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Chess is the OG of board games. People have been playing it for nearly 1,500 years and while its popularity has remained constant for centuries, it’s certainly experiencing a surge right now with the unparalleled popularity of the Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit. If you haven’t seen the series yet, it’s only a matter of time. With over 62 million households tuning in since the show debuted in late October, it has been crowned the most popular limited scripted series in Netflix’s history and—with its style, substance, and a unique stay-at-home-orders appeal—it has prompted one of the biggest chess booms since the days of Bobby Fischer dominance in the 1970s.
Over the past nine months of the pandemic, the game experienced what international chess master Levy Rozman called a “pandemic bump,” but since the show’s release chess sets are flying off shelves at nearly the same speed as Clorox wipes and toilet paper. eBay has reported that every six minutes someone does a search for a chess set, and NPD published a recent finding that in the 21 days following the show’s release, chess sales increased by 87% in the US.
If you’ve yet to get on the “new chess set bandwagon” you might want to think about buying yours right now. Here are sets for players at every level—whether you’re a Beth Harmon in hiding, just aspire to be, or if you’re simply feeling chess-curious.
Chess sets for kids
We often think of old men in the park playing chess, but there are plenty of brainy benefits of teaching chess to kids—and they don’t have to be Bobby Fisher-level prodigies to reap them. Improving critical thinking, concentration, memory, problem-solving, and the ability to think creatively—who wouldn’t want to improve their brain in those ways? Being able to do so while playing a game just makes it all the more appealing.
1. A junior chess set with mini challenges
Chess can be overwhelming to new learners. This kid-friendly version of the classic game was developed to break chess down into fun and low-steaks mini games for kids to learn the fundamentals in bite-sized segments. Geared towards kids ages 5 to 9 and featuring 12 simplified game situations that are broken into 5- to 20-minute games, this easy-to-master set teaches junior players important chess basics in no time.
2. A chess set that teaches through stories
A completely unique and story-based approach to chess, this Toy of the Year finalist teaches kids as young as age 3 the fundamentals of the game through silly stories that give each chess piece a personality and a motivation to their moves. The engaging storybook gives meaning to the game for young kids, and the unique chess board and pieces help communicate the rules of the game in a way that makes it fun and straightforward.
3. A chess set with zoo animals
The king and queen of the jungle take to this classic game with a menagerie of whimsical animal friends (in very regal attire) in this beautifully crafted wooden set. The pieces are nice and big for small hands to grasp, and the colorful and charming illustrations not only make for a beautiful set to play with, but a keepsake to pass down. Made by the French toy design company, Vilac, this set is made in classic, old-world style in playful designs with vibrant colors, which keeps a fun, fairy-tale-like tone to the game as kids are learning. This set includes 32 wooden chess pieces, a wooden play board, and a drawstring fabric bag for easy storage.
4. A double-sided chess set in vibrant colors
This beautiful and brightly colored set is a dual chess and pachisi set—perfect for turning kids on to both games of strategy early on. As with everything made by Melissa & Doug, this is made with kids in mind and is sturdy, durable, beautifully designed, and meant to last. We love the wooden board not only because it’s pretty enough to want to steal for ourselves, but because it’s sturdy enough to stand up to intense play by less-than-careful kiddos—making it a toy that’s attractive enough to be kept out as that rare decorative piece that’s always okay for play!
5. A chess set for wizards
Sometimes all it takes to get kids engaged is a chess set that appeals to their imagination. This set simply swaps in characters from the Harry Potter canon for traditional pieces, so they’ll be able to learn the rules and the moves, but have no problem switching to a standard set once they get older and grow out of their Harry Potter phase (if that ever happens). This set will appeal to all fans of the Harry Potter stories, but particularly those who love the movies, as it’s a highly detailed recreation of the wizard chess set played within iconic scenes from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone!
6. A chess set to get them off their Switch
If anything is going to get them off their Nintendo, it’s a Nintendo-inspired chess set. Mario and Bowser are once again battling for the Mushroom Kingdom—only this time it’s through the strategic game of chess. This set comes with 32 hand-painted playing pieces, including Princess Peach, Luigi, and Yoshi, and a collector’s edition tin case for storage. The only thing that may come close to rivaling The Queen’s Gambit in the present Zeitgeist may be Super Mario and the Nintendo Switch. An added bonus is that this collector’s set might get your teenagers off their Switch for a minute to play a heated game with you. This set is selling out everywhere and is a collector’s item that won’t last.
Chess sets for beginners
There’s no time like the present to become a world-renowned chess master. Alas, such achievements won’t happen overnight. These chess sets will help you get up to speed so you can master the game like a pro.
