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]

Electronic Plastic

Electronic Plastic

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 19thc English Cow Bone Barley Corn Pattern Playing Chess Set C1830 - 50Antique Vintage Bakelite Complete Chess Set Toys Game Pieces Red Yellow Box Chess Set 1962 Austin EnterprisesVery Unusual Shaped Carved & Turned Antique Chess Set 1800's No Reserve Antique Victorian Boxwood Ebony Staunton Jaques Chess Set Cooke Andersen KnightAntique Red & White Stained Cattle Bone Chess Set C1890 Complete With 32 Pieces.1962 Austin Cox Alcoa Chess Set With Walnut Blue Plastic Cover Box + Felt BoardMettlach Beer Stein #2049 Chess King Chessboard And Knight Villeroy & BochGorgeous Vintage Mid-century Modern Acrylic Chess Set - Clear Vs Cobalt Blue Antique French Regency Regence Chess Set Big Size Boxwood C1890. Bakelite Chess Set In Original Box,vtg Vgc,complete,red&ivoryFranklin Mint Civil War Chess Set Pewter NiceLord Of The Rings - Very Rare - Eaglemoss Chess Set 3 The War Of The RingLord Of The Rings - Very Rare - Eaglemoss Chess Set 3 The War Of The RingEnglish Turned Antique Carved Bone Chess Set Of 31 Pieces "as Is"A Large Antique Chinese Finely Carved & Dyed Chess Piece With A Lotus Finial.Vintage 1959 E.s. Lowe Renaissance Chess Set Complete W/ Box Brown Tan Leather1966 Austin Enterprises Chess SetSwarovski 32 Piece Silver Crystal Chess Set Antique Cow Bone Travel Chess Set + BoxChinese Dragon Phoenix Flower Bird Wood Leather Box Chess Set 32 Pieces Free NrVintage Italian Vasari Chess Set - Early Medieval Or Viking ThemedDisney Hidden Mickey Alice In Wonderland Chess Set Pins Complete SetLovely V Large Full Size Vintage Louis Xiv Of France Chess Set Chessmen Pieces Disney Hidden Mickey Peter Pan Chess Set Pins Complete SetVintage Adolf Jerger Made In Germany Wind Up Chess ClockVintage Peter Ganine Chess Set Gothic No 1475 Salon Ed. Sculpted Carved MedievalCarved Ornate Alice In Wonderland Chess Set With Hand Carved BoardVintage Metal Folk Art Chess Set Spanish Flamenco Guitars Castanets Nuts & BoltsAll 32 Synek Pewter Chess Pieces 1972Vintage Italfama Italy Florentine Theme Metal Brass Chess PiecesChinese Dark Green Hetian Nephrite/jade China Chess SetAlice In Wonderland Chess Set PiecesWooden Inlay Chess Board - 20" X 20" - OlderLego Kingdoms Chess Set Unopened But Old Karim Rashid Chess Set- BozartAntique Mahogany Travel Chess Board - Jaques?Oop Clan Mid-nor Chess Set BoxLego Vikings Chess Set #g577-1 Collectors (all Original Pieces) 2006Vintage Chess SetVintage Alabaster Chess Set Wooden Travel Case C.1960's Decorative Retro ChicEaglemoss Marvel Hawkeye Chess Piece With BookletPeruvian Wooden Chess Board Set - Handmade Inkas Vs Spaniards (made In Perú)32-piece Chess Set With Folding Wood Game Board BoxDisney Pins Complete Set Of Hidden Mickey Peter Pan Chess Pieces Rare HtfChinese 32 Pieces Chess Set Leather Wood Box Board & Traditional Game Nr25Vintage 3m Bookshelf Classic Wooden Chess Game Set Early 1970's Lego G577 Vikings Chess Set 2006Buffy The Vampire Slayer The Chess Set Unique Hand Painted Chess Set - Mint ConditionAlice In Wonderland Chess Set Complete With Engraved Wood Board - 3.5" KingAlice In Wonderland Chess Pieces By Adam's Apple (2002) No Board - Pcs OnlyVintage Handicrafted Hellenic Chess Metal Pieces; Nice!Vintage Carved Wood Chess Set W Original Carved Board Case Avon Chess Pieces Complete Set 32 Pieces(m) Polymer Chess Set In Wood Traveling CaseX64 New Lego Plates 4x4 4 X 4 Black & White Baseplates Makes Chess Game BoardChh Chh2127c Dragon Chess Set Retail $176.203 Player Chess Set1947 Kingsway Florentine Chessman Royal Game Of Chess Set W/ Case

Recent News: Chess Sets

Source: Google News

Hotels add layer of luxe and fun to Cape island stays
Boston Globe, July 3rd

NANTUCKET — Punky, the blinking, mobile steampunk whale, will greet you in the lobby of The Nantucket Hotel and Resort. Should you so choose, you can arrive there from the ferry wharf on an antique fire engine. You can also opt to hop aboard an...Read more

Jimmie Vaughan's Family Style Has Never Been Stronger
Houston Press, July 3rd

This year, that's Jimmie Vaughan: master guitarist, sharp-dressed man and embodiment of a certain brand of Texas cool signified by jet-black shades, slicked-back hair and vintage hot rods like his 1963 chopped Buick Riviera. .... In the mid-'70s...Read more

Making Magic: Joe Manganiello Dishes on His Magic Mike Bromances, Falling ...
Haute Living, July 3rd

it's true—chess tournaments. At an acting class he once attended, he was made to sit in the middle of the room while his peers yelled out their first impressions of him. “I got 'Rides a motorcycle!' and 'Drinks beer!' and 'Gets into bar fights...Read more

New Feelgood Festival launches in Huyton this summer
Liverpool Echo, July 3rd

Prescot Museum will be on site with a range of vintage toys and board games, including chess and old favourites like Astro Wars and Top Trumps. The Reader Organisation and Knowsley's Libraries service will also be at the festival, recommending the best ...Read more

Top five things to do this weekend: July 3-5
Waikato Times, July 2nd

Gallagher Centre for Performing Arts at the University of Waikato will be the base for the weekend-long NZ Junior MindsportsTriathlon, where the some of the country's brightest minds will battle it out over chess, draughts, scrabble, backgammon, sudoku...Read more

The business of history at Lyon's Head Antique Mall
Suncoast News, July 1st

Among myriad antiques for sale are century-old reading glasses, silverware, plates, figurines, cameras, concert posters, postcards, watches, tools, sewing machines, toys, chess sets, jewelry, cigar boxes, furniture, tools, autographed sports relics...Read more

Magnus Carlsen's ratings crash, June 29th

The Grand Chess Tour winner will claim the $75,000 first prize from a $150,000 bonus pool, which is in addition to the $1,050,000 (£670,000) in prize money at stake in the three events. ... Topalov looked like vintage Topalov; Magnus was unrecognizable...Read more

Battle on the Board: Chess during World War II
PR Newswire (press release), June 25th

The vintage chess pieces, artifacts, photographs and prints will be exhibited on the third floor. Battle on the Board opens on June 25 and runs through January 17, 2016. Admission to the World Chess Hall of Fame is free with a $5 per person recommended ...Read more