Tournament Style & Traditional Chess Sets

The Ultimate Chess Set Guide

Chess is a battle of the mind, it requires strategy and tactics in order to prevail. Even people who don’t play the game of chess regularly, and are unwise to the rules, will often show off a beautiful ornate wooden chess set in their home. Though the standard of chess set for competition internationally has stayed the same for at least one and a half centuries. The Staunton design isn’t the only traditional style of chess pieces and many other styles were used prior to Staunton becoming the standard piece in tournaments, including The Isle of Lewis chessmen and the Northern Upright pieces.

This blog post offers a guide to the varying patterns of chess pieces available, alongside this we have outlined the key things to consider when buying a chess set for practical use.


Weight & Sizing

Staunton Design

Dubrovnik & Zagreb

Other English Playing Sets

The Isle of Lewis Chessmen

Tournament Style Chess Sets

Weight and Sizing

When you are looking for a chess set to purchase, you may notice that the descriptions of the sets include a guide to the size, (primarily in inches). The size that is normally outlined is the king height and standard tournament chess sets, you can expect to look for a king height of 3.75”. Therefore, if you are purchasing a set for tournament use, then this would be the size you keep a lookout for.

Chess sets that offer a king height of 4" or more tend to be wonderful display pieces, though the larger the pieces, the bigger the price tag, this is due to the pieces using more materials and taking more time to be carved (normally by hand). More often than not, you can determine the expense of a chess set by the sheer amount of detail that is in the carving of the knight, this piece usually takes more man hours for crafting than the other pieces of the chess set.

When purchasing a chess set, it is really important to ensure the pieces are weighted to your preference. Unweighted chessmen feel too light and are prone to falling over, especially if you are playing on a vinyl chess board or an uneven surface area.

High quality chess pieces have been weighted with lead since the mid 1900’s, and you can sometimes identify a hole that has been cut into the bottom of the chess piece where the weight’s been inserted, don’t worry though, this is normally covered over by felt pads that help the chess pieces to glide seamlessly over the board, it also helps avoid scratches to the area in which you are playing. 

The Staunton Design

The Staunton pattern is easily one of the most recognisable chess sets of all time, the Staunton chess pieces were named after 19th century English grand master, Howard Staunton, who is said to have been the world's strongest chess player in the 1840s.

Howard Staunton however, did not design the pieces himself, they were in fact designed by a gentleman by the name of Nathaniel Cook who worked for Jacques of London in 1849. Howard Staunton did lend his name in order to promote them in one of the early sports sponsorships. Staunton chess pieces consist of tapered pieces that get smaller as they follow upwards from a wider base, smooth columns and finished with a motif that represents each piece.

The Dubrovnik and Zagreb Chessmen

Zagreb and Dubrovnik styles are very similar in aesthetics, they were influenced by  variations of the traditional Staunton pattern in the mid-20th century. Though they are alike, they boast a more rounded and smoother feel than the Staunton sets. The Zagreb chessmen often feature alternating-coloured finials, so that the black might be topped with a white finial or vice versa. Another feature is the style and shape of the knight, it appears to be curved and in a S-like position, with a downward-pointing face. 

Other English Playing Sets

The pattern below is named the Lund pattern, which was an English playing set that was used in the late 18th and early 19th century. This pattern consists of a ribbed column that represents a stack of disks and orb shapes. This chess set was only intended for serious competitors, and their popularity only surfaced after the Staunton pattern.

The Isle of Lewis Chess Pieces

Also known as Uig Chessmen, this chess set resembles a collection of 12th century chessmen that were discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland. Most of the Isle Of Lewis Chess Pieces are now on display in the  British Museum.

The detailed characters were originally crafted from ivory and walrus and are recognisable for their expressions. These chessmen have even been on display in the Harry Potter movies.

Tournament Style Chess Sets

The tournament style chess set is the most common style of chess set used in chess clubs and schools. They are usually a standard 3.75"  and made from plastic in the traditional Staunton design. The game is usually played on a  roll-up vinyl board too! If you have been to a chess club or played a  tournament game, then you have most likely come across one of these sets

The standard plastic chess pieces are cheap; this means that it does not matter if the pieces become damaged or are roughly handled.