by Joe Iannandrea
For those who have discovered it, chess holds nearly endless fascinations. Though it is seldom discussed, one of the greatest fascinations for many is contained in the pieces used to play the game itself. Even the names of the pieces, Kings, Queens and Knights, suggests the romance of a bygone era. This is more than just an illusion; each piece carries a lineage going back many hundreds of years. Many players, even if they have never really thought about it, find that just the chance to use those pieces, to have them at our disposal, is part of the pleasure they take from playing chess. The experience of playing chess is often likened to taking command of a magnificent army and it is available to anyone regardless of skill or experience. The chess men you own will be that army for you and the chess board will be the battlefield. Since your chess will be one source of the enjoyment you derive from the game it makes sense not to choose it haphazardly. What follows then is your guide to finding the grand army that is right for you.
When I rediscovered chess as an adult not so many years ago I found that what had been a fun board game had unexpectedly become a whole world opening up before me. Like many who have found themselves in the same position I had an immediate void to fill. I contacted my parents but was disappointed to find my old chess set, used only a handfull of times since I was about 14, had been sold off in some long ago garage sale. At the time I was working my way through a few introductory books on chess and needed a chess board to follow through some of the examples. I was able to fill the void temporarily with a cheap set bought at a local department store for under $5. It wasn't too long before this proved unsatisfactory. The hollow plastic pieces got knocked arround with the slightest brush of a sleeve causing me to lose my place, and it wasn't long before a few of the pieces had broken. It wasn't long at all before I was looking for something better.
I was fortunate in that the books I was reading also contained some recommendations on what kind of chess set to buy. I ordered a nicely weighted set of tournament size plastic pieces with a roll up vinyl board that is my bread and butter set to this day. As I came to learn in the intervening yrears however the right advice doesn't come soon enough for many people. When it comes time to buy a chess set many people turn immediately to the nearest hobby shop, toy store or the game isle of their local big-box retailer. This is usually just fine if the chess board is to become just one more option in the family game cabinet. Those who have begun to discover for themselves the wonder and depth that separates chess from run of the mill board games however will all too often find themselves wishing they had bought something else. I write hoping this article finds you in time to keep you from becoming one of those people.
To help you get an idea of where you should begin let's look at the different situations that chess sets may be used in. There is ordinary recreational play at home with friends or family. While most chess sets sold in retail locations that don't specialize in chess are made with this sort of use in mind, these are not the only good choice and not necessarily even the best choice. Really anything that fits in with your particular home enviornment can work. If you are a bit more serious and think you may need a set that you can take out to a chess club, and especially if you ever intend to take part in organized tournaments, the requirements are a bit more specific. If you need a chess set to use for study, following examples in chess books for example, space may be a bit more of a consideration. Depending on your study enviornment size and portability may be important considerations. This is also true for a set you may want to travel with, though this will depend on the kind of traveling you do. Finally chess sets are often simply put on display simply for their aesthetic value. Obviously the choice here will depend greatly on the setting in which it will be displayed. Even if you are looking for a set that may never actually be played on however it helps to know a bit about chess sets in general both to help find the most appropriate set and to avoid paying too much for something you are thinking of purchasing.
When the term chess set is used most people think of the chess pieces, but the set conists of the board and the pieces together. The character and utility of a chess set is often determined as much by the choice of board as of the pieces. For example, a set of pieces may be a good choice for taking out to a club, entering in tournaments or even bringing along on camping trips, but if paired with a heavy and easily scratched wooden board you may not want to bring it anywhere. While department stores and hobby shops almost always sell board and pieces together as a set, retailers that specialize in chess usually give you the choice of purchasing each separately so you can put your own combination together if you choose. For this reason we'll also pay some attention to the choice of board alongside the discussion of the chess pieces.
Now let's turn our attention to some of the characteristics that differentiate one chess set from another. When explaining why one chess set may be more valuable than another it is easy to simply say it's a better quality set. The word quality can be thrown around pretty loosely however so one of our tasks here will be to help you gain an appreication for some of the things that might justify quality claims. Even if you find a good quality set though it may still not be the right set for you. A top notch set may not be the portable enough for you needs for example, or too small to be accepable in the tournaments you plan to enter. You might even find that regardless of how well it is made it just doesn't appeal to your particular tastes. Let's look at these characteristics one by one, with a particular eye to what things might enhance or detract from overall quality.
