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Staunton Chess Set

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The Staunton Chess Set
Even if you aren't an avid chess player, you are certainly familiar with the Staunton style of chessmen. They are the very image that comes to the minds of most people of what a chess piece looks like and they have become synonymous with the game. They are the standard by which all chessmen are designed and they are the design stipulated in the rules of chess for tournament play, officially designated as such by the World Chess Federation in 1924.

What makes this particular design the classic example of chessmen the world over and where did the design originate?

Here is a short history of the House of Staunton and it's association with the 'Royal Game.'

Why the Need for a Design Overhaul?
The game of chess has been around for centuries but really didn't become popular in the West until the 18th and 19th centuries. Until that time there was no standard design for chessmen. Players played with their own chessmen, created by the big designers and manufacturers of the day such as Lund, Merrifield, Calvert, Saint George, French Regence, and Selenus.

The main problem with these chessmen was in their design; the sets were impractical, the chessmen themselves were too similar in appearance to other pieces in the set, and they were expensive to manufacturer. The pieces were sometimes too flimsy, sometimes too ornate for practical use, and sometimes just plain confusing when viewed on a chessboard.

This is the part in chess history where our central figures join the game.

The players:
John Jaques of London - A game and sport manufacturing company located in the Hatton Garden district of London owned by John Jaques, brother-in-law of Nathaniel Cook.

Nathaniel Cook: Entrepreneur, newspaper editor, and the registrar and officially-named designer of the 'Staunton style' chessmen.

Howard Staunton: Shakespearean scholar and unofficial World Chess Champion and authority of the times.

There is no dispute that there was an overhaul of the design of chessmen, that it was officially accredited to and registered by Nathanial Cook, and that it was endorsed and named for Howard Staunton. There is, however, some speculation that the design was originally conceived by John Jaques himself, and that the impetus for this redesign came from repeated complaints from his customers over the impracticalities of existing designs.

Mr. Jaques, an ivory turner and craftsman, set about finding a more suitable all around design for chessmen. Many historians believe that the original design concept was Jaques', and that his brother-in-law Nathaniel had a hand in the finished design and was convinced to register it in his own name and convince Mr. Staunton to endorse it. Nathaniel Cook was associated with Howard Staunton through the periodical he edited, for which Mr. Staunton published articles on chess.

Whichever way it happened, the end result is the same: The Staunton design chessmen are superior in appearance, stability, and performance to any existing chessmen of the time and continue to be the standard-bearer to this day.

The patent for an "Ornamental Design for a set of Chess-Men" was registered on 1 March, 1849 under the Ornamental Designs Act of 1842. Mr. Staunton personally signed the first sets and also wrote the original news-release. The 'Staunton Style' set was publicly available on 29 September, 1849.

The Design Difference
Aside from the instability and height of existing chess sets, the similarities in the appearance of chessmen of a set, along with the fact that opponents often played with their own particular set, that caused a major problem. The inability of a player to distinguish a King, Bishop, or Queen in an opponent's set of chessmen could cost them the match.

There are several key factors in the Staunton Design that make the difference:

- Clearly defined pieces. For example, the King is immediately identifiable by his crown and the Queen by her coronet. The pieces are different heights so they can be viewed and distinguished from one another by the opposing players.

- Excessive ornamentation was removed. The design is still elegant in its simplicity, but with a better hand-feel.

- The chessmen were shortened over-all, given a wider, more stable base, and weighted for even greater stability. The bottoms of the pieces were covered in felt to ease friction.

It was a great improvement over anything in existence and would have gone far even without the tireless self-promotion of Harold Staunton. The relative simplicity of design also made it easier to mass-produce, and therefore more affordable.


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