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5 Amazing Chess Sets From Around the World

'It's a great huge game of chess that's being played—all over the world—if this is the world at all, you know. Oh, what fun it is!”

There are few ancient pastimes quite so universally admired as chess. Whether you’re invested in a casual game on the patio on a long summer’s evening, or the next Gary Kasparov, plotting revenge against a hyper-intelligent chess computer, the military-inspired strategy game has been enjoyed by people from all walks of life for centuries.

But from where does chess originate? The true provenance of the game is the subject of some debate; its oldest known predecessor is chaturanga, which has its roots set in 6th century northern India.

The Sanskrit word chaturanga, meaning four divisions in English, denotes the range of pieces at a player’s disposal in the ancient version of the game: infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariots. While the appearance and functions of these individual pieces may have altered over the centuries, chess’s ability to entertain, frustrate, and mentally challenge in equal measure remains just as potent. 

Here are just some of the finest examples of chess sets from the colourful pages of history, each with its own fascinating backstory and source of inspiration. Who knows, you might even find a set that feels curiously familiar...

1. The Lewis chessmen

“Nor are men to play board games with money at stake or anything else which a man thinks better to have than be without.”

Discovered on the Isle of Lewis in the early 1830s, this exquisite 78-piece set was most likely to have originated in the medieval Norse settlement of Trondheim, whose leaders invaded the Outer Hebrides in the 9th century. Handcrafted using walrus ivory and whales’ teeth, the set includes kings, queens, bishops, knights, warders—the medieval version of a rook–and geometric markers that would take the place of the pawns. You can now find the majority of the Lewis chessmen in the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland.

Lewis chessmen

2. The Àger chess pieces

“Avoid the crowd. Do your own thinking independently. Be the chess player, not the chess piece.”

While the lineage of chess can be traced back to India, before seeping via Iran into the Middle East and finally Europe, it’s no surprise that one of the most famous interpretations of the ancient game has clear links to the Islamic world. Deborah Freeman Fahid’s enchanting selection of chess pieces from the private al-Sabah collection in Kuwait is a fine example of medieval Islamic craftsmanship. At the centre of the collection is a number of rock-crystal pieces created in the Middle East around the 9th century, before finally being found in the late 11th century in a monastery in Àger in Catalonia.

3. Man Ray's surrealist set

‘All artists are not chess players – all chess players are artists’

Surrealists artists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray were famous for their preoccupation with chess, and were often found playing together in the former’s Paris studio. Man Ray’s work in his later years was frequently inspired by chess-related imagery; from checkered motifs in his photography to designs for playable chess sets.  

His most famous rendition of the game was created in 1920. Each pieces was artfully reduced to a modest, abstract form, inspired by objects found in his studio—a violin scroll takes the place of a knight; a flask for a bishop; and the king became a ornate Egyptian pyramid.

pewter alice in wonderland chess set in box

4. Alice in Wonderland pewter chess set

‘I declare it's marked out just like a large chessboard!' Alice said at last. 'There ought to be some men moving about somewhere—and so there are!' 

Straight from the Robert James Workshop collection. This fabulous and utterly unique Alice in Wonderland Pewter Chess Set, inspired by the many and varied magical characters from Lewis Carroll’s famous novel, is a true statement piece for lovers of the classic game created by the bronze sculpture master craftsmen.

Capturing Alice, The Dodo, the White Rabbit, and, of course, the Queen of Hearts, each handcrafted figure is painstakingly rendered to bring the enchanting world of Wonderland to life. Solid, weighty, and beautifully intricate, each piece is mounted on a circular base and felted to protect the polished hardwood board. The entire range of figures is beautifully presented in a handmade wooden box to create a memorable chess set for the ages.

alice in wonderland chess set pewter

5. Max Ernst wooden chess set

I am still a victim of chess. It has all the beauty of art — and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position.

In 1944, Marcel Duchamp, Marx Ernst and Julien Levy organised ‘The Imagery of Chess’ at Levy’s New York gallery. A total of thirty-two artists were invited to attend, corresponding to the number of chess pieces on a standard board. The German painter and sculptor, Ernst, created three elegant wooden sets for the exhibition, the designs of which took the familiar forms of traditional pieces and reimagined them into semi-abstract figures; from five-inch high zigzagging queens to unique spade-like kings.

Posted on September 9th 2022

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