What to look for when buying a quality Staunton chess sets including an insight into that cherished chess piece, the Knight!
Disclaimer and Use Policy: This article is written to provide an insight, and opinion on the part of the author, the owner of TheChessPiece.com, into what are the most important aspects to consider when purchasing a fine Staunton chess set. We also provide an insight into the history behind the Staunton pattern so that one has an understanding as how and why this distinctive design became universally ubiquitous. We hope it will serve as a valuable tool which may enable our customers to make a more learned decision when considering buying a quality set. Many people only have the luxury of owning one fine chess set in their lives so it is worth investing time acquiring the knowledge needed to make the right choice. At TheChessPiece.com our best customer is always the 'educated' customer and this article is made available to you as free to distribute on the condition that none of the details are changed including all credits, links to our website for further information and a commitment to preserve our copyright ownership in this material.
When looking at a set of Staunron chess pieces the first piece that most people notice is that most cherished, artistic and elegant piece on the chessboard, the knight.
Possibly the most enigmatic of chessmen for new players in its style of move and yet it may be moved with the grace of a racehorse, leaping fences or your competitors' most powerful pieces into a position of safety or threat! Most players and chess admirers notice the knight as it exhibits he most obvious craftsmanship or interesting design. Chess collectors, however, see as much art in the other pieces as well although the styling may be more subtle and less exciting.
As chess players know, bishops are trapped to one square color throughout the game and can only move in a diagonal line. The knight, considered to be of equal value, has access to all squares and can establish itself on an opposite color at any time rendering the bishop powerless. The knight can therefore defend its own pieces whether on a black or white square. The reality is that the knight's strength is linked to its board positioning and the stage of game. Knights centered at the opening and mid game are far more valuable than bishops, but the extended reach of the bishop generally makes it a better piece during the end game.
Why the knight was designed to move in an 'L' shape is curious, though history logically suggests that this was a typical maneuver of armored cavalry to avoid oncoming attack. A long forward motion with a sudden short deviation to the right or left or 'L' shape is how most remember this pieces move when first learning to play. Most people associate the knight as a very simply carved horse, such as the second piece from the right in the picture below:
A typical large sheesham set of chessmen with 4.5" King
For the sake of general play knights like this are perfectly adequate and in fact these shown are generally much better than average and extremely good value given their size. This is because the woods they are made of also has a big impact on price. Smaller sets are generally much cheaper, simply because they use much less material but most others also feature even more simplistic knights and can even be extremely crude while others make some effort at showing some detail in the shape of the horse. Eyes, mouth and mane and general body shape look like a 'horse' being typically focussed on. This horse is what is referred to as the 'knight' and most people would always think that a 'knight' was by definition a horse but this wasn't always the case.
Several original historical chess sets from Asia, Europe, and the Far East didn't represent knights as horses at all. Often other animals including camels, elephants, and others and which also displayed this piece as an armored carrier taking soldiers into battle. Other major pieces were also sometimes completely unrecognizable between peoples from around the world calling for an international standard that chess players from everywhere could recognize. Many chess sets were designed as magnificent turned and carved pieces of art, and were more suited as decoration sets as opposed to playing sets since the pieces were often very tall and unweighted posing real risk of toppling during normal play.
Many of these historical unconventional styles can be seen at TheChessPiece.com website and a few are shown below. These sets hold great appeal to chess collectors, historians, and avid players. In reality, only sets from the 15th century onwards showed pieces in a so-called pre-Staunton style such as the St. George and Barleycorn sets also shown below which very much influenced the highly recognized Staunton design which is now ubiquitous worldwide.
The Staunton style we see today was designed by Nathaniel Cook and named after Howard Staunton, an English chess player and writer who at that time was considered the strongest player in the world.
Following the design of the Staunton Pattern chess set in 1849 the knight piece became created as a lone, unmounted horse's head and neck positioned on a turned weighted round base.
A typical Staunton Tournament standard Chess set knight
This shape was adapted in the first Staunton sets and is believed to have been fashioned around a stallion's head of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon. Although other ideas exist suggesting how that knight design pattern came about, we think this the most likely since it presented itself as an easier piece to make from a single piece of wood and more robust to use in general play.
Staunton is a 'style' or 'pattern' of chess set and it is not a 'manufacturer', in the same way as SUV is a style of vehicle and not the name of a manufacturer. In chess, there are very few truly skilled manufacturers but many dealers. Some dealers trade under the guise of manufacturer, others brand other peoples designs and some even name them as their own in an attempt to develop a unique identity which can be misleading. The hub of the most skilled makers for wooden sets is in Amritsar, India where generations of artisans who formerly carved the finest ivory sets are located. All our staunton pattern sets are procured from this area and meet the highest standards of craftsmanship.
The Pepys Camelbone set in turquoise, one of several modern designer colors only available from TheChessPiece
Following the CITES Agreement which greatly controlled the illegal harvesting of elephant tusks many artisans switched their attention to using camel and buffalo bone so that the incredibly attractive decoration sets could still be made. TheChessPiece.com has one of the largest selection of bone sets anywhere and in some cases we are prepared to offer some customization services allowing color and design changes. Most bone and ivory set designs pre-date Staunton and different regions of the world had their own specific patterns. The knights in these sets were often not just horses but a selection of other animals and some chess styles Muslim, Arabic, etc didn't use animals at all.
