Staunton chess set

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Original Staunton chess pieces, left to right: pawn, rook, knight, bishop, queen, and king

The Staunton chess set is composed of a particular style of chess pieces used to play the game of chess.[1] According to the rules of chess, this style is to be used for competitions.[2] The journalist Nathaniel Cooke is credited with the design on the patent, and they are named after the English chess master Howard Staunton, who endorsed it; the first 500 sets were numbered and hand-signed by Staunton.[3](p225) This style of set was first made available by Jaques of London in 1849, and they quickly became the standard. The set style and its variations have been used around the world since.[4](p17)

Old-style chess sets[edit]

An English Barleycorn-style set
A St. George-style set

The increased interest in the game of chess, particularly in international play during the late 18th century and early 19th century, brought about a renewed demand for a more universal model for chess pieces. The variety and styles of the conventional form, begun in the 15th century, had expanded tremendously by the beginning of the nineteenth century. Conventional types popular during the period included the English Barleycorn chess set, the St. George chess set,[5] the French Regence chess set[6] (named after the Café de la Régence in Paris), and the central European forms.[7]

Most designs then in use had pieces that were cumbersome during play, tall and easily tipped, but their major disadvantage was the similarity of the pieces within a set. A player's unfamiliarity with an opponent's set could alter the outcome of a game.

By the early decades of the 19th century, it was all too clear that there was a great need for a chess set with pieces that were easy to use and universally recognized by chess players of diverse backgrounds. The solution, first released in 1849 by the purveyors of fine games, John Jaques of London, sport and games manufacturers, of Hatton Garden in London, was to become known as the Staunton chess set after Howard Staunton (1810–1874), the chess player and writer who was generally considered the strongest player in the world from 1843–1851.

Although Nathaniel Cooke has long been credited with the design, it may have been conceived by his brother-in-law and owner of the firm, John Jaques.

One theory of the development of the set is that Mr. Cooke had used prestigious architectural concepts, familiar to an expanding class of educated and prosperous gentry. London architects, strongly influenced by the culture of Greece and the culture of ancient Rome, were designing prestigious buildings in the neoclassical style. The appearance of the new chessmen was based on this style and the pieces were symbols of "respectable" Victorian society:

There were also practical innovations: For the first time a crown emblem was stamped onto a rook and knight of each side, to identify their positioning on to the king's side of the board. The reason for this is that in descriptive chess notation, the rooks and knights were often designated by being the "queen's knight", the "king's rook", etc.[8]

Another possibility is that Jaques, a master turner, had probably been experimenting with a design that would not only be accepted by players, but could also be produced at a reasonable cost. In the end, he most likely borrowed and synthesized elements from sets already available to create a new design that used universally recognizable symbols atop conventional stems and bases: The resulting pieces were compact, well balanced, and weighted to provide an understandable, practical playing set.[8]

It may have been a combination of both theories with the synergy of Mr. Cooke the entrepreneur and Mr. Jaques the artisan.[8]

Chess books from 1820 on were using in diagrams icons of chess pieces similar in many respects to the Staunton chessmen, including a recent change from arched crown to coronet for the queen. This shows that the Staunton design may have been taken from these diagrams, very likely picked up by a printer.[9]


The ebony and boxwood sets were weighted with lead to provide added stability and the underside of each piece was covered with felt, allowing the pieces to slide easily across the board. Some ivory sets were made from African ivory. The king sizes ranged from 3½ to 4½ inches and the sets typically came in a papier-mâché case, each one bearing a facsimile of Staunton's signature under the lid.

The Staunton pieces broadly resemble columns with a wide molded base. Knights feature the sculpted head and neck of a horse. Kings, the tallest pieces, top the column with a stylised crown topped with a cross pattée. Queens are slightly smaller than kings, and feature a coronet topped with a tiny ball (a monde). Rooks feature stylised crenellated battlements and bishops a Western-style mitre. Pawns are the smallest and are topped by a plain ball. Pieces representing human characters (the king, queen, bishop, and pawn) have a flat disk separating the body from the head design, which is known as a collar.


Jaques then approached his brother-in-law for advice. The design was registered at the Patent Office on 1 March 1849, to Nathaniel Cooke, 198 Strand, London, England as an Ornamental Design for a set of Chess-Men, under the Ornamental Designs Act of 1842. At that date, there was no provision for the registration of any design or articles of ivory; registration was limited to Class 2, articles chiefly made of wood.


