I had not intended for this to be such a chess heavy week, but here’s a brief, but informative, essay on the history of the design of chess pieces:
Prior to 1849, there was no such thing as a “normal chess set.” At least not like we think of it today. Over the centuries that chess had been played, innumerable varieties of sets of pieces were created, with regional differences in designation and appearance. As the game proliferated throughout southern Europe in the early 11th century, the rules began to evolve, the movement of the pieces were formalized, and the pieces themselves were drastically transformed from their origins in 6th century India. Originally conceived of as a field of battle, the symbolic meaning of the game changed as it gained popularity in Europe, and the pieces became stand-ins for a royal court instead of an army. Thus, the original chessmen, known as counselor, infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots, became the queen, pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, respectively. By the 19th century, chess clubs and competitions began to appear all around the world, it became necessary to use a standardized set that would enable players from different cultures to compete without getting confused.
In 1849, that challenge would be met by the “Staunton” Chess Set.
The Staunton chess pieces are the ones we know and love today, the ones we simply think of as chess pieces. Prior to its invention, there were a wide variety of popular styles in England, such as The St George, The English Barleycorn, and the Northern Upright. To say nothing of the regional and cultural variations. But the Staunton quickly would surpass them all. Howard Staunton was a chess authority who organized many tournaments and clubs in London, and was widely considered to be one of the best players in the world. Despite its name, the iconic set was not designed by Howard Staunton.
While the Staunton design is nowadays the only one that is acceptable in tournament chess, that still leaves considerable variation in the specifics. Occasionally you will run into one of those bizarre sets where the ball on the top of the queen, and the cross on top of the king is the opposite color from the rest of the piece (so that the black queen will have a white ball on its top, and so on…) Another popular set these days has exceptionally short and fat pawns, leading to quite a comical effect.
Attention must also be paid to the material out of which the pieces are made. Plastic is the tournament standard. If you’re pieces are constantly jangling around in whatever bag you’re carrying them around in, you will inevitably acquire a few chipped pieces. You don’t want to use anything too nice. Wooden sets are far nicer, though. Proper chess pieces are also heavily weighted, so that you won’t knock them over during time scrambles.