How to Select a Chess Set
by Thomas Katsampes

Many articles are written about chess but there are not a lot of articles that deal with selecting a chess set in a practical sort of way. I have owned practically every kind of chess set imaginable, from tiny pocket sets to large ornamental pieces. I have owned sets made out of many different kinds of materials, including wood, plastic, metal, and stone.

The choice of a chess set is as personal as one's choice of clothing. It is also subject to change over time, as is one's choice of clothing. I prefer a chess set with a 3" to 3.5" King. Any larger than this requires a large board. Larger boards (except vinyl) tend to be significantly more expensive, as are the pieces themselves.

For pieces I recommend the Jaques or House of Staunton lines. I have owned the House of Staunton Library Collector's with the 3" King. I am in the process of acquiring my first Jaques set (not an antique - they still make chess sets after 150 years). I was very pleased with the House of Staunton Library set. I made the mistake of selling it on eBay a number of years ago because I was going to start playing tournament chess again. So I sold it and got the House of Staunton plastic set with the 4" King. 4" Kings are too large in my opinion. The board requires at least 2.25" squares (full tournament size). If the set is too large you cannot see the entire position at once but have to glance around. Plastic cannot compare to the feel of a nice boxwood, rosewood or ebony set. Rosewood and Ebony are brittle and break easily, so my preference is boxwood and ebonized boxwood for Black. That's what I have on the Jaques.

For chess boards I recommend the Drueke line of boards. I actually have a Drueke with 2.75" squares for a large, ornamental set I have. But the problem with ornamental sets is that they are very impractical for play. It's fun to play on them once in a while, but for serious play -- especially play with a clock -- you need a standard staunton design, and nothing compares to the HoS or Jaques lines of chess sets.

Don't settle for those cheap sets you see in the mall for $20 or $40. You will get tired of looking at it and want something else within 6 months or a year. With a high quality wood set, you will never tire of looking at it, and it will also become a family heirloom. In my opinion one should budget anywhere from $100 to $400-$500 on a good set of pieces. Yes, it can be expensive, but in the long run you'll be glad you made that decision.

The other advantage of wood over plastic is that plastic pieces will never match a wood board, but a nice wood set nearly always looks good with either a wood board or a vinyl roll up board, especially the green and buff boards. (you'll want a properly sized vinyl board for each size of wood set that you own, so that you don't have to carry your wood boards around, as they might get scratched or dented. Chessboard wood is soft and easily nicked).

The proportion of the pieces one to another is important. What is lacking in many sets is the height of the Rooks. Rooks being powerful pieces should be at least as tall as the Knights, and ideally between the Knight and Bishop in height. Too many sets have diminutive little Rooks that could be mistaken for Pawns if one's not careful. The original Jaques design and the House of Staunton Collector's edition have very nicely sized Rooks. Do not buy pieces that are too ornately carved because they will tend to get damaged during play. Get pieces with a simple but elegant carving. It bears repeating that the original Jaques design is quite ideal. The design of the Fischer-Spassky 1972 set is also good, but the Rooks tend to be pretty short.

For the chess board itself, the wood colors should contrast enough so that the diagonals are obvious but not so much so that the colors obscure the pieces. Again in my opinion Drueke makes the best boards but Jaques makes a fine board as well, and many nice board are available through the House of Staunton. Drueke uses walnut and maple; this is a very nice wood combination. Drueke boards are hard to find but can still be bought new on some websites, you just have to look for them.

Well, that's all I have to say right now about selecting a chess set. Again there are many variables and what may suit one player may not suit another. Happy chess set hunting!