The majority of historians believe that chess is the oldest game of skill in existence. There are written records of chess being played all of the way back in the 6th century in what is now modern Afghanistan and India. This was the Persian Empire, and so the earliest chess boards and sets were Persian-made pieces used in the match they termed”chaturanga.” Unfortunately, no known pieces from the first few centuries of Persian chess sets remain in life. Maybe someday an archeological dig will be fortunate enough to discover a few bits, or maybe even a whole set, of this early version of chess.
The Persian Empire was enormous, and it was famous for being among the most prolific trading empires. There was no corner of the empire which these dealers didn’t reach, and they brought chess with them. The first version of chess quickly spread throughout the empire. These ancient chess pieces were made from many different substances throughout the Persian Empire, depending on the means of their owners.
More extravagant pieces were carved from hardwoods like ebony and rosewood. The very best early chess sets were carved from ivory, which was favored by craftsman for its ease of carving and ability to polish to a fine shine.
Luckily, examples of a number of these early ivory chessmen still survive today. Pieces were discovered in modern-day Uzbekistan, and they are in very good condition.
These bits were the old style chessmen that 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 those European chess pieces were preserved in a monastery in Ager, Spain. These Ager pieces date from 1021. They are made from rock crystal which hasn’t survived the ravages of time quite well, and only a few of the pieces are in good enough condition to find out their use. The legend told by the monks who preserved the bits 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 individual sets. They were created in Norway out of ivory formed from walrus tusk and whale teeth. They’re in phenomenal condition, and look as though they would be nice to use in a match now if they were not under glass at the British Museum.
European-style chess sets all had the same bits, but there were many different competing designs for specific pieces. This led to conflicts in games, when players would refuse to play each other due to the unrecognizable of particular pieces. A standard design for competition chess sets, known as the Staunton, was constructed in 1849 by Nathaniel Cook. It is still the style used in chess competitions across the world today.