another step back in time, let's look at how our modern chess
evolved out of the ancient Persian game.
You may remember being mystified by the peculiar shapes of the
ancient chess pieces. Here's an explanation of how some of those
odd shapes might have come about.
the right is a conventional carving of an ancient Indian king,
in his glory, riding on an elephant back rig (that's called a
His advisor (our modern queen) took the same shape, only smaller.
ancient sculpted king on an elephant
you abstract that shape — just block out its general form
and round off the edges — you come up with something like
this. What we have here is a typical ancient chess king, as it
was represented all over central Asia, Northern Africa, and as
it came into Europe. You can see the bulk of the elephant's body,
the rising ridge of the howdah, and the blip of the king
himself up above it all.
The one shown here was actually found in Scandinavia, dated to
the 8th or 9th century.
ancient abstract king
ancient european queen, from 12th century Spain
The Europeans who inherited these shapes frankly did not know
what to make of them. Here is an ancient queen, based on that
same shape, squatted down into a coloseum, so that she takes the
form of the ancient piece.
there was another force at work in the shaping of chessmen.
Everywhere that chess went, it met up with craftsmen who wanted
to try their lathes on the design the of pieces. The ancient pieces
in the Muslim world were eclipsed by various toadstool-like shapes.
Pieces in this style are so similar to each other that they are
hard to tell apart. You will remember a similar evolution of pieces
in the Thai chess set we already looked at (page
typical Islamic chess set,
at the turn of the 20th century
an ornate example the "Selenus" style of chessmen. This
lean, spindly style enjoyed widespread popularity from the 16th,
well into the 18th century, especially in central Europe.
lathe turners of Europe also had their way with the shapes of
chessmen. In the western world, it became fashionable to make
the pieces as lean as possible, tall and spindly, elegant figures.
The layered flowery design known as the Selenus style
(after the author who depicted these in his book published in
1616) was popular throughout central Europe for about 300 years.
at the same time, figurative, representational pieces have been
cropping up all over the world, in all cultural settings. These
conflicting tendancies, toward abstraction on one hand and literal
representation on the other, are largely responsible for the great
variety of forms chessmen have taken over the ages.
The most enduring tradition of carved representational figures took
place in northern Europe, where sculpted forms like the one shown
at the right have been found, spanning a broad area, for several
The most famous chess find of all: In 1831, nearly four complete
sets of Scandinavian style chessmen were found on the Scottish
Isle of Lewis, dating back to the 12th century.
of chessmen was named for the
Café de la Régence, a popular chess gathering
in Paris during the last half of the 18th century.
middle of the 18th century, most of central Europe had come to favor
the Régence style of chessmen. This style flourished
for some 150 years as the most popular style of chessmen, well into
the early 20th century.
The Régence (or Regency) chessmen have
an elegant, yet simple shape. But the figures are a bit too similar
to one another for modern taste. The queen, at a glance, can be
mistaken for a bishop, and the bishop for a pawn.
chessmen which are considered standard today were originally copyrighted
in 1849, by Nathaniel Cook. Howard Staunton, the famous chess
master and chess author of the mid-late 19th century, allowed
his name to be used for these pieces, and we still know them as
the Staunton style. Seventy-five years later, in 1924, the Staunton
style was officially selected as the standard for international
tournament play, winning out over the popularity of the Régence
the Staunton chess men, as they appeared
in the copyright filed by Nathaniel Cook, in 1849