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Chess has been around for about 1,500 years, making it the OG of board games. Naturally, in that amount of time, chess sets have evolved quite a bit in design and function.
Today, there are a number of popular chess sets that range in both playing style and decor style. Some sets’ primary function — much like a standing antique globe or all six volumes of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire — is to lend a sense of gravitas to one’s study or den. Others are more practical for every day use, whether for a family game night, or a bragging rights contest amongst friends.
Chess sets across the board (excuse the pun) will include the same basic elements necessary to play (I.e. the board itself and all pieces) but chess sets vary in terms of construction and quality. Decorative chess sets may be handcrafted from materials like alabaster and marble, but most practical sets are made of wood or sometimes plastic, which can withstand a beating.
Regulation sets for competition have strict size requirements for pieces in relation to the squares, but for home use, size is mostly a matter of taste. There are, however, a few things we think are especially useful to keep in mind when shopping for a chess set.
What Are the Best Chess Sets?
The best chess sets will deliver on both quality of its playing board and its game pieces.
Quality: First things first, look at the construction of the board itself. At a minimum, you’ll want a board that lays flat and even, and feels sturdy enough to last a long time.
Weight: Chess pieces should feel weighty and solid so they stay firmly in place on the board. For this reason, many wooden pieces include weights at the bottom. Sets made specifically for travel are often magnetized to keep pieces in place.
Storage: If you’re not using your chess set as a display, we look for sets that are easy to store and travel with. Many sets fold inward to create a storage space for pieces. We like these storage spaces to be lined with felt and include either straps or fitted depressions to securely contain pieces.
Queens: Not an essential, but a bonus, many sets include two extra Queen pieces for when you crown a pawn.
1. Chess Armory Wooden Chess Set
Our best “all purpose pick,” this Chess Armory wooden set is made from quality inlaid walnut, with handcrafted Staunton-style chess pieces (Staunton being the classic chessmen you’re probably used to seeing).
This chess board folds inward to provide storage for chess pieces, which are protected by the felt lining and secured with interior straps. Unfolded, the board is a standard 15 by 15 inches, and when folded up, is pleasantly compact and easy to travel with.
The hinge in the middle of the board made game play slightly awkward, but we think it’s a pretty minor inconvenience.
Pros: Beautiful inlaid walnut board, and small and compact, making it easy for travel.
Cons: Hinge in the middle of the board can be awkward.
2. Winning Moves No Stress Chess
Chess is a famously complicated game with generations of history on specific strategies and logic patterns, which is a lot to take on as a beginner. That’s why we included this Winning Moves teaching chess set, which includes a deck of cards explaining how each piece moves, as well as an introduction to basic strategy and planning.
It’s designed to gradually teach beginners how to play standard chess, and once you’ve gotten a good handle on how each piece operates, you can flip the board to the standard board side and play for real. We find this set particularly useful for teaching kids who want to learn to play (but adults find it useful too).
This board is definitely more teaching tool than erudite piece of home decor, with a cardboard playing surface and plastic pieces. If your chess board needs are more aesthetic than practical, this might not be the set for you.
Pros: Handy teaching deck and strategy book which are helpful for beginners just learning.
Cons: Cheaper look and feel.
3. Wegiel Handmade European Ambassador Chess Set
If you happen to be looking for something a little more decorative, we really like this detailed wooden set which is handcrafted in Poland from farm-grown wood.
The board is made of beech and birch wood, which gives it a certain heirloom-y feel. The handcrafted chessmen are made from hornbeam and sycamore, each intricately detailed in a way that feels particular to this board.
On the more practical side, this folding board has decent storage capacity, with secured, formed compartments to store each chess piece individually. The pieces themselves are felt-bottomed and weighted to protect the surface of the board and keep pieces put. That said, some people found that even with the weights, pieces could use a little more heft (a good hack for this is to secure washers and additional felt pieces to the bottom with heavy glue).
Pros: Beautifully handcrafted which gives it a classic old world appearance.
Cons: Chessmen still felt slightly light.
4. Wooden Chess Set for Kids and Adults
We like the classic wooden look of this chess set as well as the accompanying e-book of basic tactics and strategies, making it both attractive to play on and display, and an excellent choice to learn the basics and improve your chess skill.
This set also includes two extra Queen pieces for pawn promotion, and its interior storage secures chessmen with plastic bands to keep them in place. We did find that the pieces were particularly light and some bottoms are slightly uneven, which gives them a propensity to wobble.
Pros: Attractive, classic appearance and guidebook, with two additional Queen pieces.
Cons: Light pieces wobble slightly.