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Chess Sets Buying Guide

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So you want to buy a chess set?  That is a smart decision for three reasons:

  1. There have been several studies that show that playing chess helps improve cognitive thinking, problem solving skills and memory.
  2.  Even if you don’t get any smarter, your friends and family will think you are smarter because you have a nice set in your home or office.
  3. Chess is a lot of fun!  However, be forewarned that it can be a somewhat addictive.

You have probably started some basic research on the internet or even talked to that smart looking friend who has a chess set but you might be feeling a little overwhelmed with all the choices and options.  Maybe the set is not for you but a gift for your favorite grandchild or niece. (Don’t worry, we won’t tell anyone you have a favorite)  Either way, we hope this guide will be of help to you.  If you don’t find what you are looking for, give us a call or email us and we will be happy to answer any questions you have.  We love chess and live chess, so we can probably help with any questions you might have.  Our phone number and email are listed at the bottom of this article as well as the “Contact Us” page on our website. There are thousands of chess sets in the world today and we try to carry several hundred of the most popular. To help narrow down the selection, let’s start with three questions:

  1. Is this set for display and the occasional game or do you want a chess set that is intended for regular use and may even be travel around with you to the park, club or on your next airplane ride?
  2. What is the age and skill level of the individual who will use the set?
  3. What is your budget?

Let’s dig a little deeper into these questions.

Is this set for display and the occasional game or do you want a chess set that is intended for regular use?

I have a nice Italian Alabaster table at home and wanted some nice wooden pieces to compliment the table.  This was an expensive set and I knew it would primarily be used as a piece of furniture so I selected the Florentine Series – Bud Rosewood pieces to complement the table.  The set looks beautiful and I do play games with my kids on occasion with this set, however, when we are going to play some serious chess I pull out my Heavy Tournament Chess Set Combo. If you want a set that is primarily for display purposes, a stone or metal set is probably the way to go.  We sell a variety of stone themed chess sets and a few metal pieces as well.  There are a lot of cheaply made stone and metal sets but we don’t carry them as they are difficult to repair or get replacement pieces. If you want a set that looks great but can be played as well, I would recommend a nice wood chess set.  We have a wide selection of wood sets that include the board and pieces.  Prices vary based on size, wood type, etc. If you prefer to buy your pieces and board separately, start with the pieces and then go from there.  There are several types of wood used in the production of chess pieces and the cost and quality can differ significantly from wood to wood.  Here is a brief explanation of the more popular wood types. Bud Rosewood – A dark, rich grain with lots of mahogany or red in the piece.  I think these pieces are have the best color but also are generally the most expensive.  You will also see the terms Blood Rosewood and Red Sandal wood used to describe these pieces. RosewoodLike Bud Rosewood, these pieces are dark and have a rich grain, but are more brown in color.  The color of these pieces is very versatile and easy to match with a board. Golden RosewoodAs the name suggests, these pieces are in the same Rosewood family but are golden or honey in color. Ebony (not to be confused with Ebonized) – Ebony is a very dark or black hard wood.  These pieces are beautiful pieces on the right board.  The downside to ebony is they tend to crack easier than the other wood types.  Keeping these pieces at the right humidity level will help.  Ebony is an expensive wood as well. Ebonized – Because Ebony is so expensive, many sets are also sold as “Ebonized” sets, which really means they are boxwood pieces that have been stained black to look like Ebony pieces.  When done properly a good ebonized set is difficult to distinguish from a true Ebony set and is a fraction of the cost. SheeshamSheesham wood is an expensive medium brown wood.  In some Sheesham pieces you can see the grain to it but not like the Rosewood sets.  Most entry level wood sets will have Sheesham for the dark pieces. Boxwood or Whitewood – The light pieces on most sets are made from Boxwood or Whitewood.  It is a very light colored wood, generally with no visible grain. After you have picked your pieces you will want to pair those pieces with a board.  Use the following guidelines: 3.75” is the standard king height in tournament play.  A 20” board is the standard board size.  Depending on where you want to play and store your set, you might want to go up or down from there.  Most of the higher end wood pieces have a 3.75” to 4.5” king height but we sell wooden pieces as small as 2.5” king height. More important than king height, is the width of the base of the king.  The king is traditionally the tallest and widest piece on the board and the rest of the pieces are proportional to the king.  When you buy a board you want to fit it to your king to the square size and then you know the rest of the pieces will fit well.  The total dimensions of the chess board are good to know but the square size is even more important.  As a general rule you want the base of the king to be about 75% of the square size.  So if your king has a base that is 1.75” wide, you would want a board with squares that are about 2.3”.  Of course you can go up or down from that number a little but don’t go too far or the pieces either get too crowded on the board or look too small.  If you will be using the set in a USCF tournament, be sure to check with your tournament director or the USCF rule book to make sure your board and pieces meet all regulations.  You can see more sizing suggestions at the bottom of this guide.*  It can be a little confusing so give us a call if you have any questions.  We can help you make sure your pieces and board fit well together. If you like the look of wood but want to be able to travel or easily store the set, you might consider a folding wood set. They come in sizes from 7” to 20” in a variety of wood types. If you decide that you want a set intended for the rigors of regular play, I would suggest a good plastic tournament set.  There is a wide range of pieces, boards and bags in these sets to fit all budgets.

