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Getting Started In Chess : Part 2 – Selecting Your Chessmen

Let’s get physical.

In this post, we will cover the physical characteristics of what I believe make good chessmen. We briefly touched on this topic when I defined the dimensions of the perfect chess board in a previous blog. As you can probably guess the plan is to pair these pieces with those boards. Let’s get our pieces.

Leave “Artistic Pieces” On The Wall

Before we get into what we should be looking for, let’s define what we don’t want. We don’t want “Artistic Pieces”. These are sometimes sold in non-chess related catalogs or websites. They usually have a theme like civil war pieces or maybe a popular show like Game of Thrones. They can have weird abstract shapes or are made out of unusual materials.

Let me clarify that there is nothing wrong with buying these for your chess collection or to display. Once your friends discover you are a chess player they will undoubtedly gift you some of these. I own several of these myself, and I love looking at them.  Sharing them with my friends is a lot of fun. However, these are not what you want to use if you are interested in improving your game. The pieces are part of that important pattern recognition skill that I told you about when we covered the ideal board. You want consistency.

Top 5 Reasons Not To Practice/Study With Artistic Pieces
  1. These artistic pieces are not allowed in a tournament. If you ever decide to play in a tournament you want to make sure you have been using tournament standard pieces to sharping your pattern recognition skills. If you spend time learning to recognize non-standard pieces you will have to retrain your brain when that next step comes.
  2. Artistic pieces don’t pair well with our ideal board. Because of their unique shapes, they usually come with their own board that was designed for them.
  3. Many of the artistic pieces only have subtle differences between the pieces which make it difficult to distinguish them from one another. Identifying the different pieces should be easy. You should never have to ask yourself if that is a pawn or bishop.
  4. They are not well weighted or balanced. You probably didn’t expect this to be a criterion, but it isn’t on my list by accident. The more you play the more you will appreciate the importance of a piece that feels “right” in your hand. You will also understand the frustration that accompanies a piece that isn’t balanced and falls over at the slightest touch.
  5. The material that they are made from is for aesthetic appeal, not everyday use. My first marble chess set didn’t make it ten moves before one of those slippery little buggers fell out of my hand and smashed on the floor. I still have that set and I think those 32 pieces have turned into about 96.
Let The Real Chessmen Loose

Now that we have identified what is wrong let’s jump right into the solution. The answer is that we want to narrow our search to what is the standard pieces excepted for official tournament play just like we did with the board. It may sound like I’m too focused on playing in tournaments, but I’m trying to save you from making mistakes that are easily avoidable. The chessmen approved for tournament play were not selected at random. They have been refined and tested under all sorts of conditions for over 100 years. Why not take advantage of this knowledge?  Even if you don’t think you will ever play competitively the benefits of following this advice will make your casual games more enjoyable too.

The style of chessmen we want is called Staunton Pattern Chessmen. You are probably familiar with this style already as it has been used in countless commercials and movies, but if you aren’t sure below is a photo of what they look like.

Top 5 Characteristics of the Ideal Chessmen

Now that we know the style, here are the physical characteristics we need to follow to match this with our board. We want to make sure our pieces don’t have any of the issues we pointed out with typical artistic pieces either.

  1. Staunton Pattern Chessmen are the only style allowed for tournament play. Even if you don’t have a desire today to play competitively it just makes sense to position yourself where it would take minimal effort to play in one.
  2. In my post about our ideal board, I said we should have squares that measure 2.25 – 2.5 inches. This means the king from in our set of chess pieces should be between 3 ¾” and 4 ¼” tall. The base should be 1.5 inches in diameter. This means the king, which is the biggest piece, can fit comfortably inside the squares of the boards.
  3. Staunton Pattern Chessmen have easily identifiable pieces. From the photo above you can see that distinguishing between them is very easy. They have unique shapes that allow you to survey the board quickly and locate the individual pieces without any guesswork.
  4. I’m going to admit that this is a personal preference, but probably 99% of chess players I’m friends with prefer triple weighted pieces. What is triple weighted? It’s simply adding some additional weight into the base of the piece. Chess piece doesn’t require a lot of material to make. It’s especially noticeable if you decide to go with plastic pieces. An unweighted 4 inch plastic king weighs around 1 oz. The same king triple weighted is about 3 oz. The extra weight also addresses the balance issue. By having that extra weight in the base the piece will not easily tip over.
  5. Plastic and Wood pieces are functional materials that are extremely durable. I used the same plastic set for about 20 years and only replaced it with another plastic set because I felt like it. Plastic pieces are great, but wood pieces are what chess players dream about. I can’t explain it, but playing a game with a nice wood set is something special.

Our Ideal Chessmen Are:

A plastic or wood Staunton style triple weighted set with a king that is between 3 ¾” and 4 ¼” tall and with a base that is approximately 1.5 inches in diameter.

 

Cost?

As with most things you can spend as much as you want on a Staunton set. I actually saw a set for sale that was made out of authentic woolly mammoth tusks. If you have an extra $13,000.00 laying around maybe you could pick it up. Fortunately, you don’t need to spend a fortune to get some nice pieces. Below are three sets that would pair well with the boards we selected earlier:

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