Chess Sets...An insight into that cherished chess piece, the Knight!
This article is written to provide an insight, and opinion on the part of the author, into 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 the most interesting piece as it exhibits the most obvious craftsmanship or interesting design. Chess collectors, however, see as much art in the other pieces though 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:
For the sake of general play knights like this are perfectly adequate and a feature of economical chess sets used everywhere. Some knights in sets like these are 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' however crude. This horse is what is referred to as the 'knight' and most people would always think that a knight is 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 throughout this 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 sets, are a 'style' or 'pattern' of chess set and not a 'manufacturer', and are available from a number of worldwide makers and vendors. Staunton is to chess as an SUV may be compared to a motor vehicle. There are many manufacturers of SUVs throughout the world all showing a similar tall 5 door hatchback style. In chess, however, there are very few truly skilled manufacturers and many dealers. Some dealers trade under the guise of manufacturer, branding other peoples designs and often naming them as their own in an attempt to develop a unique identity. 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. Following the CITES Agreement which greatly controlled the harvesting of elephant tusks many artisans switched their attention to camel bone decoration sets and wooden players' sets.
Wood has been the preferred material to fashion chess knights for years. The woods used have been selected for their ease of carving, specific colors, robustness, and sheer beauty. The most attractive woods are often exotic and exude striations and hues of color in the wood grain, as a result are often quite rare and expensive. The most common wood used is boxwood, universally used for making the white chess pieces. In cheaper sets this wood is stained black to form the opposing side, often referred to as 'ebonized' meaning made to look like ebony. Ironically, genuine real Indian ebony is striated so it is not uncommon to see ebony sets being marketed correctly as ebony sets and stained black 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 regulations and/or are the subject of the International CITES Agreement. The wood type 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.
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 he knew. The top part of the knight was and remains the most artistic element in the piece, connected by a dowel to the weighted base with glue in wooden sets and screws in bone and ivory sets.
As the Staunton pattern has developed some manufacturers have focused on making better and more appealing products in response to cheap competition from overseas that has saturated the market. This is contrasted with a growing consumer demand from discerning chess players and chess collectors who see the convergence in chess and chess art and welcome the emergence of some unique Staunton chess sets as not only fine game pieces but also wonderful home decoration items, often kept out on display in a library or living room for all to admire.
The most obvious attraction in these sets is the knight, although good chess set design applies equal importance to the other pieces in the set to ensure continuity, size, and weight proportionality and conformity to the International Tournament standards including the USCF and FIDE. As a result, every year there are more and more stunning knight designs available, several carved with immense skill, creating highly adorned, collectible and increasingly lifelike designs.
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 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 for safety reasons.
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 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. Switching from lead to steel further exacerbated the problem due to the reduced density of the weighting. 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.
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.
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.
Sadly, buyers should be aware that a higher price chess set is not necessarily a true indicator of its value. 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.
We hope this article may provide a little more insight into that wonderful chess piece, the glorious knight!
Copyright: Steve Livingstone, TheChessPiece.com 2012