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Chess Sets

Chess restorer Alan Dewey ,, and historian Milissa Ellison summarise the generally-accepted understanding of how the Jaques Staunton Chess set design came into being,
and speculate a bit about the parts that are not yet known.

Staunton Chess Set Design

It is 1847 or 1848. John Jaques of Jaques of London, de facto world chess champion Howard Staunton, and printer and editor Nathaniel Cooke  surely on occasion sat down together in the members’ lounge of Simpsons in the Strand. At such times, conversations must have turned more than once to the sorry state of the chess sets in use in the clubs of the day.

What was the problem? According to Howard Staunton, who had a chess column in the Illustrated London News from 1845 until 1874, it was one of practicality: the sets in use weren’t ideal for play. Many of the Régence pieces looked confusingly similar and were easily tipped over.  . "One should see the heathen sets in use in the Régence club in Paris, why, a gentleman could easily mistake the queens, bishops and pawns!" Staunton might have said.  Alternatively, the St George sets (despite their durable English appeal and sturdy bottoms) had such chunky pieces that the pawns disappeared from view during a game

John Jaques was no stranger to innovative chess design.  In 1828 his firm had designed the sets for the Simpsons in the Strand chess club, the Grand Cigar Divan. Moreover, Jaques also marketed a variety of designs, such as the popular St George style as well as the Northern Upright, or Edinburgh. We know this because remnants of the 1849 Jaques sales catalogue are extant and show designs for both these chess set styles. 

Newspaper coverage of international contests fueled popular interest in chess. So did spectacular events such as the chess-playing pseudo-automaton “The Turk” and the long-distance telegraphic chess matches of the 1840s. Even if chess were not yet commonly being played in parlors and kitchens, it certainly was in the clubs.

Upon the death of Philidor [1795], the Chess Clubs at the West-end [of London] seem to have declined; and in 1807, the stronghold and rallying point for the lovers of the game was "the London Chess Club," which was established in the City, and for many years held its meetings at Tomm's Coffee-house, in Cornhill. To this Club we are indebted for many of the finest chess-players of the age; and even now, after the lapse of nearly a century, the Club still flourishes, and numbers among its members some of the leading proficients. About the year 1833, a Club was founded by a few amateurs in Bedford-street, Covent Garden. This establishment, which obtained remarkable celebrity as the arena of the famous contests between La Bourdonnais and M’Donnell, was dissolved in 1840; but shortly afterwards, through the exertions of Mr. Staunton, was re-formed under the name of "the St. George's Club," in Cavendish-square…deservedly ranking as the most influential club of the kind in England.

Timbs, from whose memoirs the above was excerpted, went on to mention smaller, usually informal associations formed by and for chess players that, along with the London and St George’s clubs and the magnificent Grand Cigar Divan, accomodated a sizeable chess playing population in the London area alone, let alone England.


Charles Dickens, in his Dickens's Dictionary of London, largely supported Timbs’ observations with his own. Dickens spoke additionally of, “a West-end chess club [that] was established [in 1823], with special rooms, &c., at the Perry Coffee-house in Rathbone-place”. He also noted the dominance of strong players at the established clubs, which sparked the rise of venues for amateur and beginning players in “numerous coffee-houses, where "Monsieur" and "Herr," who since the first French Revolution have been always with us, dispensed instruction at such charges as their modest requirements suggested.”   

Rather obviously, all these chess players needed chess sets.  A new design was needed. Being not afraid of greatness, Howard Staunton, John Jaques, and Nathaniel Cooke chose this moment to thrust themselves onto the world’s stage, each with his part in bringing forth the chess set design that dominates chess play (and to a large degree, even our very idea of chess sets) to this day. Howard Staunton was calling for a new chess set design by 1848, saying that the set’s pieces must have, “[a] stable heavy base, but be slender enough towards the top part so that other pieces [on the board] were not obscured".   As had been done already by the German Edel family, the new chess design should feature taller pieces in the center with the pieces becoming shorter moving outward toward the edge of the board.  Aside from providing a pleasing symmetry, this gradation of heights would allow for increased visibility of the forward pieces.

A crucial remaining decision was the shapes of the pieces themselves: they must not only be functional, but be readily recognized by all. A significant problem in competitions between clubs was that whatever house set design—St George, Edinburgh, Régence—was in use would be one familiar to the home player but not necessarily to the visitor. None of the current styles satisfied all the needs, though: as discussed earlier, both the Régence and Edinburgh styles were unstable, with the Régence also having pieces that closely resembled each other. The St George style was, to put it bluntly, chunky. 

Perhaps it was Nathaniel Cooke who realized that, as printed chessbook symbols were virtually standardized already (and thus were widely recognized), these symbols for game play in books simply could be used for the shapes of the pieces in the new chess set.  As some evidence of the link between symbol and shape, we see that most game diagrams prior to 1820 had employed as symbol for the Queen a closed crown. Roughly thirty years before the development of the Staunton design, chess books increasingly began to use a coronet for the Queen: this is a signal difference marking the Staunton design of chess sets for play apart from all other chess sets.  

Chess Set History

It’s time now to conclude, and return to the Grand Cigar Divan where we left John Jaques, Howard Staunton and Nathaniel Cooke. Their evening has wound down as well, and perhaps a chess set design has been decided upon. Exactly how their ideas, experience, skills, and goals meshed together is largely unknown and remains an active topic of research.   We hope that this essay has adequately sketched out what is known, what is debated, and what is purely speculative.

What also is important to recognize is that the Staunton style chess design first brought to production by Jaques of London in 1849 has long been adopted all over the world. For over 160 years it has been the standard chess set used in tournaments and clubs. Indeed, for many of us, Staunton style chess sets are what we see in our mind’s eye when we think of chess sets: they are what we grew up with.