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    

Anri Wooden Chess Set With Case Handpainted And Handcarved Made In ItalyVintage Anri Hand Carved & Painted Chess Set In Original Wood BoxVintage Hand-carved African Wooden Chess Set. Handmade From Black Wood/mahoganyAntique Staunton Chess Set, Boxwood And EbonyThe Parthenon Series Luxury Chess Set - 4.4" King - Genuine EbonyThe New York 1924 Commemorative Luxury Chess Set - 4.4" King - Blood RosewoodChess Set, Combatant Ebony19th Century Travel Chess Set With Stained Cow Bone Pieces, Complete & FantasticThe Chess Store, 4" King Staunton Set - Golden Rosewood & Ebonized Pieces - 4q!!The British Chess Company - Royal Series Luxury Chess Set - 4.25" King7 In 1 Game Set: Chess, Backgammon, Checkers, Cribbage, Dominoes & CardsBrass Metal Chess Pieces Full Set L@@kLego Vikings Chess Set Complete In Excellent Condition Retired ToyChess Board Game Set Folding 16 Inch Rank And File Abc Inlaid Wood Wooden PiecesAntique Primitive Folk Art Wooden Chess Board Checker Wood Hand MadeChess Checkers Backgammon Game Set Grid Board - 10.5 In Brown 3in1 Wood FoldingVintage 1984 Duncan Tournament Chess Set Mold Dm-688 (1 Of 2) Ceramic, Slip-castRare Vintage Carved Wood Boxed Staunton Boxwood Chess Set By House MartinReally Old Wood Chess Set In Old Wood BoxAharon Bezalel Chess Set From JerusalemWooden Magnetic Travel Chess Set - 12" SquareDgt Bluetooth Electronic Chess Board Missing One White And Black PawnVintage Hand Carved Wood Chess Set Pieces W BoxChess Board Game Set Magnetic Rounded Folding 8 Inch Inlaid Wood Wooden PiecesVintage Drueke Chess Set No. 36 Ex Heavy W/ Original Dovetail Box 3 1/2" KingRare Drueke Model 61 Wooden Chess Checkers Board Solid Walnut & Birch Excellent1970 Modernist Brutalist Chess Set Sculpture Mid-century-modern Evans Jere EamesMattel Harry Potter Wizard Chess Family Board Game CompleteVintage Carved Wood/wooden Chess Set W/box Stauton Type Antique Chess Board Inlaid Woods Nice QualityStar Wars Saga Edition 2005 Chess Set -- All 32 Pieces And Board!Chinese 32 Pieces Chess Set/box/xian Terracota WarriorChess Board Game Set 13 Inch 4 Drawer Inlaid Wood Storage Wooden Pieces Games FsVintage Hand Carved Wooden Chess Set--wood Board And Wood Chess Pieces.Rare Chinese Dragon Wood Leather Box With 32 Chess Set MnVintage Staunton Boxwood Chess Set House Martin Complete Wooden PiecesAjedrez Chess Set Collectible Wooden Box Board With 18 & 24 Karat Gold FoilQuadruple Weight Chess Game Set Green Board Natural Pieces Tournament Brand NewChess Set, All Wood- Box & Portable.Antique Egyptian Chess SetChess Set Antique Chess Board With Modern Vasa-style Acrylic Chess Pieces Staunton Chess Set From Italy!Harry Potter Wizard Chess Set Mattel 43533 Complete In Box Euc Game8"x8" Beautiful Marble Chess Set India Handmade Marble Pieces Travel Gifts PlayRare Tonino Lamborghini Chess Set!!Vintage 1984 Duncan Tournament Chess Set Mold Dm-689 (2 Of 2) Ceramic, Slip-castNice Vintage C1959 E.s. Lowe Renaissance Chess Set W/box/board/book Nice!Vintage Renaissance Chessmen Entire Chess Set By E.s. Lowe Boxed 4-3/4" KingsChinese 32 Pieces Chess Set/box/xian Terracota Warrior Free ShippingClassic Marina (rose) & Black Marble Chess Set Board Package 3" King Reg.$129.95 In-n-out Burger Chess & Checkers Set In Orginal Box Harry Potter Chess SetHowlin' Wolf 3 Cd Box Set (71 Songs) "howlin' Wolf S/t" Chess Records SealedBeautiful Vintage Handmade Wooden Chess Game Board Box Table Carved Wood Piece Travel Magnetic Chess Checkers Board Game Set Pocket Metal Pieces Leatherette Fs12"x12" Marble Chess Set In Blue Velvet BoxMagnetic Chess Set, Brand NewDarby Mint Fantasy Of The Crystal Pewter Chess SetViking Celtic Museum Replica Chess Pieces Complete SetAntique German Chess Set With Box By Steinberg, Hamburg With Antique Board

Recent News: Chess Sets

Source: Google News

Around the Towns
Commons, April 23rd

The format for the tournament at the RFPL is “Vintage.” The tournament is an extension of ... The library also has a collection of tabletop games available in the library, and now hosts a weekly chess club on Thursday afternoons. For more information...Read more

RFPL to host Magic: The Gathering tournament
Brattleboro Reformer, April 23rd

The library has for more than 10 years hosted a weekly night of role-playing games for teenagers. The library also has a collection of tabletop games available and now hosts a weekly chess club on Thursday afternoons. ... items, and creatures depicted...Read more

Greer area news briefs
Greenville News, April 22nd

Volunteers needed. ?Greer Relief is seeking volunteers for The Vintage Market at the Park from 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m. and 1-4:30 p.m. May 10. Contact Michelle .... The Greater Greer Chess Club meets from 6:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays. Players of all skill levels...Read more

Lib at Large: Sausalito grapples with a floating 'dock of the bay' christened ...
Marin Independent Journal, April 20th

Diamond, who lives on a World War II vintage Navy vessel in the Sausalito Yacht Harbor, was not unfamiliar to the police chief. She thought back to the 2011 July Fourth holiday, when ... It isn't a political chess piece. He doesn't realize he's...Read more

Garcia Marquez, Rushdie and our 'magical' realities
The Asian Age, April 19th

The Antillean refugee Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, disabled war veteran, photographer of children, and his most sympathetic opponent in chess, had escaped the torments of memory with the aromatic fumes of gold cyanide.” With these words, the reader is...Read more

Undead Hipsters And An Abstract Alien Star In Two Arty Horror Pics
WUNC, April 18th

His vampires think longingly of the age of Lord Byron, and Adam has a reverence for vintage guitars. I think there's a note of self-satire here, that Jarmusch is ... They hang out, play chess, lick blood popsicles. (SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ONLY LOVERS LEFT ...Read more

Made in St. Louis: Local artist embellishes her paintings, April 18th

These may be vintage jewelry, crystals, fiber, ribbon, decorative or handmade paper or wood pieces. I believe it adds a three-dimensional quality that makes it unique. Do you use reclaimed items in your artwork? • Yes. I use cabinet doors, old chess...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