A Beginner’s Guide to Chess Sets and How to Choose One

Chess is one of the world’s oldest and most popular board games. Everywhere you go, there will be people playing chess, whether competitively or casually. And anyone can be a chess player too. With the ideal chess set guide, you’ll start playing the popular board game in no time.

Looking to buy or upgrade your chess set? We’ve got you covered! Discover the perfect chess set for you with this buying guide.

Man Holding Chess Piece

Types of Chess Sets

A chess set is a collection of pieces used to play the game of chess. Although most chess sets are made of wood, they can come in various styles and materials, so choosing one that suits your needs and preferences is essential.

As a starting point, here are the different chess set types available worldwide:

  • Staunton Pattern

The Staunton design is widely considered a classic in the chess world and is named after Howard Staunton, a 19th-century English chess master. Staunton chess sets are easily recognizable by their smooth, tapering columns that rise from a broad base and end in a stylized motif. The king is the most recognizable Staunton figurine because his crown always features a cross.

Many other styles were circulated when Nathaniel Cook introduced the Staunton pattern. Over the preceding decades, chess’s popularity had risen, and there was a growing interest in international play and competition. However, no universal standard had yet been established. As their popularity grew, the Staunton pieces quickly became the standard and have remained so.

  • Zagreb and Dubrovnik

The Zagreb and Dubrovnik styles are Eastern European variations of the traditional Staunton chess set design from the mid-20th century. Compared to the Staunton set, this wood chess set stands out for having a smoother and more rounded appearance. Its pieces typically have interchangeable finials of contrasting colors, allowing, for example, a black orb to sit atop a white queen. The knight in these sets also has a curved, S-shaped neck with a downward-pointing face. However, the Dubrovnik style differs from the Zagreb style in that the king’s crown is typically adorned with a plain orb instead of a cross.

  • Northern Upright

This fashion, also known as Edinburgh Upright, was a precursor to the more common Staunton layout. The European nobility and upper classes enjoyed it immensely in the early to mid-19th century. The pieces are tall and skinny columns topped with minimalist designs. The round-headed queen looks suspiciously like a tall pawn, and the split miter of the bishop is a hallmark of the pre-Staunton period. The tall, thin pieces were susceptible to tipping during play, a problem not shared by the robust Staunton pieces that eventually replaced them. The upright design, however, is still eye-catching and sophisticated, making it a must-have for any chess aficionado’s library.

  • English Barleycorn

In the early 19th century, the English Barleycorn style was a highly favored design of chess pieces in England. Most chess sets are wood, but this type is made of bone and often features red coloring on the black pieces. The pieces in this style typically had slender stems emerging from a flat base, and the larger pieces were adorned with a lavishly decorated central “drum.” One of the hallmarks of this design was the flagpole-like finial on the rook, though not all sets had this feature. One problem with the Barleycorn style was that the small, fragile pieces were easy to knock over or break, and the intricate decorations could distract during gameplay. Nevertheless, these pieces maintained their popularity throughout the 19th century.

  • Selenus

Like the English Barleycorn, the Selenus chess set typically featured bone pieces that were both slim and ornate in design. Named after the author of a chess book published in the 17th century, this pattern was widely adopted in Germany and the Nordic countries. The chess set guide depicted illustrations of pieces used at the time, making the Selenus style one of the oldest patterns. The tall, ornate pieces frequently had floral motifs, with petals extending upward from the main column. It’s known in England as “Tulip” chess sets.

  • Tournament Chess Sets

The 3.75-inch plastic Staunton set is the standard for tournament play. This is the standard chessboard for tournaments, schools, and chess clubs. It’s low-priced, instantly recognizable, and durable. If you must bring your own pieces to a tournament, this chess piece style is best. Some players prefer wooden chess sets, but they are at risk of losing or damaging them during play. The standard plastic pieces are also suitable for studying, as they help with quicker pattern recognition. When buying plastic pieces, make sure they are weighted to avoid tipping. Roll-up boards are more resilient to wear and tear, but folding boards tend to come apart over time.

  • Travel Chess Sets

There are also chess sets that are compact and lightweight, so you can play the game even when you’re on the go. Travel chess sets come in two types: magnetic and peg-in-slot, both with their own advantages and disadvantages. Magnetic sets are visually appealing and available in luxurious wooden versions, but larger sets can be prone to pieces falling off during travel. Peg-in-slot sets are more secure but can be fiddly to move, and there is a risk of the peg snapping off and rendering the piece unusable.

Travel sets are not limited to large pieces; they can come in miniature sizes too. One popular option is the wallet-style board with small flat magnetic pieces that feature diagram symbols.

Glass Chess Board Set

How to Choose a Chess Set

Here’s a chess set buying tip to consider every time: don’t just decide on the price. Chess sets can cost tens to thousands of dollars depending on the pieces’ brand, style, and production. So, to make sure you find the right one, consider the following factors from chess enthusiast Nadav Berenstein:

  • Size

A wide variety of chess sets are available, from compact travel sets to large sets for display purposes. If you plan to play chess frequently and travel with the set, a portable or compact size may be more convenient. However, if the set is primarily for display, a larger size may be more suitable.

  • Material

Glass, plastic, metal, and wood are just some of the materials used to create chess sets. There are benefits and drawbacks to using every material, including longevity, weight, and price. If you’ll use the chess set for practicing or competing, it’s better to use a plastic one for durability.

  • Style

There is a wide variety of chess set designs available, from classic Staunton sets to contemporary and artistic creations. Find a look that both suits your sense of style and makes you more comfortable while you play.

  • Weight

The pieces’ weight can impact the feel of the game. While lighter pieces might be simpler to handle and move around the board, heavier pieces might offer a more satisfying tactile experience. Pick the ones that will provide you with the best gaming experience.

  • Cost

Chess sets can be extremely inexpensive or very expensive, depending on the style and brand of the chess set. So, consider your budget and what you’re prepared to pay for the board game. If you’re tight on money, a simple plastic set will do to hone your skills. And when you have enough to splurge, upgrade the set and start your chess set collection.

Get Started on the Road to Chess Greatness

Ultimately, choosing a style you enjoy using and playing with is the most important thing in this chess set guide. By taking the time to consider your preferences and needs, you can find the perfect chess set that enhances your overall game experience. What are you waiting for? Take this guide into consideration and begin your path to chess greatness.

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