By far the two most common types of materials chosen for chess piece manufacture are plastic and wood. The general perception is that wood is the premium choice whereas plastic is used simply because it is cheaper. Though this perception is largely justified take care not to over generalize. Just because a set is made from wood doesn't mean it's worth more than a similarly designed pastic set. Let's take a closer look at some of these materials then.
It can hardly be a surprise that plastic is so widely used as an economical material for chess pieces. There are of course some very cheap plastic chess sets out there, but it would be a mistake to assume that being made of plastic means a chess set will be of poor quality. However, the quality difference between various plastic chess sets is usually due to factors other than the material used. While some very cheap sets are made from brittle plastics, most plastic sets these days are made wonderfully durable and impact resistant. This was not the case decades ago when plastic chess pieces were more easily damaged than those made today.
There are many different kinds of wood that can be used to make chess pieces and which are chosen will have a great impact on the quality of the set and therefore what you should expect to pay for it. Many sets made of cheaper woods that have been poorly finished are really no better than a decent plastic set, though they may be sold at a premium because of the general public perception that wood should be more expensive. Budget priced wooden sets may be made from softwoods such as pine or spruce and this may be all right as long as you don't pay too much and don't have high expectations in terms of finish, feel and durability. When wooden chess pieces of true quality are sold the the manufacturer will explicity state what types of wood they are made from. Here are a few of the more common types of wood used in chess piece maufacture.
Boxwood- Boxwood is a light colored, fine grained, dense hardwood. Because it is realtively inexpensive and easily worked in the manufacturing process it is an ideal material for chess pieces. It is possible therefore for manufacturers to offer very nice wooden chess sets with pieces made entirely of boxwood with white pieces left their natural color and the black pieces stained black, or "ebonized" as the process is usually referred to. It is such an ideal choice in fact that, despite the reasonable cost of boxwood it remains the material of choice for the white pieces in even the most expensive woodend sets, with the black pieces made from a naturally finished dark wood. Therefore the rest of the woods discussed are all have a natural color that is obviously darker than box wood and they are really only ever used to make the black pieces.
Sheesham (or Golden Rosewood)- Sheesham is another relatively inexpensive hardwood that lends itself well to the process of being turned and carved into chess pieces. It has a golden brown color that often appears streaked with darker and lighter tones. Though not usually considered a wood of choice for more expensive sets it does stand up well to rough handling and is an ideal wood for the black pieces with wooden pieces intended for tournament use.
Rosewood- Rosewood is a rich redish brown hardwood. Related to sheesham, rosewood is typically darker and often shows even more promanent dark and light streaks. Though many consider rosewood more attractive than sheesham it is considered more difficult to carve. Because of the greater skill required, sets with black pieces made from rosewood will be more expensive than equally well made sets that use sheesham or ebonized boxwood.
Ebony- Though ebony wood can vary greatly in color, the ebony traditionally chosen to make chess pieces is of the nealy jet black color that most people associate with the word ebony. Rarer and more difficult to work with than any of the woods discussed so far, genuine ebony is only chosen for the finest chess sets. This finely textured hardwood takes on a gorgeious finish that matches well with finish of boxwood almost always used for the complimentary white pieces. Ebony can also be a little more brittle than the other woods discussed here, although the expense of an ebony set means owner's aren't usually inclined to subject them to rough handling.
Blood Rosewood (or Bud Rosewood or Red Sandalwood)- Blood rosewood is another wood that is both rare comparatively difficult to carve, but has a very unique appearance that is much sought after by those looking to enjoy the most attractive wooden chess pieces available. As the name suggests, blood rosewood has a predominantly reddish color. Though the light and dark streaking is not as promenant as with the other "rosewoods" we have discussed, they take on complex variations in tone giving pieces made from blood rosewood a unique depth. As you may expect blood rosewood is only chosen for the more finely crafted sets.