7. A chess set for family fun
A whole chess board filled with 32 figures that you have no idea what to do with can be pretty daunting. This set takes the intimidation factor out of playing and even takes the strategy down a notch until novice players are able to conquer the arcane concepts of the game. Armed with a game cube that you roll to determine which piece to move, this takes a level of decision fatigue out of the equation so players can function in the game at a lower level of strategy until they’ve honed their skills. Each player gets a cute and colorful laminated guide that helps them remember how to move the pieces, making for a more fun and lighthearted approach to the game. This set is well-made with painted, wooden, felt-bottomed pieces and a fold up board that holds the pieces inside for easy storage.
8. A chess set with moves printed on the side
Remember the days when you used to write cheat sheets on the inside of your palm? This chess set takes that concept and legitimizes it for the game! Each piece has all the possible moves printed right on their base so players will always have a constant and easy-to-master reminder of how to progress through the game. All of the benefits of crib sheets with zero detention!
9. A chess set to take the stress out of learning
A crotchety great uncle talking ad nauseam about the finer points of chess and judging you on your every move is never going to get you going and never going to foster the love of the game. This version of chess is all about taking the stress out of figuring out which piece to move and remembering how and will get you playing the game instantly. This is a card-based chess game where players pull a from a deck to determine which piece will move and exactly how it can be moved. This set is great for kids and adults alike and lets you learn the game without having to invest in beginner-level books. Get the moves down first and save your money for strategy books later!
10. A chess set with a new spin
When we say this is a “new spin,” we mean it. This is another game that turns chess into a low-stakes game based mostly on luck, with just a little bit of strategy and a spinner that determines which piece to move—though it leaves it to you how to move it. We really are believers in this approach because, when you stop trying to be Bobby Fisher, you hammer down the basics to build a powerhouse foundation and you enter games with the confidence needed to conquer the game. This beginner set comes with guides printed on the sides of the board, which are great for stark beginners or players that are a bit rusty and need a refresher.
The magnetic board and pieces allow you to easily leave the board without worry that pieces will slide or get knocked aside.
11. A chess set for playing on your own
Hey, we aren’t all living with someone who can help us hone our skills to a master level, but this board is the next best thing and will give you a worthy and challenging partner to play any time the chess bug bites. This game is filled with drills to help you up your game and also has voice-enhanced “mentoring” that reminds you when you’ve moved your piece in the wrong way or warns you of ill-advised moves.
Look, we can all learn to play on a game app, but there is something inherently missing when you play chess without a real board or pieces. Looking at the game from every angle helps, and this set will give you all of the autonomy of playing on an app, with the tactile and visual experience of a real game. This set is great for all levels, from beginner to semi-expert.
12. A simple chess set to get started with
So you want a chess set but don’t want to spend a ton while you figure out if this is the game for you? This highly-rated set is a classic for a reason. Pressman has been churning out beginner chess sets since the 1920s. This set is well-priced, well-built and has standard-sized pieces to learn on with a sturdy folding board that won’t steer you wrong. There are lots of beginner sets with bells and whistles, but if you want to keep it simple and embark on your chess journey with a straightforward approach, this set gets great reviews and has been a standby for generations.
Chess sets for experts
So you’re getting good at chess and now you never want to stop playing. We understand. Here are some beautiful sets for those that have fallen in love with the game, as well as a few that you can take on the go or set up for outdoor hangouts.
13. A wooden set with a hand-carved feel
Weigel is a well-known name in chess and has a built a reputation for producing high-quality wooden sets for over half a century. This board is pure luxury, made from a combination of woods, including beech and birch. The Staunton-style pieces are intricately carved from sycamore, hornbeam, and beech, giving this regal-set an heirloom feel. The larger-sized board and pieces make for easier visuals and maneuvering for those who really want to analyze the game as they play, while the felt-bottomed pieces make for less slippage on the board. This is a “spare-no-expense” style-gift that still manages to come in under $40. If you have a friend or partner who loves chess and wants to up their game, this is a knock-it-out of the park gift that they’ll love.
14. For the chess player who likes to play on the go
Once you get bitten by the chess bug, you’ll never want to be without your chess set and board. This set rolls up and can tag along wherever you go, whether it be at home, camping, on a canoe, or on the road! Wherever adventure takes you, you’ll be able to roll out the fun with this travel-friendly set. This set, with the signature geometric Pendleton print board, silkscreened wooden game pieces, and vegan leather storage bag makes a perfect gift for the chess-loving friend who is always on the move.
15. A vibrant chess set for a modern pop of color
This set from Printworks comes in a saturated green color palette to add some style to your game. The crisp Swedish design gives a fresh new look to this centuries-old game, making it a perfect set to be both played and displayed. The pieces have a hand-carved look and feel, while the board is made from a durable plexiglass with an elegant sheen. This is probably one that you’ll want to leave out to be admired, but the accompanying box is sleek and elegant, so if you must pack it away you can do it in elegant style.