With the advent of Staunton all knights were designed as horses. In cheaper regular play sets these can be very simple and not much attention is paid towards creating a work of art as opposed to provide a piece that looks in some sense like a horse. In these sets it isn't important since the idea is to buy an inexpensive chess set for play and not as an exquisite work of art.
The Classic Staunton chessmen featuring a simple German style knight and extra queens is only $59.99
In the case of luxury sets then this is entirely another matter and particularly with luxury wooden chess sets an incredible amount of detail is applied often by a Master carver to ensure that the horse looks realistic. Wood has been the preferred material to fashion chess knights for years and the woods used have been selected for their ease of carving, specific colors, robustness, and sheer beauty. Not all woods are suitable for chessmen and many woods are never used at all. Chess production largely uses just one wood universally for the white pieces called boxwood and another wood for the opposing pieces.
In cheaper sets these opposing pieces are also made of stained black boxwood often referred to as 'ebonized' meaning made to look like ebony. The stain penetrates the wood a few millimeters and after time with frequent play this becomes obvious as the white underlying boxwood starts to show through.
The Official Staunton double weighted Chess Club design in ebonized black at just $69
Chess connoiseurs and purists like their genuine ebony sets to be jet black. Ironically, genuine real Indian ebony isn't jet black and is sometimes even striated striated and which can vary depending on which part of the tree (log) is used. It is therefore not uncommon to see some small hints of brown areas in the wood if the set isn't treated. We sell some sets that deliberately exploit and exude this natural color striations found in indiginous Indian ebony.
The Players Staunton a genuine Indian ebony set showing striped striations. This is a very fine set at $189.
Ebony sets being marketed correctly as genuine ebony sets are often stained black as well in order to ensure they are 'jet' black. Fortunately, chess pieces do not consume vast amounts of material in their manufacture but legitimate chess vendors do observe materials which are controlled by government export regulations. The type of wood used has a great impact on the cost of the chess set, as does the overall quality of the carving, turning, and finishing of the chessmen themselves. In order of affordability the opposing woods used are stained boxwood, sheeshamwood, natural rosewood (brown/black in color), padauk, red rosewood/bloodrosewood, ebony and red sandalwood sometimes referred to as budrosewood. The latter two are now very strictly controlled by the Indian Government. All these woods come in various grades, (no different to furniture making), where some vendors will use cheap cuts to reduce the cost of the product. Some vendors imply their woods used as budrosewood by calling it bud wood when in fact they are selling sets made of another low grade wood.
The Chetak, a very fine design carved in the most sought after exotic woods.
In luxury sets there are essentially two styles: Classic Staunton and Artistic Staunton. Purists seek sets that are made with the precision of the original Staunton sets considered the Jacques style. Jaques is a very respected manufacturer of chess sets who made the very first Staunton sets in their factory in England back in the mid 1800's. Since these sets were never mass-produced (and could never be mass-produced) the shape and size of the knights changed in a small way quite frequently. These are very much hand crafted sets and it should be expected to see some minor variation over time.
Our own reproduction of the original Staunton set has been well-received by buyers around the world because of the attention paid to detail to all the pieces in the set, not just the knight, as shown in the picture below. In order to create the right effect we have the white boxwood pieces antiqued to give a pleasing aged look. Antique reproduction chess sets like this are sold by very few other stores for many hundreds of dollars so we are pleased to offer this set at such a reasonable price and of course featuring this timeless, delightful Knight style.
The Original Staunton, TheChessPiece's very own interpretation of the first Staunton chess set made at just $399.
As historically was the case with early ivory and bone sets, the knight piece is most often made by two artisans, a Master Turner and a Master Carver, the latter often referred to as the knight carver. The knight carver would often work from home in his local community and sell his work to the various manufacturers or dealers he knew. The top part of the knight was and remains the most artistic element in the piece, it is normally connected by a dowel to the weighted base with glue in wooden sets and screws or threaded bone in bone and ivory sets.
Mechanical fastening techniques used with the chess knight.
The knight carver's work cannot be underestimated and chess sets completely handmade in this way have become heirloom acquisitions passed down from generation to generation. In luxury Staunton chess sets the knights typically contribute 25% of the value in the entire set. The series of pictures below show one set, the King's Knight, being carved from a single piece of wood.
The Kings Knight a beautifully carved bridled design
The pieces are individually carved using a high speed drill tool similar to a Dremel TM. Typically, a carver will create 50 heads at once and complete each stage on all of them before moving to the next. Carving batches of this many ensures consistency between the knights. The skill used is astonishing and it amazes us how only slight variations from the original can exist despite a set being made several years later. This degree of dexterity can only emphasize the value of a fine set like this when compared to mass market machine manufactured product sold by big box retailers.
The wooden base is made in much the same way as all the other major pieces and is turned using a special tool that carries the intended profile of the piece. The top and bottom halves of the knight are connected by a wooden dowel and glued together. A well-made knight will be seated perfectly flush to the base and not be immediately obvious that the piece comprises two halves.