Other Woods-While there are many other types of wood available, few others have the right characteristics to make them suitable for chess pieces. Even many many very fine hardwoods don't lend themselves to the particular demands of chess piece manufacture or performance. You may occasionally see chess pieces made from other woods such as maple or teak. There is a far greater choice of woods available if you are looking at chess boards however, since there are fewer demands in terms of the characteristics of the wood. Common choices here are maple, mahogany and walnut though there are few woods that really couldn't be used. Generally wooden boards will be made from two types of wood, one with a lighter tone and one with a darker for the two colors of squares. Wooden boards are most commonly made using veneers of two different kinds of wood to form the 64 light and dark squares. Finer chess boards often use solid squares of the two wood types which, of course adds to the expense, especially if more exotic woods are chosen.
Chess pieces are often made from other materials such as metal, ceramic, various types of stone, bone, and other exotic materials. Often the use of these less standard materials is combined with less standard piece design to create sets valued as much for their decorative value as their playability. The possibilities here are endless, but generally anything that can be said for decorative objects made from a given material shoud also apply to chess sets made from that material. Metal chess sets can include anything from assemblages of spare nuts and bolts to finely detailed figurines cast from precious metals. There are a few things worth mentioning about some of these materials.
Ivory- Historically ivory from elephant tusks has been a traditional material for chess pieces. Today, of course elephants are threatened after centuries of exploitation to supply ivory and so international trade bans and legal restricions on ownership on it's ownership have been put in place. Under most circumstances anything made from ivory can carries potential legal and moral concequences. However, this isn't necessarily the case for all ivory. First, since the trade in antique ivory has no imact on elephant populations today, ivory goods that fall into this category be exempt from the regulations. If you might be considering such a purchase you should be certain of both about the regulatons that apply to you and that you have documented proof of the age of the ivory in question. To be exempt from the regulations you may need to be able to prove the ivory is 100 years old or more, so don't simply rely on the sellers word that everything is okay. Second, not all ivory even comes from elephants. Ivory can come from other tusked animals such as walrus, though there are restrictions on this as well. There is a surprising source of ivory for chess pieces that has no moral implication about the killing of any animal, and that is the ivory of speciest that are already extinct. The ivory of species related to the elephant such as mastedon and mammoth are found preserved in mud peat or ice frequenlty enough to provide a supply of ivory for the premium chess market. (The fact that it can exist in usable condition after litterally millenia is one clue to why this material is so highly valued.) As you may expect the cost of this type ivory is sky high. The price of a chess set made from this material can be in excess of $10,000 US.
Bone- There are many materials that are now considered ivory substitutes. Many don't come in pieces large enough to be made into chessmen. One exception is bone, and the prefered material is camel bone. As bone is more pourous it does not have some of the qualities that make ivory so highly valued but is a good choice for pieces that are a recreation of some older styles of chess pieces that, in their day, would have been made from ivory.
Composites- While composite materials haven't exactly revolutionized the manufacture of chess sets the way they have other industiries, they have opened up some interesting possibilities. One possiblility is to combine crushed stone with a castable resin that can be molded just like plastic but which harden into pieces with the weight and feel of stone. This has become a favoured way of producing intricate themed figurine chess sets that are affordable without seeming lightweight and plasticy.
The design of a chess set can be thought of as the blue-print used to make it. It's what determines what each piece in the set will look like in terms of form, proportion etc. The board is also part of a chess set and needs to be considered as well, but because it's design is often more of a functional consideration we'll look at it separately. Finally, the size of a chess set might also be considered part of it's design. Since the size of both pieces and board need to be considered toegether however we'll consider this aferwards.
From a practical standpoint chess pieces should be designed so that anyone who is playing with them will easily be able to recognize which piece is which. There are certain design characteristics for each piece that are more or less universally accepted; the castle tower Rooks for example or of course the distinctive horse head design used for Knights. Most sets sold conform to the accepted design characterics that anyone familiar with chess will instantly recognize all the pieces, though this is not always the case. How well the pieces conform to the accepted design norms can make a big difference in terms of how and where you will be able to use the set. Generally, a set of pieces will fall into one of the following three categories which determine the uses to which the set might be used. I should note however that the line separating one category from another isn't always always completely clear.
