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.

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Recent News: Chess Sets

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Community calendar from April 28
Troy Record, April 27th

There will be exhibitors, vendors, musical tunes on vintage instruments by Friends Union, House Tours, Exhibits, Scavenger Hunt, Raffle. Free admission ... We provide chess boards, Dominion, Munchkin, and Ticket to Ride with its USA 1910 Expansion Pack...Read more

Coming Events
My Eastern Shore, April 27th

Plants, baked goods, vintage fashion accessories, raffle of a garden bench and more. ... Planes of all types will fly in and antique cars will drive in. .... Thursdays — Chestertown Chess Club — 7 to 11 p.m., Play It Again Sam, 108 S. Cross St...Read more

125 years of saving places
Gloucester Daily Times, April 27th

“There will be two giant chess and checker sets, put on in giant-, Alice in Wonderland-style,” Marshall says. “There will be croquet at the casino, ... Most of those who attend the gala at Appleton Farms will reach the event on a train, which will...Read more

Find your weekend fun in our events calendar
Poughkeepsie Journal, April 27th

Bruce Gimelson will provide valuations of collectibles, antique toys, household items, memorabilia, paintings, other decorative arts and furniture. He is also proficient ... Chess grandmaster visit — College Center, Vassar College, 12 Raymond Ave...Read more

Play Games, Drink Cocktails, and Eat Sundaes at Radiator in Logan Circle
Washington City Paper (blog), April 27th

Radiator is the latest bar to indulge Washingtonians' Peter Pan syndrome with "life-sized" Connect Four, Jenga, and ice cream sundaes. The Kimpton restaurant, attached to the new Mason & Rook Hotel, opens in Logan Circle on April 28. The global menu ...Read more

What's Happening: 04/27
Cecil Whig, April 26th

CECIL COUNTY CHESS CLUB, 6 to 8 p.m. almost every Wednesday at St. Mary Anne's Episcopal Church, 315 S. Main St., North East. Contact John Anderson ... Chances on an antique steamer trunk will be available for purchase. Lecture is $5 or free for ...Read more

What's happening Wednesday in Oroville
Oroville Mercury Register, April 26th

Bolt's Antique Tool Museum: 10 a.m.-3:45 p.m. Museum; 12,000 tools, auto items, kitchen utensils and more. Bud Bolt. 1650 Broderick St. Admission: $3 adult; under 12 free. Group tour appointments, 538-2528; museum, 538-2406. Monday-Saturday; Sunday ...Read more

redbankgreen, April 26th

04.29 - Chess for kids at MTPL Middletown Township Public Library invites ages 6 and up to learn the planning, confidence, patience and fun of playing chess from other young players, in a weekly Friday session. 04.30 - 31st Annual Spring Beach Sweeps...Read more