Picking the correct chess set can be tough. You can play chess with any set, but finding the one that's right for you can be a challenge. Don't go wasting your money on a set that you won't like, or worse, one that will detract from your game.
Here are some tips to help you find a set that is sure to feel right when playing, and one that lies well within your budget.
1. One of the most important things to remember when picking out a chess set is the discernability (I know that's not a word) of the pieces. That is, how well you can tell the queen from the king, etc. That's why all tournament boards use very distinguishable styles of pieces. Stay away from the dreaded "themed" sets, and find something with a very simple look to it. There is nothing more annoying for a chess player than to have to consciously attempt to determine what piece is which. In a game like that, the owner of the board will definitely have a "home-field" advantage, because they've played with the set before. I've lost many a game to kids who bring along themed sets to chess club and insist we play with their board instead of with a tournament board. And that brings us to our next point...
2. Pick a set that is a standard tournament set. What are the regulations for a tournament chess set? The squares on the chess board should be 2 ¼ inches from one side to the other, and the king should be from 3 ¾ to 4 ¼ inches tall. When searching around, simply type in "Tournament chess set", and you'll find what you're looking for. Finding a tournament standard set is not extremely important if you plan to play a lot around the house, or with a friend. Casual chess can be played on any chess board, but I personally have gotten very used to the nice size and weight of a tournament set. I wouldn't do without one now.
3. Pick a set that has weighted pieces. If you plan on playing speed chess, this is very important. If you have unweighted pieces, especially with small bases, you can expect a few accidents here and there whilst playing a game. The pieces should not fall over in a breeze, and should not fall over during a game of speed chess.
4. If you're going to be playing with it a lot, make sure it's durable. A plastic chess set should be nice and durable for years of play. Wood pieces are usually more susceptible to scratches and chips that are clearly visible as opposed to plastic ones. But here, it's a matter of personal taste, and budget. Wood pieces can get very expensive, but usually look nicer. Thankfully, the cheaper wood sets are more ideal for taking a beating than more expensive ones because they are less detailed, meaning less fine edges to mess with. Plastic pieces are almost always more durable and almost always cheaper. For a first set, I would recommend a nice large, durable, weighted set of plastic pieces.
5. Find the right board. There are a few different boards to choose from in the world of tournament chess equipment. I know of and own three different types: a vinyl rolflex board, a one-piece wood board, and a folding wood board. If you're on the go, and want an easy-to-carry board, you definitely want to go with the vinyl board. It's very light, and very portable, and not to mention VERY cheap. You can find a vinyl tournament chess board for as little as $2.00. As you would imagine, they are not the most attractive boards as far as appearance, but if you're pressed for space, they more than make up for it. The next board I'd like to talk about is the one-piece wood board. It is all one solid piece of wood, and does not allow any folding. This is the least portable type of chess board, but is the best if you plan on playing mostly at home and don't need to take your set anywhere. It's very attractive because it's made of wood, and does not have an unsightly line through the middle. The last board I want to talk about is the folding wood board. This one is a good choice if you are looking for a compromise. If you like portability, but also like the look of a wood board, this is the one for you. It's not as portable as the vinyl, but it's much more portable than the regular wood board. As you see, all the different types of boards have their own charm, but I suggest going with the vinyl board for your first set, simply because of the amazing portability, and the great low price. If you happen to buy the pieces and the board separately, however, you should consider the size of the squares on the board, and the size of the base of your king. I've heard that the king's base should fill 75% of a square on the chess board for the best play and appearance. Most online chess stores will choose the right size for you if you order the pieces and the board together.
6. Pick the right chess store. Find an online chess store that sells the board, the pieces, and the bag all in one package. It'll cost a lot less, and plus everything will (hopefully) go together as far as size and color. ALL my chess shopping I do at the House of Staunton, an excellent online chess company. Everything they produce is handcrafted, and of the best quality. Their prices are very reasonable, too. The best thing about them is they offer packages like the one I mentioned above. They have a great "Design Your Own Tournament Kits" page that will get you all set up with a great board, pieces, bag, and clock, if you so desire.
View the House of Staunton "Design Your Own Tournament Kits"
The guy in the pictures is little creepy, but once you get around that, you'll have a blast! :)
I'm not pretending to be an expert, I'm just sharing my own experiences in chess equipment. We didn't even have the time to talk about bags and clocks. That's a whole different post. I just hope that I could be of help in picking out a great set that matches your liking and your budget.