In 1849, responding to complaints from chess players that the intricately designed chess pieces of they day were both too expensive and too easily damaged, the firm Jaques of London began offering a new set of chessmen that were both sturdier and easier to produce than those being produced elsewhere. Endorsed by Howard Staunton, regarded by many as the strongest chess player of that era, the inovations introduced with that set formed the basis of the Staunton pattern, which remains the universal standard of piece design. This does not mean that all Staunton design chess pieces made today are exact copies of that original set, it simply means they use the design inovations introduced in 1849 while retain the key features that identify each piece, which were recognized long before 1849. Particularly where the Knights are concerned, the design of pieces that conform to the Staunton conventions can range from basic to intricate.
The key importance of chess pieces that conform to the conventions of the Staunton pattern is that this is the only design that is acceptable if you are to play organized chess. No tournament player with his or her official rating, pride and perhaps cash on the line will want to risk a misstep because they aren't familiar with the pieces. Ensure any set you purchase for tournament use conforms to these standards (as well as other standards pertaining to size, materials etc.) for any set you intend to bring to tournaments or clubs. This should not be too difficult however as most sets are designed by these standards.
When the Staunton design was first introduced in 1849, it is not as though players had to learn from scatch how to recognize the pieces. The original Staunton pieces remained attractive while dispensing with the ornate workings that made earlier sets more expensive and easily damaged. This gave them an unique aesthetic compared with earlier designs, but the key characteristics used to identify each piece were not new. A player today would have little trouble using a set with one of these pre-Staunton designs. Similarly sets designed with a unique aesthetic appeal may dispense with certain Staunton design characteristics without seriously compromising easy identification of the pieces. These are what I would term semi-Staunton sets. Neither pre-Staunton nor semi-Staunton sets are reasonable choices for organized chess of course, but are completely playable in casual games. Since chess sets are so frequently put on display you may find a pre-Staunton or semi-Staunton compliment a particular decor while remaining practical for play.
I include in this category any set of pieces that depart from the recognized standards of piece design enough to make them difficult to recognize. This includes designs in which some or all of the pieces in the set lack the key features that normally signify it as that kind of piece. The most common type of set that fits into this category is the themed set. These sets use little figurines for each piece that are made to resemble everything from mythological creatures to cartoon characters. While usually the figures are designed with some clue as to which piece they represent, often a familiarity with the particular set may be needed if don't want to run into problems during play. While these sets can be enjoyable to play on if the game is not too serious, they are usually purchased for other reasons. If you have one of these sets and intend to play on more than just rare occasions it may be a good idea to have a second Staunton set for everyday use, even an inexpensive one.
As I said earlier, even within the bounds of Staunton design there are a significant range of possibilities. This means that you may find some sets may appeal more to your tastes than others. There are also practical considerations. Design can have a great deal of influence over the price of a set, especially with materials like wood which cannot simply be molded into shape. Intricate design features, for example bridled Knights, are more difficult to carve. This of course will drive the price up and a the inclusion of bridled Knights with a fine wooden set is considered an extra luxury. Even if you can afford such things there may be practical reasons to avoid such features however. While intricate features like this can be part of Staunton designed sets, remember the Staunton design itself was introduced as a sturdier alternative to other more intricate piece designs. The same needs hold just as true today. Fine features may be perfectly suitable for a set that will remain in a controlled enviernment like the home and won't be subject to shocks. They might not be so desireable for a set that will be transported to clubs or tournaments where you may be playing against someone who isn't as careful with your chessmen as you might like. For this you'll want pieces with heftier features.
There's one design feature you'll want to consider that's less obvious because it's invisible. I'm refering to the weight of the pieces themselves. Chess players have always found a preference for pieces with a significant weight to them. Heavier pieces are more stable, meaning they are less likely to tip over or accidentally get knocked all over the board. More than this however, they have a more substantial feel that makes them a joy to use. Even pieces made of solid solid plastic or the densest hardwood (boxwood is one of the few woods that is denser than water) are not as heavy as would be ideal. Manufacturers may therefore add metal weights into the base of chess pieces. The more weight is added to the pieces the more stable and solid they will feel in play.
