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 Vintage 3 3/4 Inch Weighted Jaques London Chess Set With BoxMint Wooden Hand Painted Anri Motsalvat Chess Set In Wooden Box With BoardAntique Chess Set Quality Carved Large Unusual English Bone Pieces Circa 1800Lego Castle Giant Chess Set (852293) 100% Complete, Excellent ConditionAntique Chess Board Folding Book Tooled Leather History England C1880 BoxMid Century Modern Hermann Ohme Wooden Chess Set MinimalistVintage Jaques Of London Mahogany Travelling Chess SetBeautiful Antique Well Carved Antique Cow Bone Chess Set Circa 19001947 1957 Gothic Sculptured Chess Set By Ganine No. 1471 Tournament EditionAntique Jaques Of London Staunton Chess Set 1800'sAntique Chess Set Boxwood Ebony Large Staunton Pattern Weighted Bases Circa 1900The Chesterfield Series Luxury Chess Set - 4.4" King - Genuine Ebony And NaturaNintendo Super Mario Chess Set Collector's EditionNapoleon Chess SetAntique Staunton Pattern Chess SetCowboys And Indians Hand Carved Wood Chess Set ~ Ooak ~ Rustic Folk Western ArtThe Preston Series Luxury Chess Set - 4.4" King - Blood Rosewood And BoxwoodSaitek Capella Electronic Chess Game With Wood Board And PiecesThe Lucca Series Luxury Chess Set - 4.4" King - Blood Rosewood And Natural BoxwMayan Calendar Chess Set Board Mexico Aztec Vintage Rare Hand Carved Stone WoodThe Leningrad Series Chess Set - 4.0" King - Golden Rosewood And Natural BoxwoodRosewood & Maple Wood Deluxe Chess Game Board 2.125" SquaresAntique German Chess Set. Classic Look. Wood And Felted Pieces. Complete6"x6" Marble Stone Pieces Chess Set Handmade Ebony Gorara Play & Gifts NewItalian Brass Metal Chess Set Vintage Medieval Chess Set Dragons And Knights Legendary Chess Board Free Shipping1962 Austin Enterprise Chess Set Large Vintage Ussr Full Chess Set In Original Card Box C1973Chess Board Game Set Magnetic Rounded Folding 8 Inch Inlaid Wood Wooden Pieces1.5" Italian Marble Rare Chess Set Handmade Pieces Decorative Beautiful GiftsThe Arrezo Series Luxury Chess Set - 4.4" King - Blood Rosewood And Natural BoxwThe Teramo Series Luxury Chess Set - 4.4" King - Blood Rosewood And BoxwoodDoc Holliday Slip Cast Plaster Ceramics Mold Pirate Chess Set - SsaLego Kingdoms Chess Set- Excellent Condition W/manual Lego Chess Board / Chess Set With Super Hero And Evil Mini-figures6" Marble Chess Set Handmade Ebony Gorara Stone Pieces Wooden Box Travel GiftsAntique Jonchettes Jonchet Pieces A Quantity Chess Interest SetAntique Chinese Carved Chess Set Nineteenth Century 82 PiecesVintage Sculptured Gothic Chess Set By Peter Ganine - 1947-1957 UsaChinese Wood Leather Box With 32 Pieces Chess Set Free ShippingNew! Chinese 32 Pieces Chess Set/box/xian Terracota WarriorSpain Rechapados Ferrer Black & Erable Deluxe Chess Board - 2.125" SquaresWood Carve Immortal Fine Horse Chess Pieces Precious A Set Of Chess ManualOrig. 1983~pewter~civil War Chess Set~national Historical Society~ex. Cond.~no/rAntique Vintage Carved Wood Wooden Chess Set Pieces6" Marble Chess Set Handmade Ebony Gorara Stone Pieces Wooden Box Travel GiftsVintage Chinese Emperors Faux Ivory Chess Set 4 1/4" + Board 16"Vintage 1963 Classic Games Co Chess Set Ancient Rome Complete Unused!Isle Of Lewis Chess Set-9 In.Street Fighter 25th Anniversary Chess Set New Sealed (rare Item) Mx72401Vintage Wood Chess Board6" Marble Chess Set Handmade Ebony Gorara Stone Pieces Wooden Box Travel GiftsThe Ercolano Series Luxury Chess Set - 4.4" KingWooden Chess Set W Wood Hinged Box - 11" X 11" - 2", 3" Pieces6" Marble Chess Set Handmade Ebony Gorara Stone Pieces Wooden Box Travel GiftsVintage 3-d Chess Set With 3 Acrylic Chess Boards & Metal FrameHouse Of Staunton Plastic Chess SetExcalibur Phantom Force Talking & Self Moving Chess Set In Box With ManualNew Harry Potter Wizard Chess Set Game W/t Box. Sealed Exclusive Collectors SetVintage Antique Large Asian Chinese Oriental Hand Carved Chess Piece Set

Recent News: Chess Sets

Source: Google News

Gallery: National Trust hosts 1930s themed party celebrating the 75th ...
East Anglian Daily Times, July 28th

The two-day event featured an art exhibition from the Suffolk Open Studios with work inspired by Sutton Hoo, as well as music, dancing, theatre, puppets and vintage cars. There were also craft stalls, a 1930s costume exhibition, a series of ... of its...Read more

10 vintage moments at the Royal International Horse Show [H&H VIP]
Horse & Hound, July 27th

“It's like a game of chess,” said Peter. As often happens with a strong opening contender, the following riders were cornered into making mistakes, including Ben Maher with Robin Hood W. This pair hit the first fence but motored on to chase the decent...Read more

Rocker Jack White goes in depth with music writer Brian McCollum
Detroit Free Press, July 26th

The setting: White's personal office at Third Man, where he's smoking cigarillos (“I don't inhale”) and music is playing distantly in the background, amid a room of funky knickknacks, animal heads and Americana, including an antique stereopticon device...Read more

Pearl S. Buck home, story inspire visitors
Memphis Commercial Appeal, July 26th

After making sure the children were off to school, she'd write from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Then, she would spend the rest of the day running the household, helping the children with homework or teaching them other skills, including playing chess, the...Read more

HOTEL / PHILLIPS : Paul Passig Helps / Create Memorable Events
Camp KC, July 25th

Click For Full Size When it comes to hospitality, Paul Passig can do just about anything. He's the food and beverage manager at the Hotel Phillips, 106 W. 12th St., in Kansas City, Mo., but his true passion is decorating for and setting up events...Read more

Port Huron Times Herald, July 23rd

Activities, crafts, entertainment, fireworks, Soap Box Derby, antique tractor show, food. Complete schedule: (810) 387-9523. Free admission. St. Clair Riverfest and River Classic Offshore Race: Friday-Sunday. Carnival games and ...Read more

Artwork by veteran animator Harold Whitaker snapped up at Stroud Auction Rooms
Gloucestershire Echo, July 23rd

The next sale at Stroud Auction Rooms is on Wednesday, August 13 and Thursday, August 14 when the specialist sections will feature guns and weapons, taxidermy, medals and militaria, toys, chess sets and antique games. Viewing will be on Tuesday, ...Read more

10 candidates vie for Auglaize County Junior Fair King and Queen
Sidney Daily News (subscription), July 22nd

He is a recent graduate of St. Marys Memorial High School and plans to attend the University of Cincinnati. His nominating organization is 4-H, with which he has been a member for 13 years. He has been involved in National Honor Society, band and chess ...Read more