16. A mini-chess set for playing on the go
This is a teeny, tiny, easy-to-pack away chess set that’s perfect for playing no matter where your travels may take you. What this set lacks in size, it more than makes up for in the fair-trade, sustainably-sourced, and handmade craftsmanship of this beautiful rosewood set. We love that this set is designed with peg slots that securely hold the pieces in place, making this a perfect set for camping trips, road trips, or whatever less-than-serene setting you may find yourself in when a craving for a chess match strikes you.
17. A socially distant chess set for outdoor play
If Covid has taught us anything, it’s that outdoor hangouts are fun and we need to start investing in more games that can be played outside. When the spring thaw comes, don’t shirk the sunshine in favor of your new chess habit. This is a smaller scale lawn game that allows players to truly dive in and play picnic-blanket style—which is just big enough for a socially distant match, but not so ridiculous that your chess pieces are bigger than a toddler.
18. A chess set with a global appeal
So you’ve conquered chess and want a new challenge. How about Chinese chess? Very similar to western chess, but with different social structures and strategy elements within the game, and with a geographic component (certain pieces can’t cross geographic boundaries). Hey, it’s a centuries-old game that we can’t break down in a paragraph, but it’s loved by millions. You may just have to give this one a try!
19. A chess set with a modern aesthetic
We love this fair trade and sustainably-sourced set that’s made from mango and acacia wood and stained for eye-catching contrast. The clean and minimalist lines set this apart from the standard set and each piece is crafted with a brushed aluminum base for textural contrast and a sturdy and solid feel to your game.
20. A chess set with an elegant inlay
If you’re at a Bobby Fischer level of confidence, then you need—no—you DESERVE a set this beautiful. Handmade from walnut, rose, and lemon wood with mother-of-pearl inlay, this set is an elegant masterpiece set that says you’ve earned your stripes. It folds up for easy storage or travel and has a felt-lined interior to keep the hand-carved pieces in pristine condition while packed away.
Chess sets for collectors
Chess isn’t just a game—it’s a full culture and lifestyle for those that take it seriously. These sets are meant to be set out, enjoyed, and admired for their artistry.
21. A chess set to topple the Imperial Empire
If you really want to hone your chess strategy, may we suggest you use the force? It’s a faceoff between the Rebel Alliance and their Imperial foes. This set features iconic characters from Star Wars Episodes IV, V, and VI as they face each other across a chessboard of tempered glass. They may look like they’re made from beskar, but what you have are exquisitely-detailed, pewter carved characters set upon porcelain plinths. This high-quality collector’s edition is being sold at a premium price point, but the detailing and craftsmanship will make this an heirloom piece to pass down.
22. A Soviet-inspired set for chess history buffs
The Soviet Union has long been toppled, but the legacy of Soviet chess Grandmasters is still awe-inspiring and still captures our imaginations. Soviet-era sets are a coveted collector’s item. These aren’t genuine antique pieces, but they are modeled after the Grandmaster pieces of the 1950s. They are hand-carved out of antiqued boxwood and they are of the larger Grandmaster size, which will appeal to collectors with an eye towards authenticity.
23. A brutalist set for architecture-lovers
This concrete set is sure to be a stunning conversation piece, appealing to both chess fans and architecture aficionados alike. With the Brutalist design influence, each piece strikes an imposing profile. Chess is an intense game, and this set is a perfect aesthetic extension of that intensity. Each piece and board is individually made and poured, ensuring that no two are alike, making for a collector’s piece that’s filled with character and perfectly unique.
24. A chess set that doubles as abstract art
There’s no denying that this set is an investment, but if you are looking to enhance both your chess collection and your art collection, we highly recommend this Man Ray designed set. This chess set is an exact replica of one designed by the artist himself in 1920. These abstract, geometric pieces were influenced by items he saw in his everyday life, like the violin head-inspired knight and the vase-inspired bishop. The pieces and the board are made from beechwood and each is hand-finished, making each piece one-of-a-kind.
25. A marble chess set for permanent display
We love the departure of the traditional Staunton-style in this sophisticated and modern set. The weight of this Banswara marble game board and pieces give a feeling of heft and importance to the game. Each piece is hand-made by artisans in India, and they have a satisfyingly smooth finish with an elegant, eye-catching sheen. This set is heavy and feels great in the hand. Made for permanent and decorative display, this set is both gratifying to play with and beautiful to look at.
26. For the chess master who loves a weighted set
This elegant chess set is Staunton-style but with an ornate and hand-crafted workmanship that will definitely up the wow-factor. This full-sized set is noted for having a terrific weight to it, making it a stunning piece for serious players of the game. The solid brass pieces and chess board have elegant, multi-tonal detailing in contrast hand carvings, making for a one-of-a-kind showpiece set that you’ll never want to put away.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.