If you are looking to purchase a set it may be difficult to determine how much a set you may be considering has actually been weighted. Manufacturers often use terms like "double weighted" or "triple weighted", meaning that 2 or 3 weights have been added to each piece. The problem is knowing how many weights were added does not tell you much about the total weight added since there's no standard saying how much each weight adds. Unfortunately, though these terms don't actually tell you much, they have become a standard way to describe the weight of a set. In the name of clarity therefore some manufacturers have dispensed with these terms and will simply tell you what the full set of pieces weighs.
While the design of chess pieces has more to do with aesthetics, the choice of chess board design is often more about practicality. This is not to say that chess boards cannot be gorgeious. Obviously there aren't a lot of design choices for a grid of 64 squares so design factors relating to board's beauty usually involve how the playing area is framed, in addition to material choice and how well the board is crafted. The chess board, in it's essential form, is a very simple thing. Most boards, however consist of a little more than the 64 square playing surface. Generally there is some sort of border or frame. A border area will often include the board coordinates used in chess notation to make things easier if you're recording your games. The way one type of board may differ from another is usually a function of portablility and storage considerations (storage of the board itself as well as the pieces) and occasionally possibly even for other functionality. Here is a quick overview of a few different types of chessboards you may encounter.
The most basic type of chess board, at least so far as design is concerned, is a solid flat board. The boards that fall into category may range from a piece of ordinary masonite with the squares silk-screened on the smooth side to boards luxuriously handcrafted from exotic hardwoods. Elegantly simple, their chief drawback compared to some of the other types mentioned here is that they can be awkward to store and transport.
Overwhelmingly popular with tournament players and clubs, roll-up chess boards are made from a softer material that can be laid out on a table like a mat then be rolled-up for storage and transport. Often this allows them to be placed in a tube like map which can then also contain all the pieces.Most commonly made from vinyl, they may also be referred to simply as vinyl boards. However other materials, anything from laminated paper to leather, are also used.
A cousin of the roll-up board, the folding chess board is an alternative design for boards that are made for chess on the go. Most are made of cloth or vinyl covered cardboard the way that many familiar family board-game boards are made to fold back into the box with all the game pieces, dice, play-money and so on. Chess players will usually carry the pieces separately however, in a drawstring bag for example. Not all fold-up chess boards are mass-produced like this however. Wooden boards, some quite luxiurious may be made with a hinge that allows them to fold for transport.
Built in piece storage
Ches boards that have built in storage for the pieces are popular with smaller travel size sets, though this concept may be used with larger sets as well. There are a few different designs that may be employed to store the pieces. Most common would be clam shell style that forms a box when folded for storage of the pieces. As it happens the inside of the open clamshell board is perfectly suited for backgamon and these sets often do double duty. Another popular design has drawers that pull out on each end allowing the pieces for each side to be stored separately. There are also designs that allow the playing surface to swing out of the way exposing the storage area underneath. Many chess sets with built-in storage have pieces with magnets rather than weights in the bases and a sheet of metal under the playing surface so the pieces stick. Because they as so popular as travel sets this keeps the pieces from flying around if the ride gets bumpy.
While chess boards are generally made to sit on top of tables, they may also be built right into the surface. This can of course be incorporated into nearly any style of furntiture. Some chess enthusiasts consider having a piece of furniture dedicated to nothing but chess the height of devotion to their game. Since just having a chess table is somewhat of a luxury chess talbes themselves tend to be on the upscale in terms of quality. One problem with chess tables is that they also tend to be used as, well, tables. Most players wouldn't dream of letting their guests set their cup of tea down on the surface of an expensive chess board, this may be a little harder to enforce if the board is built right in to the table.
Size and Proportion
Chess sets can range in size from so small it is difficult to move one piece without upsetting the others to so large it might be difficult for some just to lift the pieces. The vast majority you will encounter will be nowhere near either of these extremes. The chess set's proportions is another aspect of its design concerned with relative sizes, the height of the Kings relative to the Pawns for example, and should not be confused with overall size. Generally proportions effect the overall look of the set. Generally as long as you're happy with that there's no need to bother with exact specifications, though there are some things you should be aware of. Overall size has a much greater influence on whether a set will be useful to you, so we'll discus this first.