Prior to connecting to the top half, the base of the piece is weighted to provide balance and stability with molten lead, although in the majority of modern sets this has been replaced by a steel core as this is cheaper although less dense and so the piece weighting in these steel sets will be noticeably lighter than those using lead.
As the Staunton pattern has developed some knight carvers have focused on making better and more appealing products with lifelike knights or knights which show panache and personality. Master 'generation' carvers who we use attempt almost the impossible in response to cheap low quality competition. Make these pieces so well and the competition will be unable to copy them! Several designs at TheChessPiece.com are made by true master artisans and we are proud to be supporting them by ensuring their skills are displayed for all to see and buy at very reasonable prices.
Destiny, possibly one of the finest carved knight you may ever see given it is carved in one single piece of wood.
The set above is extremely special not just because of the design but because the Master craftsman has not made this knight in the conventional way. The entire piece is carved from a single piece of wood- there is NO upper top piece and lower turned base connected by a dowel but this is made from just one single piece of wood. These take many weeks to make and unlike other luxury sets will be available in very limited quantities. Sales are strictly first come, first served.
When evaluating the quality of a chess set it always pays to take a close look at the quality of both the carving and the turning. Sometimes, it may not be obvious to the casual buyer but always consider taking an even closer look at the knight prior to making a purchase. As with jewelry placed in the hand, one would carefully inspect each gemstone used. The knight is much the same in that you should look for the details that matter: the design itself, the materials used, and the detail in the carving.
The Original Colombian Knight design was launched into the USA market by TheChessPiece.com in 2006
As Staunton chess art has developed more and more designs feature more life-like designs. Some are simplistic, natural, and beautiful while others may be artistic caricatures and wonderful pieces of art. What is consistent between them all is in the detail. The horse's teeth, tongue, eyes, ears, mane, nostrils, and muscle structures are often shown displaying expression and even mood and fierceness. Take a close look at the original design above, it is carved to perfection: Beautifully carved eyes, nostrils, ears, carefully cut occipital crest and carved in rich bloodrosewood. Now take a look at the copy underneath being sold in the market at a much lower price:
The Colombian Knight copy above lacks the carving skills that should be expected of a luxury set. This apparent sleep-deprived knight appears to come complete with beard, non-intertwined braid, and mismatched wood colors in low grade padauk.Our website maximum image sizes are 1500 pixels because we want to show the details. The real details are not very discernable if the image provided is just 250 pixels wide.
Sadly, due to mass copyright infringement the prolifearation of cheap designs is exacerbated by the fact that many designs are also copied by less experienced carvers at the request of their buyers who see an opportunity to gain market share from a market that we and some other professional vendors have seeded. To the untrained eye these designs, on first glance may initially look good but very careful attention to detail reveals the truth. Many people only want to buy one luxury set and we cannot over stress the importance of looking for the details that matter before buying. A poor quality low resolution image is a give away. At TheChessPiece we take our pictures in natural sunlight not in a professional studio and we find that this gives a better indication of the actual wood color. We do not use PhotoShop either to erase defects common in cheaper sets such as tool marks, dings, areas of the knight typically unfinished properly such as under the knight's neck, chips in the base, ears etc. For the prices we charge, TheChessPiece is recognized as a provider of excellent quality and value sets.
Sadly, buyers should also be aware that a higher price chess set is not necessarily a true indicator of its value either! Caution should be paid to vendors who may deliberately overprice their sets to create a perception of better quality, in addition to others who don't provide close up images to accurately show details needed to make a satisfactory quality judgment of the carving.
While the most obvious attraction in most Staunton chess sets is the knight, good chess set design applies equal importance to the other 5 pieces as well. These should show correct size proportionailty, weighting, balance, padding quality, color consistency across all pieces and conformity to International Tournament standards including the USCF and FIDE. At TheChessPiece.com we were proud to be invited by the US Chess Federation to loan 43 stunning luxury chess sets in the 2008 International Seniors event in Boca Raton. In addition, we have provided sets for use in several other events including the American Open.
Finally, two other issues need to be considered when choosing a set, that of padding and weighting.
There was no definition for the piece weighting stated in the original Staunton design but the terms single, double and triple weighted emerged as a rather meaningless standard based on the number of metal disks that were added to plastic sets made by Drueke Company to ensure stability. If a chess set is triple weighted then it should imply that there is very good weighting, but this term is misused and surprisingly many consumers ask for it thinking it is a legitimate standard of measure. Quality sets should make reference to the actual weight of the King or complete set to give a precise description. As much as the weight in the base is intended to provide balance, in manufacturing this also presents a challenge to those who have a restricted area in which to place the weight. Oversize the metal insert and the chess piece has a greater propensity to cracking, particularly with ebony sets; undersize it and be told the set isn't truly triple-weighted! Of course, the greater the base diameter then the greater the room for weighting to be added. The subject of padding materials is discussed here.
We hope this article may provide a little more insight into that wonderful chess piece, the glorious knight!
Copyright: Steve Livingstone, TheChessPiece.com 2012-2014