EARLY CHESS PIECES
Popular all around the world, the game of chess has inspired craftsmen from many cultures to whittle, carve or turn a splendid variety of elegant figures.
The game of chess is thought to have been invented in India in around the 6th century AD, though some believe it originated in
China. The game passed from India to Persia, through the Islamic world, and from there into medieval Europe.
Originally the pieces were representational, usually based on animals, but it was forbidden for Moslems to make images of men or animals, so they crafted their chess pieces in abstract shapes. Due to a kind of Chinese Whispers effect in translating names, the ones the Europeans gave the pieces were mostly quite different from the Persian and Indian originals: the Persian elephant, for example, became the fou (fool) in France and the bishop in England. Some terms are more directly related to their earlier languages: the ultimate object of the game, checkmate, is derived from the Persian words Shah, meaning king, and mat, meaning dead.
Boards were originally uncoloured, but the familiar check pattern was in use by the 13th century. In the late 15th century European players altered the moves of the queen and the bishop in order to speed up the game, giving us, more or less, the game we know today.
Some chess sets were designed more as commemorative souvenirs than for actual use. The Napoleonic wars, for example, inspired a spate of sets in which the white and red (at this time more common then black) kings were
busts or statuettes of the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon. Every European country developed its own traditional designs, using different combinations of columns,
balusters discs, reels and finials.
A lot of the Austrian and German sets from the 17th to 19th century had characteristic tiers of pierced, spiky crowns (or 'crow's nests'), and double-headed knights. In England, sets were mostly either sturdy Old English pieces on firm, roughly hemispherical bases, or the more decorative 'barleycorn' pieces, balanced on a slender baluster rising from a flat disc.
Fed up with hearing the old 'I thought it was a bishop' excuse, 19th-century players decided to standardize the chess set, at least for serious tournament play. The elegant, well balanced pieces which eventually won this honour were designed by Nathaniel Cooke, manufactured by John Jaques of London, and, in 1849, were given the blessing of Howard Staunton, the most important figure of the day in the world of English chess.
Chess has always been a game enjoyed by the well educated and, above all, by the leisured classes. Today, as in the past, they enjoy nothing better than to play on an elegant, gold-tooled leather board with a finely carved set.
CHESS COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Countless homes around the world contain chess sets, and most of these are of little value. On the other hand, some magnificent individual
chessmen are probably being used as ornaments, with their owners unaware of their real purpose. Incidentally, although often used as a word for any chess piece, the term 'chessman' technically does not apply to pawns, only to the pieces in the first row.
Dating pieces is notoriously difficult. Estimates of the age of Scandinavian walrus ivory pieces found on the Isle of Lewis in 1831 and famous in the chess world range from the 11th to the 17th century. You're unlikely to come across anything earlier than the late 18th century, but pinpointing a date of manufacture over the last two centuries can be hard.
FAMOUS MAKERS OF CHESS SETS
With good quality ivory sets from the 19th century, the maker's name is very useful. When it appears, which unfortunately is rare, it is stamped on the base of the white king (and occasionally the red king as well). Names to look out for include William Lund, Toy Brothers, G Merrifield and John Jaques. Boxed sets by these and other firms range from plain functional wooden ones to ornate papier-mache caskets, with leather divisions or cotton or velvet linings to fit the pieces.
Unless the design is very striking, it is best to collect complete sets. As these are quite rare, though, you could consider creating a set made up of odd individual pieces in as many different styles as you can find.
You need to learn to spot the difference between good and bad carving. What at first glance may appear to be identical chess sets could vary a great deal when it comes down to small details; you may even spot a rogue piece in a set this way. Become acquainted with as many Anglo-Indian sets as you can before taking the plunge and buying one. Even if you're not sure of its exact age, you'll be certain that what you are acquiring is a good set.
Dealers may be hazy about dates but they are unlikely to mislead you about the materials pieces are made of. Nevertheless, it is still best to get to know the difference between the various kinds of bone, ivory and horn, and plastic imitations. Age-bleached ivory and bone look quite similar, but where bone has dried out there will be tiny pits that have filled with dirt - even experts are sometimes forced to use a magnifying glass to spot them.
So many different kinds of chess piece have been made in the last two hundred years that it is best to narrow your sights a bit. You might like to collect playing sets rather than decorative ones, or only ones made of ivory. Whatever you decide, they will make a magnificent display and, who knows, one day you could be a grand