Smaller chess sets are easier to store and carry with you, and are easier to use where space is limited. They can also require players to sit uncomfortably close and can make it difficult to move individual pieces without bumping and knocking over the pieces around it. Unless space to stow your chess set is at a premium or you need to play in cramped quarters you will probably want to go for something larger. Even if storage and portability aren't considerations for you however you porobably don't want something too large either. If you think you'll play most games over the coffee table for example you might not want something that hangs over the edge. Also, it should not be too much of a stretch for anyone playing to make a move at the far end of the board.
The traditional measurement that denotes the overall size of a chess set is the height of the Kings, which are the tallest pieces in the set. Though sets can vary in the exact relative proportions of the remaining pieces the range of variation is fairly narrow, so this is a reasonable measure of the size of the entire set. It is the measurement most manufactures to give you a sense of how large their chess sets are. What follows is a list of chess set sizes by King height with some suggestions as to what uses a set of that size may be used for. Note that with the exception of tournament size pieces (3.5" to 4.25" King height) there is nothing official about these size categories and the measurements that separate one from the other is somewhat arbitrary
King up to 1.5" (3.8cm)
These miniature sets are handy carry with you at all times, in a backpack or purse for example. This way you'll always be prepared to play chess should such a situation arise or to use as a study board. They can also be used for travel when something ultra-compact is needed. Be aware that it can be very difficult move a piece this small without distrubing any others, so miniature sets should be magnetic to help keep them in place. An alternative would be pegged pieces that fit into a hole on each square.
Kings 1.5" to 2.75" ( 3.8cm - 7 cm)
What manufacturers will describe as travel chess sets usually fall in this size range. Of course not all sets in this range are suitable for travel; this depends on other design characteristics which we discussed earlier. This can be a good size to use for studying positions or games out of a book. Depending on which end of the range they are nearest to, sets in this category can be significantly more comfortable in play than miniature sets. Be careful, however, as this is still small enough to make lightweight hollow plastic pieces even more difficult to use. Though some of the cheapest sets on the market are around this size it is worthwhile looking for something a little more solid. It doesn't take much of a jostling to send small hollow plastic pieces tumbling over. A magnetic board may still be worthwhile for pieces in this size range, especially if yoy are using it for travel
Kings 2.75" to 3.5" (7cm - 9cm)
Most chess sets that find their way into family game closets fall within this size range. And is a much more comforable size to use than the previous two categories. We are also entering ithe size at which we begin to see some truly fine chess sets. One reason may be that this is often a good size to choose for a chess set that, when not in use, will frequently be left out on display. Chess boards in of this size fit nicely on a coffee table.
Kings 3.5" to 4.25" (9cm - 10.8cm)
These are tournament size chess sets because this is the size accepted for organized chess. Obviously if you are looking for a set which you intend to use at some point for tournament play you shouldn't consider anything that is not in this range. However, this size is too often negelected by those who are not thinking of entering tournaments. If you are used to smaller sets, having a tournament size set placed before you can seem impressive and regardless of what you're used to can ba a joy to play. For most people this is the ideal size for sheer enjoyment and playability. In fact the type of chess set most often used in tournaments may often be the preferred alternative to those typically offered for those looking for a chess set to add to the family game collection. This type of chess set comes with a roll up board and may store, board and pieces together, into a simple tube that may be easier to store and transport than a smaller set in a box.
Kings 4.25" to 6" (10.8cm - 15cm)
Beyond tournament size but still useable on a typical table top, chess sets of this size are often offered as finely crafted luxury sets in more exotic woods like ebony or blood rosewood. While using such a set may be the ulitmate playing experience, smaller adults and children may find a set this size difficult to use if they must reach across the board.
Kings taller than 6" (15cm +)
Jumbo or giant chess sets can include anything too large to play over an average size table to sets with life size chessmen. When Kings get taller than about 12" players may need to walk on the chess board in order to make moves. It is difficult to make too many general statements as obviously chess sets in this range are quite specialized. Often chess sets in this size range are made for outdoor use where they may become a focal point of a private garden or a special recreational feature in public spaces. As sets of this size are not manufactured in large quantities even a plastic set may be quite expensive.
