Staunton Chess Pieces

Sep 6, 2007, 1:18 PM |

     We often play chess and get so into the game that we don't think about the tools of the chess player. By tools, I mean the pieces, board, clocks, etc. I have heard the term Staunton Pattern a lot in my travels through the world of chess. I decided to do a bit of research and here's what I found.

     Obviously, the pieces had to be named after someone, so I did some quick investigation. The man the pieces were named after was Howard Staunton (1810-1874). Staunton was a Shakespeparean scholar and chess jounalist. The Englishman wrote the Chess Player's Handbook. He came to fame through his 21 game match against Pieere Saint-Amant, which he won. Unfortunately, the match was an unofficial event, so Staunton receceived no official title. However, to many Englishmen he is considered the closest thing to a world champion that England had seen. It was something else he did that cemented his name into the chess history book, he gave his name to the registered trademark of a standardized design for chess pieces, the same one's that bear his name to this day.

     We dont' think much about standardized piece design these days, but certainly would if there was not a standardized set used in tournaments. Without a "standard" we would show up at any given tournament to find a vast array of different styles and sizes of pieces. This can be confusing (at least to me). I need to see similar pieces when I play because I am so used to seeing the tournament set that sits on my coffee table. The reason for standardized pieces goes way beyond my pickiness. Players from around the world need to be able to recognize each of the pieces, leaving them to concentrate on tactics rather than piece identification!

     This matter was quickly resolved in the 1840's by the John Jaques game company of London. The design relied upon existing styles as it's basis, yet with a feel and look of the age. The design was officially registered in 1849 by Nathaniel Cook. He is considered responsible for the final design. However, some chess scholars attribute his brother-in-law, John Jaques as the final architect of this design.

     The key design changes are most seen in a few primary areas. The primary rings around the bases were dropped to one and replaced (in the case of the Bishop, Queen, and King) with smaller, cleaner rings below the Mitre, Coronet, and Crown. The base diameter was increased and lead weights added to a hollowed out bottom for stability.

     Probably the most beautiful addition was in the modelling of the Knight. The horse head of the Knight is based on the horse's head  found on the Parthenon's Frieze, which is part of the Elgin Marbles. The Elgin Marbles ere created in ancient Greece by Phidias. Out of all the possible choices of a horse's head one could choose, I think the designer choose the cleanest example possible. Take a good look at a piece and then look at the same work from the Elgin Marbles.

     These peices were made popular by the pure genius of adding Staunton's name via an endorsement. This was an endorsement for which Staunton was paid a percentage from every set sold. This may be one of the first examples of a sports-like endorsement. This set has passed the test of time. It is the only set recognized by the World Chess Federation for regulation play. There are slight variations to the basic Staunton design, but it has certainly passed the test of time.

     Today, tournament sets are made of plastic since it's cheap and stands up to wear well. However, the finest tradition sets (that I cannot afford to buy) tend to be made of boxwood and ebony. The next time you pick up a chess piece, take a look at the design and enjoy the sublte details worked into it. You should think about these things now and again. It's kind of like stopping to smell the roses (as they say).