The majority of historians think that chess is the oldest game of skill in existence. This was the Persian Empire, and thus the earliest chess sets and boards were Persian-made pieces used in the game they termed”chaturanga.” Unfortunately, no known pieces from the first few centuries of Persian chess sets remain in existence. Maybe someday an archeological dig will be fortunate enough to discover a few pieces, or maybe even a whole set, of the ancient version of chess.
The Persian Empire was enormous, and it was famous for being one of the most prolific trading empires. There was no corner of the empire that these traders didn’t reach, and they brought chess with them. The early version of chess quickly spread throughout the empire. These early chess pieces were made from many different substances throughout the Persian Empire, based on the resources of their owners.
More extravagant pieces were often carved from hardwoods like ebony and rosewood. The very best early chess sets were carved from ivory, which was favored by craftsman because of its ease of dividing and capacity to polish to a nice shine.
Luckily, examples of some of those early ivory chessmen still survive today. Pieces were discovered in modern-day Uzbekistan, and they’re in very good shape.
The next-oldest chess set in the world was found in India, and it’s been radiocarbon dated to around 900 AD. These pieces were the old style chessmen which were found in the Persian Empire’s version of chess.
More contemporary, European chess sets that players are knowledgeable about today date from not too long after this. The first example of these European chess pieces were stored at a monastery in Ager, Spain. They’re made from rock crystal which hasn’t survived the ravages of time very well, and just some of the pieces are in good enough condition to determine their use. The legend told by the monks that maintained the pieces over the years is that the set was originally carved for Charlemagne.
The oldest chess pieces that can be combined together to form a full set date back to the 12th century. These pieces, known as the Lewis Pieces, contain 96 individual bits that came from four separate sets. They were made in Norway out of ivory formed from walrus tusk and whale teeth. They’re in phenomenal condition, and seem as though they would be nice to use in a match today if they were not under glass at the British Museum.
European-style chess sets all had the exact pieces, but there were many different competing designs for certain pieces. This led to conflicts in games, when players would refuse to play each other because of the unrecognizable of particular pieces. A typical design for competition chess sets, known as the Staunton, was constructed in 1849 by Nathaniel Cook. It’s still the design used in boxing contests across the world today.