May 18, 2023
How to Pick the Best Chess Set
Chess is an intimidating game. Its lingo is opaque to newbies—high-level players
Chess is an intimidating game. Its lingo is opaque to newbies—high-level players talk about the "Ruy López Opening" or the "Trompowsky Attack"—and pop culture has an unfortunate habit of casting aficionados as either massive dweebs or troubled savants who have a hard time relating to other people. But luckily, that's changing. Resources like Chess.com and Twitch streams from grandmasters and the wild popularity of Netflix's 2020 show The Queen's Gambit have created legions of new players. But many of those newbies may be wondering: Which chess set is best to start out with?
To find out, I spent 15 hours researching chess sets online and sat down for an extended conversation with Imad Khachan, owner of Chess Forum, a New York City institution that hosts matches and sells all manner of chess books, clocks, and sets. Khachan loves chess, and he loves chess boards and pieces, but his advice surprised me: It doesn't really matter which set you get.
"There are hundreds of sets and millions of combinations if you start mixing things," Khachan told me during our talk. But ultimately, chess is a game that can be played anywhere, with anything. Khachan said that a set itself is just a means to an end, an opportunity for a conversation: one player moving a piece, introducing an idea onto the board, and the other player responding in kind.
"You realize eventually that this is what matters: the human contact, the precious moments you spend with people, the memories you create," Khachan said, "And that memory can be created with a $10 set or a $1,000 set. It does not make a difference."
The ubiquity of chess makes it easy to pick up a first set. You can find bargain basement sets with chintzy plastic pieces and brittle cardboard boards at just about any department or drug store. But if you want a full-size set that will endure years of steady play and be pleasant to use, you’re going to want to spend a little more. Based on my research, I’d put the number somewhere around $30 to $40.
Sets in this price range aren't statement pieces, but they sport classic looks and allow you to play chess comfortably for as long as you want to pursue the hobby.
Price: $40 at the time of publication
Who this is for: If you’re getting into chess and want to play at tournaments, with local clubs, or in other organized play, an entry-level competition set like this Deluxe Chess Set Combination is a great place to start.
Why we like it: The plastic pieces and vinyl mat will be familiar if you’ve visited a local chess club event or tournament. For example, it's what you’d find set up on all of the tables at Chess Forum. The pieces are robust, can come in various weights—triple-weighted is a common preference, meaning all of the pieces together weigh about 32 ounces—and the vinyl mat is marked with rank and file (row and column) labels for move notations.
Price: $40 at the time of publication
Who this is for: If you’re looking for a set that’ll look everyday-classy on your coffee table and can be stored away easily when you’re not playing, a basic wooden folding set is the way to go.
Why we like it: A classic mix of aesthetics and affordability, this wooden set and others like it are a great introduction if you have a casual interest in the game but don't necessarily want to play in any organized group or participate in tournaments. These aren't the most detailed wooden pieces available, but they’re the same size as the plastic ones and work just fine for casual games at home.
The appeal of a chess set is just as much cultural and aesthetic as it is functional. A $30 set of plastic pieces and a vinyl roll-up mat allows you to play the exact same game as an ornate marble board with sterling silver chessmen that sells for around $1,000. It's just that one looks much better set up on a coffee table or in a study.
While you can find chess sets made from all sorts of materials—including marble, pewter, and even precious metals—a high-end wooden set provides a good balance of quality and (relative) affordability. The pieces in these fancier sets can come in a few styles, but most are some variation of the Staunton design, which is the most widely used and recognizable style of chess piece. Within this style you’ll find a number of sub-styles, which can be most easily differentiated by looking at the knight. That's because it's the only piece on a board that can't be shaped with a lathe, and instead has to be hand-carved.
Each variation has its own claim to fame. For example, American chess superstar Bobby Fischer was a fan of Dubrovnik-style sets (a precursor to the Zagreb seen above), while the German-style knight has been used in many world championship matches and is one of the most common variants.
Any choices based on aesthetics are ultimately going to come down to personal preference and taste, but these are good examples of chess sets that are wonderful to play with and can also serve as stately, permanent pieces of decor.
Price: $450 at the time of publication (board not included)
Who this is for: This set of pieces is used at the highest level of professional chess, including the Candidates Tournament and the World Championship. It's an aspirational choice for fans of elite-level chess.
Why we like it: Designed in 2012 with input from chess world champions (including Magnus Carlsen) and used in every FIDE championship match since 2013, the FIDE Official World Championship set is the most modern-looking chess set that has an official pedigree. The more abstract design of the knight, which lacks distinct facial features that other sets include, provides a distinctive look without straying too far from the established Staunton aesthetics. Bear in mind that this set does not include a board, but the site offers a number of nice boards you can add on starting at $80.
Price: $230 at the time of publication
Who this is for: We recommend this set in our Father's Day gift guide because of its connection to chess history and its enduring, classic design. It simply looks great in a study or drawing room.
Why we like it: This set uses a more classic design than the FIDE Official World Championship set. The pieces are made from rosewood and boxwood, with several color options, and the set includes a maple and mahogany board. Even with the board thrown in, the set costs significantly less than the FIDE set and still feels great to play with.
If you’re bored with the classics, there's also a whole world of themed chess sets to enjoy. These sets transform the battle at the heart of chess into a conflict between any number of historical, fictional, or even just semi-related factions. WWII, Lord of the Rings, the entire Mario canon, and even various city skylines all exist as chess sets for you to wage fake war with.
Novelty sets can make for fun gifts, too. If your giftee is interested in chess, you can usually find a set that intersects with one of their other interests. The only consideration here is that these sets likely won't see as much play time as more traditional-looking options. You can think of them like themed decks of cards or themed versions of Monopoly. They’re fun to bust out once in a while, but most days—and especially if you plan to get into competition play—you’ll probably want to go with a classic board.
But whatever set you choose, there's no wrong way to play chess. Whether it's played on a board lovingly crafted from precious materials or a grid built into a beat-up park table, chess is a way to challenge, engage, and connect with other people—a way to learn more about ourselves and our opponents. Regardless of the set you use, it's all still a matter of seeing the whole board, picking up a piece, and making your move.
This article was edited by Ben Keough and Erica Ogg.
James Austin is an associate staff writer currently covering games and hobbies, but he's also worked on just about everything Wirecutter covers—from board games to umbrellas—and after being here for a few years he has gained approximate knowledge of many things. In his free time he enjoys taking photos, running D&D, and volunteering for a youth robotics competition.
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