The majority of historians believe that chess is the oldest game of skill in life. 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 oldest chess sets and boards were Persian-made pieces used in the game they termed”chaturanga.” Unfortunately, no known pieces from the first few centuries of Persian chess sets remain in existence. Maybe someday an archeological dig will be fortunate enough to discover a few pieces, or maybe even an entire set, of this early version of chess.
The Persian Empire was tremendous, and it was famous for being among the most prolific trading empires. There was no corner of the empire that these dealers did not reach, and they brought chess together. The early version of chess quickly spread across the empire. These early chess pieces were made from several different substances throughout the Persian Empire, based on the means of their owners.
Very affordable chess sets and boards were made from bone in the early days of the match. More extravagant pieces were often carved from hardwoods like ebony and rosewood. The very finest early chess sets were carved from ivory, which was preferred by craftsman because of its ease of carving and capacity to polish to a fine shine.
Luckily, examples of some of those early ivory chessmen still live today. Pieces were discovered in modern-day Uzbekistan, and they are in very good shape.
The next-oldest chess set in the world was found in India, and it has been radiocarbon dated to around 900 AD. These pieces were the older style chessmen which were found in the Persian Empire’s version of chess.
More contemporary, European chess sets that players are familiar with today date from not too long after this. The earliest example of these European chess pieces were stored at a monastery in Ager, Spain. They’re made from rock crystal which has not survived the ravages of time very well, and only some of the pieces are in good enough condition to find out their use. The legend told by the monks who preserved the pieces over the years is that the set was originally carved for Charlemagne.
The oldest chess pieces which can be combined together to form a complete set date back to the 12th century. These pieces, known as the Lewis Pieces, contain 96 individual bits that came from four separate sets. They were made in Norway from ivory formed from walrus tusk and whale teeth. They’re in phenomenal condition, and seem as if they would be fine to use in a game today if they weren’t under glass in the British Museum.
European-style chess sets all had exactly the same bits, but there were many different competing designs for certain pieces. This led to conflicts in matches, when players would refuse to play each other because of the unrecognizable of particular pieces. A standard design for competition chess sets, called the Staunton, was constructed in 1849 by Nathaniel Cook. It’s still the style used in chess competitions around the world today.