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On Chess: The 169-year-old modern chess set

England: Jaques 50th Set - Lord Vernon, 1855. King size: 4 ½ inches. Box is 5 ⅛ x  8 ⅜ x 6 inches. Ivory. Collection of Jon Crumiller.
Michael DeFilippo | World Chess Hall of Fame
England: Jaques 50th Set - Lord Vernon, 1855. King size: 4 ½ inches. Box is 5 ⅛ x 8 ⅜ x 6 inches. Ivory. Collection of Jon Crumiller.";s:3

Chess has been called a universal language.

Granted, the pieces have different names in different countries, so a piece named a knight in the U.S. is called a cavalier in France, a springer in Germany, and a caballo in Spain. But the identity and essence of each piece – its moves on the chessboard, its interactions with other pieces, the rules it follows – are uniform across the globe. Two players from different parts of the world can sit across from each other and readily engage in chess battle, with one important proviso: Both players must be able to tell which chess piece is which!

In the 19th century, that proviso was often unfulfilled. A chess bishop in England, for instance, had a vastly different appearance from a bishop in France, and neither bishop had any resemblance to the bishop in a so-called Islamic chess set. Clearly, a standard was needed: a universal design for all chess pieces, so that a king could be always be identified as a king, the queen as a queen, and so on.

But visual alignment, by itself, is not enough. Also required would be important pragmatic considerations. The pieces shouldn’t tip over easily, nor should they hide other pieces from view, nor should they take up too much (or too little) space on the board. And there are more requirements: the appearance of each piece needs to be aesthetically pleasing, as should the chess set as a whole. And still more: the pieces should have some connection with their historical genesis; so the knight should retain the characteristics of a horse, the queen should have a crown, the rook is a fortress, the bishop capped with a cleaved mitre, and so on.

Conceptualizing a universal design standard, with all of these factors fully accounted for, is a difficult task. But gaining widespread acceptance and adoption of a new standard is nearly impossible. Unless, of course, the new standard has a champion: a well-known, highly respected person who can announce the new chess design to the world, and then tirelessly seek its widespread adoption. Within the mid 19th-century chess world, there was only one man with the clout, the stamina, and the public forum to achieve this goal: the English Chess Champion, Howard Staunton.

Staunton announced the new chess set design in September 1849, in his widely-read chess column in the Illustrated London News. In a clever marketing strategy, the new pattern was named after the champion himself, and “The Staunton Chess-men” were ready for sale later that month.

Howard Staunton was relentless in his promotion of the eponymous design: the vast majority of his columns over the next year and a half (and many columns beyond that) regularly touted the advantages of the chess pieces that bore his name. Certainly his efforts were motivated by financial profit, but he also fully recognized and touted the benefits of standardization. Indeed, the Staunton Chess-men were (and still are) the perfect standard. It is the only chess set design that (since the 1920s) is allowed for tournament play. Highly recognizable, aesthetically pleasing, historically linked, and very practical for chess-playing, the new Staunton design was gradually able to fulfill his stated desires: “… [we] shall be greatly mistaken if … these beautiful pieces do not entirely supersede the ungainly, inexpressive ones we have hitherto been contented with.”

Howard Staunton Collection of the John G. White Chess Collection at the Cleveland Public Library
Credit Cleveland Public Library
Howard Staunton. From the collection of the John G. White Chess Collection at the Cleveland Public Library

An upcoming exhibition at The World Chess Hall of Fame, entitled The Staunton Standard: Evolution of the Modern Chess Set, celebrates Staunton’s ambitions and success. Highlights of the show include dozens of antique and vintage Staunton sets, starting with the original 1849 pattern, and continuing through the 169-year timeline to the present day, with sets that show evolving characteristics, as well as Staunton variant patterns.

Also displayed are many of the precursor chess patterns from the 1700s and 1800s that reinforced the need for a universal standard. You can also watch the pieces in play at the U.S. Chess & U.S. Women’s Chess Championships, as these pieces are still used in modern play in all top and lower level tournaments.

The exhibition opens from 5:30-7:30 p.m., on April 12, and will run through Sept. 16. For more information, visit worldchesshof.org.

A longtime chess fan and competitor, Jon Crumiller has amassed one of the greatest collections of antique chess sets in the world, which includes more than 600 sets originating from more than 40 countries. Crumiller is not only interested in acquiring artifacts but also in learning about their origins and histories. Crumiller conducts research on the evolution of chess set styles, use and manufacturing. Through his website www.chessantique.com, he provides curious chess devotees from around the world with beautiful photos of his stunning collection as well as some of the fruits of his meticulous research.