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    

Rare Victorian Jaques Staunton Antique Chess Set Weighted 3.5" Library Set C1860Antique 19th Century Anglo Indian White And Red Stained Cow Bone Chess SetAntique Austrian Biedermeier Chess Set W.o. Inlayed Box, C.1840Antique Weighted Staunton Chess Set + BoxAntique German Gründerzeit Chess Set Schach Echecs C.1880Vintage Anri Italy Wood Modernist Chess Set Arthur Elliott Universum Space AgeVery Rare Medieval Chess Set Carved Figures Deep Red And Ivory Vintage Estate NrLego Games Castle Giant Chess Set Number 852293Genuine Anri Toriart Romans Vs Teutons Chess Set Wood Box 32 Hand Painted PiecesVintage Drueke Chess Set Full Set In Box 3.6" High KingVintage Drueke Co. Chess Set In Box 3 1/2" King No. 35-h Extra Heavy W/manual NrOld China Superb Wood Box With 1 Set Solders Shape Chess Paint Dragon Phoenix BxDrueke Chess Board 23 InchWonderful Complete Set Of Vintage Boxed Wooden Chessmen / Chess Pieces. BoxwoodVintage Staunton House Martin Boxwood Chess Set In Original Box. Circa 1940s VgcAuthentically Detailed Chess Set As Featured In Harry PotterAntique Chess Set "alice In Wonderland" Stone/resin 1966 In Box Great Studio Anne Carlton Shakespeare And The Globe Hand Decorated Chess Set *nrLego Vikings Chess Set, # 4499577, Brand New In Box With Sleeve, Great Present!Vintage Wooden Travel Chess SetBrass & Brushed Steel Metal Chess Set Pieces Complete - 2" King Staunton StyleA Set 32pcs Chinese Vintage Chess Set/box Xian Retro Terracota WarriorUsed Glass Chess Set - Free Shipping! No Reserve!Vintage Large Wooden Chess Set Gothic Sculptured Tournament Chess Set By Ganine. No. 1471 © Circa 1950's32 Metal Chess Complete SetHarry Potter Wizard Chess Set Complete Mattel 2009 Movie Collectible Board Game Peter Ganine 32 Piece Chess Set C 1947 - IvoryNew And Sealed Lego Pirates Chess Set 40158 Never Opened NewVintage Wood Carved Oriental Tile Greek Gods Themed Chess Board & Set Nudes2004 Star Wars Saga Edition Chess Set. NibExcalibur King Master Iii 3 Electronic Chess & Checkers Computer Board GameVintage - Antique? British Made Folding Chess Board 38.5cm Squares 43mmTransformers - A Parker Bros. Chess Set - Clean & CompleteSac, Studio Anne Carlton, Greek Mythology Chess SetGothic Sculptured Bakelite Chess Set By Ganine-1957 Staunton Carved Wood Chess Set In Wood Case Turnierschach Nr 5Vintage 6" Marble Wooden Travel Chess Set - Hand Carved - Stone Pieces Vintage Hand Made Wooden Box W/ Wooden Chess Set - Complete - PpVintage 1966 Napoleon Bonaparte Figural Collectors Series Chess Set Edition IiHarryhausen Chess Set #4: 4” Resin Figures Mini Statues In Original Boxes 2001X64 New Lego Plates 4x4 4 X 4 Black & White Baseplates Makes Chess Game BoardLego Castle Giant Chess Set (852293)Antique Wooden Chess Set W/board/box 1950's Era - Purchased In Korea During War!Cartoon Network Scooby-doo Board Game / Chess Set With Complete Pieces Ages 7 +New Handmade German Knights Staunton G.rosewood Chess Set - Free Shipping!!!!!!Wood Board Game Set 12 Book Classic Collection - Vol 1 Chess W Wooden Pieces NewBo Diddley - Bo Diddley -chess 3lp Box Set + 24 Pg Booklet Prev. Unissued & Alts31 Vintage Anri Renaissance Chess Set One Piece Missing 4 Inch KingVintage Wood Chess Set With Wood CaseOld Wooden Chess Board With Drawers And Chess Pieces Chinese 32 Pieces Chess Set/box/xian Terracota Warrior Wooden Chess Checker Game Set CompleteAlice In Wonderland Chess Set, Mpl Gifts & Games, British, 1994 Hamley's LondonWhittington Very Large Traveling Chess SetHignett 1927 Wonderful Beauty 50 Card Set " Beauties - Set 2 - Chess Issue "Stunning Unusual Scottish Scotland V's England Themed Chess Set Game PiecesMarble Chess Set CompleteChessman Summit Collection King Arthur Fantasy Chess Set Medieval TimesTroy Chess Set (20x20) / Bronze Chess Board

Recent News: Chess Sets

Source: Google News

William Styron Was Lit's Big Game Hunter
Daily Beast, April 17th

By and large, though, no one of his novels can be singled out and described as vintage Styron; each seems to have been written by a different author, the styles varying from the lyricism of Lie Down in Darkness to the taut, angry prose of The Long...Read more

Wildlife Shelter hosts annual auction event
Bainbridge Island Review (subscription), April 17th

Some of the premiere items up for auction are the the chance to be a NASCAR driver for a day, a five-night stay in Cancun, an antique ivory chess set, an original Johnpaul Jones sketch, a Weber premium charcoal grill, a variety of works by local...Read more

Walking down the streets of unseen eastern Cuba
Mashable, April 16th

On the other side of Cuba, away from the bustling streets and antique cars that decorate Havana, exists a more peaceful, less-developed landscape that few Americans have seen. Many cite eastern ... People play chess at a club in Santiago. The "Ajedrez ...Read more

Find your weekend fun in our events calendar
Poughkeepsie Journal, April 16th

Seventh annual Antique Appraisal Day — Cross Meeting Room, East Fishkill Community Library, 348 Route 376, Hopewell Junction. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. ... This is a group for adults interested in learning, improving and playing the game of chess. Game boards ...Read more

REDLANDS DAILY FACTS CALENDAR
Redlands Daily Facts, April 16th

Chess club: Redlands Chess Club meets 2 to 5 p.m. every Friday at Redlands Community Senior Center, 111 W. Lugonia Ave. Players of all ages are ...... For information, call 888-494-9044, visit VintageRedlands.com or like Vintage Redlands on Facebook...Read more

Columbia wood artisan fine-tunes his craft for Sugarloaf festival
Baltimore Sun, April 16th

At first glance, it seems obvious that the red, white, black and gold woods that adorn a custom creation — nicknamed "The Maryland Guitar" — got their color from a variety of stains. Not so. The curvy front of the electric guitar is actually inlaid...Read more

The Story Behind the Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines Cover Photo
American Songwriter, April 16th

Zeke Schein, a Robert Johnson enthusiast and guitar merchant who works at Matt Umanov Guitars in New York City's West Village, stumbled upon it back in 2005 while looking at vintage guitars on eBay. The photo was advertised as “Old Snapshot Blues...Read more

Vacant Brewster to become gathering space, restaurant
The Detroit News, April 14th

The facility will provide an area for community programming as well as office and headquarters space for the city's Slow Roll bicycle club and Detroit City Chess Club, they said. "The bones of this building have soul," said Catallo. Detroit-area...Read more