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    

Large Antique Chinese Cantonese Puzzle Ball Cow Bone Chess Set No ReserveAntique Jaques Wood Chess Set And Jaques Chess BoardFine Championship Staunton Ebony Boxwood Weighted Chess Set 105mm King 4x QueensAntique Jaques Chess Set 1851 - 52 In The Original Carton Pierre CasketAntique Inlaid Mahogany Ebony Chess Board Folding & Box Good Size C1890Antique 'old English' Pattern Chess SetAntique Whittington 6 Inch Travelling Chess Set, Complete Original, Very NiceLego Games Castle Giant Chess Set (852293)Antique Austrian Coffee House Chess Set W. Box, Échecs, Schach, C.1900Fine Antique Art Deco Chess Set And Chess BoxDisney Parks Animal Kingdom Wdw Gala Star Kumbula Africa Hand Painted Chess SetAn Antique Inlaid Wooden Double Sided Games Board..chess..draughts..jaques & SonSet Of Metal Chess Pieces Made In IndiaVintage Classic Games Ancient Rome Collector's Series Chess Set Edition 1Lego 852001: Castle Chess SetNovag Citrine Chess SetAntique Hand Carved & Painted "villagers" Chess Set. Austria Germany Folk ArtVintage Anri Spacer Age Chess SetLot Of Antique Hand Carved Chess Set Pieces Replacement Barleycorn Style Old Antique Hand-painted Porcelain Chess Set, Dresden / German, With Board, SignedVintage Wood Chess Board Inlaid England 20 1/2 Inches CheckersAntique French Regence Chess Set + BoxVintage Chess Board Mephisto And Modul Mm Iv Modul Hg440 And DisplayLego Castle Giant Chess Set (852293) - Unopened! Phantom Fidelity International Chess Set 6100 W/ Original Box Chess Set Vintage Bone Ivory Colored Cow Chinese Carved Figural Antique Asian Hand Made Vintage Mexican Bone Pulpit Chess SetWood Carved Chess Set With Walnut Storage Box-excellent!Decorative Unique Handmade / Etched Chess Set And Inlaid BoardVintage 1950s French Wood Chess Set In Original Wooden BoxLego Knights Kingdoms Chess Set- 28 Minifigure Set Adult OwnedLego Castle Chess Set - LotVintage #1475 - Gothic Medieval Large Chess Complete Set Peter Ganine SculpturedLego Vikings Set #g577 Vikings Chess Set - Released In 2006 - DiscontinuedGothic Sculptured Chess Set By Ganine Tournament Edition # 1475 Copyright 1957Vintage Spanish Pewter Metal Chess Set Bust Type Bronze Moors Vs Christians 32 PVintage 50s /60s French Wooden Chess Pieces Men Set In Pine BoxVintage Complete Chess Set Hand-carved Fitted Velvet Lined Wood BoxAntique Vtg Hand Made Persian Khatam Chess And Backgammon Board Box 20x20x1.5Chess Table / SetHarry Potter Final Challenge Chess SetRajasthan Stone Art Unique Chess Sets And Board Size 12 X 12 Inches Greek Die Cast Chess SetChess Board Handcrafted Walnut, Curly Maple - Sweet Hill Wood 1-1/2" SquaresJ704) Vintage 1959 Renaissance Lowe Chess Set #832 15th Cent. Sculpture StyleFolding Wooden Backgammon 15.7'' / 40cm Checkers Chess Set Classic Travel BoardStar Wars Saga Edition Chess SetHandmade Chess Set And Folding Board Nor! Great Detail Dont Miss This!Vintage 1950s Italian Heavy Plastic Medieval Chess Set Scarce Reds & WhitesHarry Potter Wizard Chess Set Mattel 2002 Complete With Instructions!Mandarin Figures Chess Set - Vintage?Peruvian Conquistadors And Incas Chess Set **very Rare** From PeruStar Wars Saga Edition Chess Pieces (full Set) 2005J703) Vintage 1962 Conqueror Sculptured Chess Set Ganine Pacific W Box, No BoardComplete Vtg Gallant Knight Florentine Design Chess Set 4” Tall King W/board Austin Enterprises 1962 Aluminum Chess Set Mid Century Modern - AlcoaVintage Spoldzielnia Rzemieslnicza Poland Hand Carved Chess SetVintage Hand Made Wood Chess Board Checker Board Nice Size Quality WoodNice Wood Chess Set (blue And Tan) With Travel-hinged Board Early Antique Travel Chess Set

Recent News: Chess Sets

Source: Google News

Stacey Dash slammed for comments about women at frat parties, January 30th

(She insists it's just a "chess move".) But what got the blog Jezebel and Twitter talking was her response to the decision by the national chapters of sororities at the University of Virginia to ban members from attending this weekend's frat parties...Read more

Couple hinges new shop on gallery, gifts and framing
Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber (subscription), January 30th

Interspersed are several wooden decorative pieces, geometric-shaped vases that hold air plants, magic wands and a chess set, all of which Brent, trained as an oil painter at the Art Institute of Chicago, carved by hand. The husband-wife duo moved to...Read more

Broadway Is Getting Its Own Rad Festival This Weekend
LAist, January 29th

and magic shows at the Million Dollar Theatre; a String Theory performance at the Orpheum Theatre, where musicians and dancers will transform the entire space into gigantic music instruments; and chessboxing at the Tower Theatre, which is exactly...Read more

Written by Patriot Staff
Barnstable Patriot, January 29th

Decorate a vintage crate; learn the basics of scrapbooking; create jewelry; make a custom canvas and lots more. ..... Children's Chess Club meets Wednesdays at 11:15 a.m., for kids who know the basics of chess and just want to play the game. You're ...Read more

Hard work helped by early technology
Farm and Dairy, January 28th

By the way, chessboard made me wonder, since I had never heard the term before, except in reference to the game. Webster's Dictionary says chess, also known as cheat, is one of several brome grasses, usually considered a weed. I learn something new ...Read more

Montgomery County community events, Jan. 29-Feb. 5, 2015
Washington Post, January 28th

1-3 p.m. Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Rd., Gaithersburg. 301-258-6394. $25; registration required. Potomac Chess Group Participants of all ages and skill levels are invited to learn how to play or improve their game. Visitors can bring a chess board. 3-5...Read more

In Full Bloom: Georgia May Jagger Stars in Mulberry's Spring Campaign
InStyle, January 27th

In the rest of the series, the 23-year-old beauty is seen among a variety of antique objects including a vintage bicycle, chess board, silver tea set, and a tufted ottoman—all while showing off stunning leather handbags designed by the brand. Check...Read more

Vintage photos of games people played in N.J., January 26th

Whether tossing your first ringer in horseshoes, having a really long badminton rally or finally beating the person who always won at chess, some of our fondest memories were from the games we played. Here's a gallery of the games and pastimes people ...Read more