Cooke was the editor for the Illustrated London News, where Staunton published chess articles. He convinced the champion to endorse the chess set.

A set of Chessmen, of a pattern combining elegance and solidity to a degree hitherto unknown, has recently appeared under the auspices of the celebrated player Mr. Staunton. A guiding principle has been to give by their form a signification to the various pieces – thus the king is represented by a crown, the queen by a coronet, &c. The pieces generally are fashioned with convenience to the hand; and it is to be remarked, that while there is so great an accession to elegance of form, it is not attained at the expense of practical utility. Mr. Staunton's pattern adopts but elevates the conventional form; and the base of the pieces being of a large diameter, they are more steady than ordinary sets.

— Illustrated London News, 8 September 1849.

Staunton not only endorsed the product for Jaques of London but promoted it to an extraordinary degree including the lambasting and derision of any other design of chessmen then proposed. The Staunton, as it became known, became available to the general public on 29 September 1849. The Staunton style was soon the standard on which most tournament playing pieces have been made and used around the world ever since. The low cost of the Staunton set allowed the masses to purchase sets and helped to popularize the game of chess.

The Staunton set obtained the stamp of approval of FIDE, the World Chess Federation, when in 1924 it was selected as their choice of set, for use in all future international chess tournaments.


There are 17 recognized variants derived from the original 1849 Staunton chess set, classified as follows:[10]

  1. Leuchars chess set (1849)
  2. Cooke chess set (1849–1850)
  3. Wedgewood chess set (1849)
  4. Morphy chess set (1851) – characterized by "Morphy" knights, which have more pronounced jowls than other designs.
  5. Harrwitz chess set (1852–55)
  6. Paulsen chess set (1853–1855)
  7. Anderssen chess set (1855–65)
  8. Steinitz chess set (1865–70)
  9. Tarrasch chess set (1870–1875)
  10. Zukertort chess set (1875–80)
  11. Lasker chess set (1880–85)
  12. Pre-Hartston chess set (1885–1890)
  13. Hartston chess set (1890–1900)
  14. Marshall chess set (1900–15)
  15. Nimzovitch chess set (1927–1937)
  16. Broadbent chess set (1925–37)
  17. Lessing chess set (1927–1937)

Modern times[edit]

The Staunton chess set has proven to be extremely popular and is likely to remain so in the future.[4](p17) The design is successful because of its well-balanced and easily recognized pieces. It is currently the official standard for tournament chess pieces.[2] Anthony Saidy and Norman Lessing wrote that, "if a vote were taken among chess-players as to which pieces they most enjoyed playing with, there can be no doubt that the Staunton chessmen would win by an overwhelming margin. They are invariably used in major chess tournaments. No self-respecting chess club would be without them. They afford the most pleasing combination of utility and aesthetic appeal." [11](p88)

Wooden Staunton chess sets were often turned on a lathe, then non-circular details were added by hand; the knights were made in two parts (head and base) which were stuck together with adhesive.

A modern Staunton set, in plastic

Knight variations[edit]

Even among sets of the standard Staunton pattern, the style of the pieces varies. The knights vary considerably. Here are some examples.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Stamp, Jimmy (3 April 2013). "How the chess set got its look and feel". Smithsonian magazine. The vaunted Staunton Chess Set, the standard chess set you probably grew up with, has its roots in neoclassical architecture.
  2. ^ a b Standards of Chess Equipment and tournament venue for FIDE Tournaments (Report). FIDE. Retrieved 22 February 2009.
  3. ^ Just, Tim (2003). Burg, Daniel B. (ed.). U.S. Chess Federation's Official Rules of Chess (Report) (5th ed.). McKay. ISBN 0-8129-3559-4.
  4. ^ a b Kasparov, Garry (2003). My Great Predecessors, part I. Everyman Chess. ISBN 1-85744-330-6.
  5. ^ "St. George chess set".
  6. ^ "French Regence chess set".
  7. ^ "Selenus chess set".
  8. ^ a b c Evans, Sean. "History of Staunton chess pieces". Archived from the original on 28 October 2009.
  9. ^ "Staunton chess set design" (PDF).
  10. ^ Fersht, Alan (2010). Jaques Staunton Chess Sets 1849–1939 (Kindle ed.). Kaissa Publications. Kindle Locations 236–241.
  11. ^ Saidy, Anthony; Lessing, Norman (1974). The World of Chess. Random House. p. 88. ISBN 0-394-48777-X.


Further reading[edit]

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