Tech. Science. Culture.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

How Chess Got Its Timeless Style

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

You know a chess piece when you see one. They might be the most recognizable objects in gaming. But they didn't always look that way. In fact, for the longest time they didn't even look a way. The Smithsonian Magazine dug into the roots of that iconic design and it's not as old as you might think.

Chess was born in India around the 6th century, and for the next millennium and beyond, its pieces were far from universal in name or design. The game's original cavalry, elephants, and chariots were eventually replaced with members of a royal court as chess began to catch on in middle-age Europe, but it would still be centuries before any kind of universal design would show up.

From the Smithsonian Magazine:

The Staunton chess pieces are the ones we know and love today, the ones we simply think of as chess pieces. Prior to its invention, there were a wide variety of popular styles in England, such as The St George, The English Barleycorn, and the Northern Upright. To say nothing of the regional and cultural variations. But the Staunton quickly would surpass them all.


Variations like this, for example:


Despite being named for Howard Staunton—the premier chess promoter of 19th century London—the soon-to-be-classic pieces were actually designed by architect Nathan Cook in the mid 1800s. Cook took the general vibe of the Greco-Roman-inspired Victorian London he lived in, and mashed it up with a distilled sense of what each piece stood for. The result was the very columned, bannister-y design we know today.


Stauton was keen on Cook's designs, so he lent his name to the pieces and the rest is history. There are plenty of alternative takes out there, but most still call back to Cook's interpretation, including the sleek new set the World Chess Championship commissioned.


And while there's definitely some fun to be had shaking things up, Cook and Stauton's hot collabo seems set to influence the look of the game for a least a couple more centuries. Thankfully, it's got a pretty timeless vibe. You can hop over to the Smithsonian Magazine for more on the history of the classic game's style. [Smithsonian Magazine]