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The Evolution of Classic Chess Pieces

By Wesley Fenlon

Chess has been around for hundreds of years, but the pieces we all recognize were designed a mere century and a half ago.

In typical pop culture fashion, most successful movies and video games and TV shows produce tons of merch. T-shirts, mousepads, plushies, and, almost inevitably, Monopoly boards and chess sets. There are Batman chess sets, Mario chess sets, Star Wars chess sets, and LEGO Star Wars chess sets. Designing those sets is like a game in itself--which character is the King? Which is the Queen? Who plays the demeaning pawn? Recognizing those pieces is a unique challenge, because virtually everyone knows exactly what "normal" chess pieces look like.

We can easily tell the rook from the bishop from the knight, which is actually a relatively new development for a game as old as chess. According to Design Decoded's interesting history of the Staunton chess set, the now-classic design has only been around since 1849. For hundreds of years, stretching back to the 11th century, European chess pieces and rules have continuously evolved. It wasn't until the 19th century that chess clubs and tournaments pushed the chess world into adopting a standardized set of pieces, and an architect named Nathan Cook created the designs that we've been using ever since.

Cook drew heavily on architecture in designing the Staunton chess set. Design Decoded writes "Cook, who looked at a variety of popular chess sets and distilled their common traits while also, more importantly, looking at the city around him. Victorian London’s Neoclassical architecture had been influenced by a renewed interest in the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome, which captured the popular imagination after the rediscovery of Pompeii in the 18th century. The work of architects like Christopher Wren, William Chambers, John Soane, and many others inspired the column-like, tripartite division of king, queen, and bishop. A row of Staunton pawns evokes Italianate balustrades enclosing of stairways and balconies."

Cook's knight, by far the most detailed (and least abstracted) piece in the set, was supposedly based on a sculpture on the Parthenon. The simplicity of his designs resonated with chess players, but Cook's real success came from a smart partnership with chess master Howard Staunton. Staunton helped promote the set when it was released in 1849, and his name helped Cook's designs become standard for chess sets the world over.

Photo credit: Flickr user averain via Creative Commons

Ironically, there are now hundreds of variations of the Staunton design, too. But the major characteristics remain the same. Check out the rest of Design Decoded's story to see some of those variations, as well as a recent redesign for the 2013 World Chess Candidates Tournament that tries to get back to the roots of Cook's original pieces.