We see beautiful and creative chess sets on the internet, and then we go home to use a plastic set with abstract pieces that are as simple as they can be. But through the history of the game, there have been many chess sets made purely as works of art, with actual playability a low priority. The history of chess is even more complicated than the rules of the game. Of course, that game has changed over time, and is even played differently from place to place.
As the game moved across the globe, different patterns and rules became popular in different regions. “The Chinese version of chess is called xiangqi and there is sittuyin in Burma,” Crumiller says. “In Thailand and in Cambodia, there’s makruk. You can use those sets to play a game of chess, but those games are played with different rules.”
While some of these varieties included detailed figural chess pieces, so-called “Muslim sets” relied on more abstracted, geometric pieces whose size and shape indicate their roles. Crumiller explains that despite the name, scholars have found evidence that the style predates the existence of Islam in Persia. Regardless, the religion and popular game became linked, and chess often spread to new areas hand-in-hand with Islam.
In Persia, a piece known as the king’s advisor or “vizier” was also incorporated, which would later morph into the more powerful queen. “In 1283 there was a book published in Spain by Alfonso El Sabio, or Alfonso the Wise, called The Book of Games,” Crumiller explains. “The book still used the old chess rules, where bishops can only move every other square along the diagonal, or two squares, period. The queens were the weakest pieces—they had to stay near the king and could only move one square at a time.
“At the end of the 15th century, the rules changed dramatically. That’s when the queen became ‘La Rabiosa,’ or the Mad Queen, and the rules for bishops changed, too. At that point, it became more recognizable as our modern game, and several books were published that included both the old rules and the new rules, so clearly it was in a transition state.”
You'll see a wide variety of lovely historical chess sets, and get an overview of the game's history, at Collectors Weekly.