A Concise History of the Chess Pieces

The Early Period

Chess pieces have always been very alluring, quite apart from the game itself. Far from being just beautiful figures of many shapes and sizes, they are really symbols. They hearken to an old world with all its warfare and social hierarchy, and stir the imagination of their real-life equivalents and the battles they took part in.

These pieces impress us in more ways than one, and whether they move us artistically or whet our longing to know more about the societies where chess took root, it is worth knowing their development over a thousand years. What they once were, and how they have come to be the inspiring figures we play with today, after all, is the story of chess itself.

Chess did indeed start as the war game that it is. Scholars believe that it is a derivative of an ancient Indian game called chaturanga, which was flourishing in northern India by the 7th century.  Chaturanga refers to a battle formation of olden India’s army, and the game, like present-day chess, was played with six pieces of differing powers, namely: the Raja (King), the Mantri (Minister), the Gajah (War Elephant), the Ashva (Horse), the Ratha (Chariot), and the Padati (Footsoldier).  

Chaturanga spread to Persia where it became known as chatrang, and there the pieces took different names. Chaturangas’s Raja became the Shah, the Mantri became the Wazir, the Gajah became the Pil, the Ashva became the Asp, the Ratha became the Rokh, and the Padati became the Piadeh. As every chess player knows, checkmate means “Shah mat,” the Persian expression that the king is dead.   

 Chatrang ivory pieces from about 760 AD found in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The left piece is probably the Elephant (Pil), while the right one is the Horse (Ashva).

Persia came to be conquered by the Muslims, who then called the game by its Arabic name, shatranj.  In Moslem hands the pieces lost their detail and character as Islam forbids and takes the production of life-like figures as idolatry. Arabic pieces are abstract, but follow the general shape and size proportion of their Indian and Persian counterparts.  They are generally made of stones and clay instead of ivory. Arabic sets are said to have made the game very popular, as it made the production of sets very easy. 

 History of Chess
 Pieces of Shatranj, the Islamic version of chess that evolved from the Persian game, chatrang. The pieces are very abstract, as Islam prohibits the production of life-like figures.

With the flourishing of inter-continental trade and the Arabs’ expanding expire, chess was flung into all corners of Asia and Europe.  It reached Japan and China where it developed into variants such as shogi, go, and xianggi.

It was in its journey west, however, that chess would be transformed significantly. The Muslims brought it to North Africa, and then to Spain via the Iberian Peninsula. Chess had reached mainland Europe through the backdoor.

Europeans embraced the game and replaced all its pieces with their western medieval equivalents. Not all pieces, however, had their counterpart, as European and Islamic societies were altogether unlike culturally. What was the Minister or the Wazir of Arabic chess was made the Queen, and what was the Pil or the Elephant, an animal native only to Asia and Africa, was made the Bishop.

Just as importantly, Europeans enhanced the rules of chess. They introduced the concept of castling and En passant, extended the reach of the Bishop, and gave the Queen far greater powers than the Wazir ever had.  The result was that chess became faster and more thrilling, and by the 16th century it had become the game that is played today.   

The most quintessential medieval set, which also happens to be the most beautiful extant chess pieces in the opinion of many, are the Isle of Lewis pieces.  These pieces found in the Isle of Lewis in Scotland in 1831 date to about the 12th century. Made from walrus ivory and whale teeth, they are clearly Nordic, likely originating from either Norway or Iceland. They are the most intricate representations of the royalty (King and Queen) and other essential personalities (Knight and Bishop and Pawn) of the high Middle Ages.

The Isle of Lewis set found in Scotland in 1831, now housed in the British Museum.

The Standardization of the Pieces

Chess was enjoyed in Europe over the next three centuries, and it devolved from being the favorite pastime of the royalty and the aristocracy to the game of the common man.   By the late 18th century, chess was being played in the nooks and cafes of the continent.

In the first half of the 19th century, chess’ popularity soared that formal contests between the best players of the European countries began to be arranged. In 1834, the first great match, the precursor of sorts of the world championship, was played in London between Louis-Charles Mahe de La Bourdonnais of France and Alexander Macdonnel of Ireland. Right about that period four chess sets were popular, namely the St. George, the English Barleycorn, the Northern Upright, and the French Regence.

 Popular Pre-Staunton sets. From top to bottom: the St. George, the English Barleycorn, the Northern Upright, and the French Regence.

These sets were widely used and served both casual and competitive play, but they were hardly ideal. A simpler, sturdier set with better piece-contrast was needed.

This call was answered when in 1849 an Englishman named Nathaniel Cook had his patented design produced by Jaques of London, then and up to now a famous game-equipment manufacturing company. Jaques of London came through with a set that exactly fit the bill. It was simple yet elegant. Its pieces were highly distinguishable and sturdy, and they had none of the intricateness that made older pieces break and chip in rough play. Best of all, it could be easily reproduced.

With the endorsement of Howard Staunton, then the world’s strongest player, the set was an immediate conceptual and commercial success. Chess players loved it, and so suited was it for practical play that it became the standard set thereafter the world over.

This design conceived by Nathaniel Cook has come to be known as Staunton style, and the very first Staunton style set, the progenitor of all modern standard sets, has come to be known as the Jaques of 1849.  

 The very first Staunton set and the father of all modern chess sets: the Jaques of 1849.

Today, all tournaments sanctioned by the Federacion Internacional de Echecs (FIDE) use only the Staunton sets.  Official sets are of 3.75 - 4-inch-tall Kings with 1.5-1.75-inch-bases.

Iconic Chess Sets

With the Staunton style having been expressed in many creative ways by artisans and carvers since its introduction in 1849, and with FIDE giving an allowance in set appearance, many sets both beautiful and functional have appeared.  Here are some of the most iconic.

1. The Jaques Classical Sets

As the creator of the very first Staunton set, Jaques sets have come to be the gold standard of chess-set production. Jaques released more designs after their 1849 model, with the later ones becoming even more functional. All of them have become highly-valued collectibles.   

Jaques “Anderssen” of 1860 Jaques “Marshall” of 1925

2. The Russian Sets

Chess has figured prominently in Russia where it was utilized to foster national unity after the Bolshevik Revolution. These sets, by and large, are lean and bare, perhaps an expression of the Soviet socialist psyche that was never given to excess and superfluity. Regardless, they are pure pleasure to play with.

The Botvinnik-Flohr Set The Grossmeister Set The Latvian set

3. The Commemorative Sets

Some sets made to memorialize special events have themselves become unforgettable. Here are the best of the lot:

The Zagreb (official set of the 1959 Candidates Matches held in Zagreb, Croatia) The Dubrovnik (1950's Fischer Dubrovnik Chess Pieces in Mahogany Stained & Boxwood) 1972 Match of the Century set (official set of the 1972 World Championship Match between Robert Fischer and Boris Spassky)

4. The Purely Functional Sets

There are sets just meant to be functional, but they have become timeless for being truly functional.

The French Lardy set Reproduction of same by Royal Chess Mall
The German Knight set Reproduction of same by Royal Chess Mall
The Pinney Set  Reproduction of same by Royal Chess Mall

The story of chess’ pieces will continue, of course, for as long as chess will be played, and with man as creative as he is, there is certainly more to be written.

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