What is the age and skill level of the individual who will use the set?

Do you remember the nice set I have at home that I mentioned above?  What I did not tell you is that it is not as nice as it used to be.  When my youngest child was starting to toddle around the house he often found himself at the chess table.  While I daydreamed about raising the next chess prodigy, he was actually putting the tips of the pawns in his mouth and sucking off all of the lacquer.  As best as I can tell there was no adverse health effects to him but it was not good for the set.  Since then I have lost an ear or bridal on each of the knights.  This was not a good set for the kids to pay with. For a young player I would suggest you start with an un-weighted or lightly weighted club or starter chess set. These things are almost indestructible and easy to carry and store.  Also, on most of these sets we offer a lifetime missing pieces replacement which comes in handy if your young one misplaces things like mine does.  These sets come in a lot of fun colors, are inexpensive and you can always upgrade to a nicer set down the road. Lastly, if you have no friends to play with or want something to help you learn the game, chess software is a great alternative.  You can study openings, play a game, study tactics, work on your endgames, etc.  Most chess software plays at beginner and master levels, and everything in between.

What is your budget?

This is the million dollar question.  Well, maybe not literally, but it is an important question.  Like most everything else in life, generally, the more you pay, the nicer the set.  However, there is no reason to pay a lot for a set you don’t need.  We want you to buy the best set for you…..not the best set for us.  We carry thousands of chess sets and supplies and you will receive our same great service when you buy a $10 set as you would if you bought a $1,000 set. Most of our club and tournament sets average between $10 and $40.  Generally, the heavier and larger the piece, the higher the price.  Also, the bag makes a big difference.  Our tournament bags have many extras including separate pockets for each color of pieces, a padded clock pocket, room for the board inside the bag, etc. Our wood sets range in price from $20 to several thousand dollars.  To get a nice entry level wood set (board and pieces) you should plan to pay $80 to $200.  Of course you can find some for less than that and you can quickly get much higher as well. Since we are discussing price, let me let you in on an insider secret about wood chess sets.  Almost all of the nice wood pieces you find available for sale on any site are made in the same city in India.  There are several companies there that all they do is make chess pieces to ship to the rest of the world.  The same companies that make the $29 wood sets make the $1,000 wood sets as well.  So why the difference in retail price?  There are three primary reasons:

  1. The type of wood.  As discussed above, some wood types are much more expensive than others.
  2.  The knight.  The biggest cost of producing chess pieces is the knight.  Each knight is carved by hand and the more ornate knights can take two or more days per knight to carve.
  3. Branding.  Two identical pieces might leave the factory at the same cost but by the time you see them available on a retail site one might be 2x or 3x the cost because a brand name has been attached.  That is the case with most industries and there is nothing wrong with that.  We sell both branded sets as well as non branded sets.  You can decide how important the brand is to you.

Well, if you have stuck with me thus far I am impressed.  There is a lot that goes into selecting the right chess set and we have only begun to scratch the surface.  We could go on but I think both of us would rather be playing chess than reading or writing about it.  If we didn’t answer your question, give us a call at 1-888-582-4377 or send us an email to info@wholesalechess.com and we will help make the selection process as easy as possible.  

* Additional Sizing Information The USCF ruling is the king’s base diameter should fall into this range: 0.78 x [SS – 0.125] <= KBD <= 0.78 x [SS] Where: SS = square size KBD = king base diameter Units are in inches Wow….I’ll bet you wish you had paid more attention to your high school algebra teacher now.  Here is a little cheat sheet for some of the more common sizes. 2” chessboards, the king’s base diameter should fall into the range of 1.46” to 1.56” (3.71-3.96cm) 2.25” chessboards, the king’s base diameter should fall into the range of 1.66” to 1.75” (4.22-4.46cm) 2.50” chessboards, the king’s base diameter should fall into the range of 1.85” to 1.95” (4.70-4.95cm)