The Evolution of the the Chess Set

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.


  1. #1 Richard Wein
    April 6, 2013

    Very interesting. This post inspired me to look up the origins of the words “pawn” and “rook”, since they’re the only two piece names that don’t correspond to courtly offices or ranks. Apparently they originally came from words for foot soldier (Latin/French) and chariot (Sanskrit) respectively. Also, “knight” comes from a Germanic word with the sense of servant or vassal, but seems to have climbed up the social order in English.

  2. #2 Dabbe
    April 6, 2013

    Knight does indeed appear somewhat similar to ‘knecht’, the dutch word for servant.
    The dutch word for knight is ‘ridder’ which is quite similar to rider, and is thought to be related to the horseback riding of medieval elite warriors.

  3. #3 Lenoxus
    April 6, 2013

    My favorite “evolutionary tree” for any piece is that of the bishop. It was originally the elephant, and moved exactly two squares diagonally, always jumping over the intervening square. (This made it weaker than the pawn, because it could only access eight squares total.) Xiangqi, the Chinese cousin to chess, retains this piece in both movement and name. (In fact, the Chinese word for elephant is xiang, and xiangqi means “elephant game”.) Some other languages also call it their word for elephant. Spanish retains the Persian “alfil” (so in Spanish, “alfil” only refers to a chess piece) rather like how we retain the Persian “rook” (except that a rook also happens to be a bird).

    The “elephant” originally looked like an elephant, but became stylized into something like its modern form (even before Staunton). Now it looks like a guy wearing a hat. Some people thought the hat looks like a jester’s cap, so they call the piece a “fool” or jester. The Irish/English interpreted it as a mitre and called the piece a “bishop”. In some languages it’s the “archer” or “messenger”, while others (such as Japanese, in context of the chess cousin shogi) give it a purely descriptive name like “angle-mover”.

    No other piece varies quite so much in interpretation. Everyone agrees that the horsey one is either a horse or a horse-rider of some kind; the castley one is either a chariot/wagon or a tower/castle, the ones with the crowns are the monarchs (outside of Europe, the queen is sometimes an “advisor”) and the eight little ones are some sort of foot-soldier or farmer. But even the bishop’s species is ambiguous, not to mention his job once he’s agreed to be a human!

  4. #4 Richard Wein
    April 7, 2013


    Yes, it’s interesting that in most European languages the word for “knight” (the social rank) is related to the idea of riding a horse: Ritter, chevalier, caballero, etc. English seems to be an exception.

  5. #5 Kel
    April 8, 2013

    It would be interesting to see some of these historical piece / rules differences put onto an online site for people to play. Been playing some chess 960 lately, and that’s been quite an interesting learning experience. I wonder what it would be like to have different rules and pieces to contend with?

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    April 9, 2013

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    April 17, 2013

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  8. #8 Leo Hovestadt
    April 19, 2013

    Wauw a lot of chess knowlegde here. Another interesting one: in (old dutch) the rook is a kasteel (castle) and rokeren is castling. A nice reversal of terms

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