury Line Weighted Feltbase Chess Set In Wood Box/boardStar Wars Saga Edition Chess Set By Parker Brothers New Lucas Film LimitedOld Etched Copper-plated Chess Board 15'' Lord Of The Ring Fellowship Of The Ring Chess SetWood Chess Pieces (light & Dark)..full Board..gently Used!Harry Potter Final Challenge Chess SetHand-blown Glass Chess Full Set - Pieces Only - One Of A KindVintage 1962 Peter Ganine Conqueror Sculptured Chess Set Made In Usa CompleteStar Wars Episode Ii: Attack Of The Clones Chess Set "nice" Complete!!Rare Chinese Dragon Wood Leather Box With 32 Chess SetEstate Find Wooden Chess Set W Carved Wooden Pieces And Folding BoardTravel Magnetic Chess Checkers Board Game Set Pocket Metal Pieces Leatherette Fs Reynard The Fox Vintage Chess Set With Board NibComplete Khatam (marquetry) Chess Board, Isfahan, Iran, Persian.Lego Chess Set G678 Castle Knight KingdomVintage Mib 1961 Gothic Sculptured Chess Set By Ganine 1475 Salon Edition

Recent News: Chess Sets

Source: Google News

Museum exhibits for the week ahead
Burlington County Times, April 16th

Mercer Museum, "Playing Together: Games," through May 11; focal point is over-sized chess board with giant pieces; also, invent your own games. Original board games from the 1800s to the 1900s from the Judy and ..... Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts...Read more

Luke McCall Named Welsh Young Musical Theatre Singer Of The Year 2014
Broadway World, April 16th

(the title song from the musical biography of Scottish bard Robbie Burns), Rodgers and Hart's Babes In Arms vintage ballad "Where Or When", Kooman and Dimond's comic tour de force "To Excess" (from Homemade Fusion) and "Anthem" (from Chess)...Read more

Port Gamble gears up for expanded fabrics festival | Port Gamble Gazette
Kingston Community News, April 16th

Kris Cornell of Quilted Strait is excited to add an antique sewing machine collection to be on display in the basement of St. Paul's Church. ... 7 Books to install a large interactive chess set on the exterior grounds of the book store this summer...Read more

Hassan's Tale | Part 1 – The Mountain is a Muslim
MuslimMatters, April 15th

He was also an avid pottery collector who travelled all over the world collecting antique pieces. And he was the man who had helped Hassan set ... The large, Spanish-style house was stunningly decorated with some of the antique vases and urns that Dr...Read more

In Montclair, Poor Richard's treasures from the past, April 15th

Tom Amann, Rick's on-staff craftsman who spent 72 hours meticulously restoring an antique chess table, discovered that he and the owner were related distantly through ancestors who came over on the Mayflower. That board has become a connection...Read more

See Rare Vintage Photos of Cuba Before the Revolution
Reporter-Times, April 14th

Ernesto "Che" Guevara playing chess with his escort and fellow sugar cane harvesters with his 1959 Chevrolet in the background. Central Morón, Camagüey, 1964. 5 of 9. Cuba Then/The Monacelli Press. Celia Cruz wearing a dress by Cuban-born designer ...Read more

Chess Candidates round 9: Vintage Anand beats Topalov
Firstpost, March 23rd

Round eight report: Five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand gave jitters to his fans before signing an early draw with top seed Levon Aronian of Armenia in the eighth round of Candidates chess tournament. File photo of Viswanathan Anand. AFP...Read more

Limits on Ivory Sales, Meant to Protect Elephants, Set Off Wide Concerns
New York Times, March 20th

Floyd Sarisohn, a lawyer from Commack, N.Y., said he will be blocked from auctioning any of the hundreds of chess sets with antique ivory pieces he has spent decades collecting. Mike Clark, owner of Collectors Firearms in Houston, said he fears he...Read more