While the overall size of the chess set is, as a matter of convention, specified by the height of the King, this tells us little about the size of the other individual pieces. The other pieces should of course be reasonably well proportioned in relative to the height of the King. This means that the height of the Queens will be about 85-90% that of the Kings, Bishops will be around 70-75% of the King height, Knights 60-70% as tall, Rooks 55 -60% and Pawns 45-55% of the King's height. The proportions of any particular set may mean not every piece falls within the range given here, but every piece should look like it belongs to the set. The other way to look at the proportions of the chess pieces is to look at the height of the piece relative to the diameter of its base. This may be useful because it is sometimes difficult to get a sense of these relative dimensions if you're just looking at a photograph of a piece (probably for the same reason the camera always adds 10 pounds). Looking at the actual measurements of piece height compared to base diameter may give us a more objective sense of things. The World Chess Federation (FIDE) specifies that, for tournament use, the King's base size should be 40 - 50% of it's height. While you don't need to worry about these specifications if you're not looking for something to use in tournaments, the real point is FIDE discourages unusual looking pieces in tournaments, so this range makes for proportions that look normal for a King. A base diameter less that 40% of the height will mean the King will look streched out and thin, while greater than 50% will make for a short stalky looking King. These same proportions don't apply to all of the other pieces, but all of the pieces should look well proportioned in relation to the King.
Matching Piece Size with Chessboard Size:
Chess pieces are sold together with a matching chessboard as a set, but this is not always the case. Pieces are often sold separately from the chessboard and this can be a great advantage as it If you have found a set of chess pieces that you have now or that you want to purchase may require a bit of calculation to ensure the board is neither too large or too small for the pieces. If it is too large the pieces will look lost on the board, while if it's too small pieces will look crowded and may overhang the squares. You want to ensure the squares are large enough to accomodate the largest piece, the King, so that it can be easily placed without overhanging the square it is sitting on. This means the size of the square should be a bit larger than the base size of the King, but not so much extra that the space seems wasted. It is generally accepted that, for the King to have the right amount of space around it on the square it sits on, it's base diameter should be 75-80% that of the squares on the board. This means multiplying the square size by 0.78 (about the middle of the 75-80% range) will give us the recommended base diameter that will work best with this board. For example, if we have a chessboard with 2" squares, to find the recommended King's base diameter for a set that would match this board we multiply:
2" squares x 0.78 = 1.56" base diameter
What this gives us is the middle of the range of King's base diameter that will work for us. Anything from 1.5" to 1.6" is perfectly suitable and it is usually fine if you choose something a little outside this range, especially if you have a preference for giving the pieces a little more or a little less space.
This tells us how to find pieces that will match a chessboard, but what we're usually interested in is finding a chessboard to match a given set of pieces. To do this we need to divide the base diameter of the King by 0.78. Let us say we have a larger set and the Kings now have a base diameter of 2". Now our equation becomes:
2" base diameter ÷ 0.78 = 2.56" squares
In practice we may need to round this result up or down to find something that matches what is available. In this case we would probably be able to find a board with 2½" or 2¾" squares, either of which will work just fine with these pieces.
Once chess pieces are formed in the manufacturing process the job is not finished. Plastic pieces will usually have to have excess material left over from the molding process and this should be removed in a way that does not leave rough spots on the finished piece. The finishing process is especially important in the manufacture of wooden pieces however. Here the choice of finishing process and how well that process is executed can be the difference between a finely crafted piece and something that looks a bit of a mess.
After the turning and carving process that gives the wooden piece it's basic form it is normally sanded smooth before going through some sort of finishing process. Better manufacturers often describe their finishing process in their literature, and while the details may vary anyone producing good quality wooden chess pieces uses a hand finishing process. This is required in order to achieve the smooth uniform finish needed to preserve the piece's true potential. Of course giving each piece an excellent finish by hand is more labour intensive than methods that achieve a poorer finish, and it is one of the reasons that one chess set may cost a good deal more than another even though they are made from the same type of wood. This is not to say that pieces with a poor quality finish must always be avoided, but you be aware of what the difference is to avoid paying too much. The perception that some sets are of premium quality simply because they are wooden is sometimes used to sell at a higher price than is justified by their low quality finish.
Signs of poorly fininished wooden pieces may include
tool marks, burrs or other artifacts of the manufacturing process
an uneven shine on the surface
dired finish collected along edges and corners
Once you are familiar with what a well finished piece should look like however there's real need to know what defects to look for. The differencce will be obvious.
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