Choosing the Right Chess Set

When we first start learning chess we often do so using an old hand me down chess set that’s been sitting, dusty and neglected, in the family closet for years. These sets sometimes are thematic, depicting the pawns and pieces as characters from a popular historical period, movie or television show. Other times, these sets are made up of extremely tiny pieces that, because of their size, make it difficult to distinguish a Bishop from a pawn. While they serve their purpose for the beginner, they’re not the standard. By standard, I mean a chess set used in rated tournament play. When the beginner decides to take his or her game on the road and play at the local chess club, they’ll most likely not find anyone playing with a set that has Homer Simpson as its King!

My younger students as well as my adult students eventually ask me what kind of chess set they should be playing on. Before giving my answer, I’d like to mention the qualities that define a proper chess set. The pawns and pieces should easy to distinguish from one another. Small chess sets, those with a King height of 1 ½ inches or less, are often void of detail which makes the pawns and Bishops difficult to distinguish from one another. Other pieces, such as the King and Queen can be difficult to identify as well (at least to the beginner). Therefore, a good chess set will have a King height of 3 ¾ to 4 inches. Another factor to consider is the material the pawns and pieces are made of. After the beginner has spent many months studying chess, they sometimes feel the need to reward themselves with a decent chess set. When I say set, I’m referring to the pieces and board. You can find some amazing wooden sets available, some costing thousands of dollars. While these sets are lovely, they are made of wood and are thus fragile. If a Pawn or piece from your $1,000.00 set falls off the table and breaks, you’ll have to pay roughly $31.00 to replace that single piece, if you can find someone who sells replacement pieces.

A better choice is a plastic tournament set. You can buy them inexpensively and they are considered the standard for tournament play throughout the world. Therefore, when students ask me what type of chess set to purchase, my answer is always the same, a plastic tournament set. These Pawns and pieces are made from extremely durable plastic which makes them difficult to break (a plus with kids). They come weighted or unweighted. For young children, I’d recommend the unweighted set because the weights are often small metal cylinders that can eventually fall out of the piece’s base. This can be a choking hazard for children. For older students, I recommend a triple weighted set. The weight helps to keep the pieces from tipping over which can be handy when playing Blitz or if you play outside and wind is a factor.

The price of plastic pieces ranges from $10.00 to $40.00 which is better than spending $1,000.00. The other advantage to using an inexpensive set is that you can use the money you save to invest in chess books or training software which is far more important that a fancy set of pieces.

The standard design used in tournament play is the Staunton pattern. However, there are small differences in the way in which the pawns and pieces are designed in the various sets available. Some Knights, for example, have greater detail in their manes while some Bishops have a more pronounced Mitre. Normally, the more expensive the plastic set, the greater the level of detail. I’m very picky about my plastic sets, having settled on a plastic reproduction of the pieces used in the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match (an officially excepted pattern for use in tournament play). You have choices even when it comes to plastic playing pieces! Now let’s talk about boards.

Wooden boards are nice but they’re expensive and not very portable. Invest in a vinyl roll up tournament board. They cost less than $10.00, are easy to transport and if you spill something on them, you can simply wipe it off (try that with an expensive hand oiled Teak board that costs $300.00). These vinyl roll up boards are also the standard of tournament play. Vinyl tournament boards have 2 ¼ inch squares (designed to accommodate pieces with a King height on 3 ¾ to 4 inches) and letters and numbers running along the board’s edges that denote the files and ranks. This makes it much easier for the beginner to play through their own games as well as games from chess books.

It is best, as a beginner, to use a tournament set since they are used at chess clubs and in tournaments across the globe. However, there are additional reasons for using such a set. First off, because of the piece and board size, it’s easy to move the pieces around without accidentally knocking nearby pieces over (try that with a tiny chess set during a fie minute game of Blitz). The alpha-numeric symbols on the board’s edges make it easier for the beginner to start recording their games which is extremely important. It also serves to help teach chess notation to the chess novice since the beginner simply has to line up the file letter and rank number to identify a square. While the average player can do this on a board without these alpha-numeric markers, the beginner often finds this task difficult and can write down the wrong square without a visual aid.

There is also the notion that you’ll look more like a serious chess player with the right equipment. If I visit someone and they pull out a tournament set, I immediately think “this guy probably has some experience on the board. Lastly, you might want to consider a travel bag for your roll up board and pieces. This type of chess bag comes with inner compartments for your pieces and board as well as a chess clock. They run roughly $15.00 to $30.00 and are designed for the player on the go, having handles and straps to make toting it around easier. It beats carrying around your pieces in a brown paper bag (although I know a brilliant chess hustler who does just this to lull his opponent into a false sense of superiority)!

In closing, hold off on buying a wooden chess set. Again, your money is better spent on training materials. While top level players can be seen playing with lovely wooden pieces on equally wonderful wooden boards, they’ve earned that right. To be fair, I’ll make you a deal. Get your rating up to around 1900 and you’ve earned such a set. Until then spend your money wisely. There’s a big difference between owning great chess gear and playing great chess! Speaking of “until then”, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).