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- Chess is a brain-stimulating game that takes practice, skill, and a good board to play on.
- We spoke to an expert at the US Chess Federation on what you should look for.
- Find more product recommendations at Insider Reviews.
I grew up in a chess-playing household. My father put his woodworking skills to good use and built a chess table for us to play on, we purchased multiple collectors’ sets online, and we even equipped ourselves with a tournament-style chess timer.
With the recent interest in chess stemming from the Netflix miniseries “Queen’s Gambit,” I was inspired to look back at the chess-playing days of my youth – at how I got started, and the types of chess sets and boards I played on. While I can’t relate to Beth Harmon’s dysfunctional upbringing in the show, I know exactly what it feels like to fall in love with the game and to get my first chess set.
“Chess is a sport, a science, and an art – you can play it all your life and never exhaust its depths,” said John Hartmann, the editor of Chess Life Magazine, part of the US Chess Federation, the governing board of chess tournaments in the US. “It’s good for learning self-control and the consequences of one’s actions and, for those who spend a bit of time learning how to play, there’s plenty of beauty and aesthetic pleasure to be found in the game.”
There are chess academies that teach the game, but one place to get started is actually online.
“The best way to help children learn chess right now is from YouTube videos or chesskid.com,” Hartmann said. “I would also recommend the Chess Steps (or Stappemethode) and Coach Jay’s workbooks as being excellent for young learners, provided they have an adult to help them.”
If the show has piqued your interest in this highly challenging game, or you want a new hobby that stimulates the brain, give chess a try. Whether you’re a beginner or, like me, you’re looking to get back into the game, here are some great chess sets to get started.
Here are the best chess sets of 2021
Wooden chess sets serve as a great display piece, are highly durable, and typically come with well-crafted pieces.
Wooden-crafted chess boards are timeless and provide the feel of a tournament board. The Chess Armory 15″ Wooden Chess Set is a quality option that’s made with inlaid walnut and a felt interior with straps to store pawns, bishops, and others. The Staunton-style pieces are crisply designed, too, so you can tell which piece you’d like to move. It’s classic, affordable, and great for players of all ages.
The Hey! Play! Magnetized Wood Chess Set is similar, but with a twist: magnetic pieces. This allows them to stay put when you’re in a dual match, especially if playing outside in a breezy area or if you’re taking a game break.
What’s great about this one is its block-style, durable wood frame that provides more elevation while playing. The squares are well-contrasted against the brown and black Staunton-style pieces and the set includes fabric-lined drawers for storage.
If you’re looking for a game room centerpiece, the Darby Home Co. 28″ Kase Chess & Backgammon Table is a polished, cherry wood conversation starter. The only downside is that you’ll have to buy the pieces separately, but the table will last you for years of saying checkmate.
Glass chess sets
If you’re looking to add a touch of elegance to your chess set, look for glass boards and included frosted pieces.
As someone who grew up with multiple chess boards in my home, I always felt like a queen while playing with a state-of-the-art glass set. The Srenta 10″ Fine Glass Chess Set is a mix of clear and frosted glass pieces, which doubles as a sophisticated decor piece. The board is elegantly-etched with a padded bottom to protect furniture, too.
For a more affordable option, the Maxam Glass Chess Set delivers the same experience that’s smaller and still comes with both glass and frosted glass pieces.
Plastic and travel chess sets
Plastic chess sets are more forgiving than wood and glass, and some are even fit for travel.
As mentioned with wooden boards, they’re one of the most durable types of sets to buy. So, if you’re looking to play on the go, the LuckyWish Folding Magnetic Travel Chess Set is a great wood and plastic hybrid, clad with magnetic, Staunton-style pieces; felted bottoms for protection; and two velvet-carrying pouches for storage. And, most important for travel, the board folds up so you can play anytime, anywhere.
If you’re looking for a versatile and lightweight board that isn’t prone to chipping or breaking, a plastic one will do the trick. Unlike wooden structures, they are more forgiving if you drop a piece or if it falls out of a travel bag.
“Most tournament players use vinyl roll-up boards, as they are affordable and durable,” Hartmann said. “Good wooden boards look nice, but vary in price from moderate to expensive.”
The Standard Club Weighted Plastic Chess Set is an affordable option if you want something other than brown and cream tiles and a crate-style board. The blue and cream tiles are bordered by alpha-numeric notation to make it easier to target specific locations as part of your strategy. To top it all off, the green felt-padded set comes with weighted pieces so, even though plastic isn’t as sturdy as other materials, your pieces will stay put.
If you’re looking to boost your thinking skills at a park, the Yellow Mountain Imports Roll-Up Staunton Chess Set is similar to the Standard Club set because it’s also designed with alpha numeric-notation, but is different in that it can be rolled up in the included carrying tube with an attached strap. The surface is easy to wipe clean if you’re playing on a picnic blanket, too.
Chess sets for beginners
You can splurge on chess sets with built-in training and electronic lessons, but some come with instructions on the pieces if you’re looking for an affordable option.
Not everyone is a chess pro, and alpha-numeric notation can sometimes throw off the inner workings of the game. The Chess Teacher Chess Board is unlike any of our picks because it has easy-to-follow diagrams printed on the base of each piece. The plastic, 15″ board and accompanying pieces are especially great for children and shoppers interested in a budget-friendly set.
For visual learners, the iCore Electronic Talking Chess Board has a teaching voice system that speaks warnings and threats to pieces based on the opponent’s move. The LCD screen also displays the game’s 30 different chess levels and 100 preset exercises to improve skills game after game. You can also play checkers and six other games besides chess.
Accessories to add to the chess-playing experience
An FAQ on chess
What should I look for in a chess set?
Hartmann notes that the chess set you choose is up to your preference, but it’s important to look for a set that’s durable and comes with easily discernable pieces — preferably Staunton-style — since bishops, pawns, and other pieces come in various shapes and sizes.
What is a common mistake people make when playing chess?
Hartmann mentioned it’s important to make sure to properly orient your board before playing: the queen starts on her own color and there’s a white square at the board’s bottom right side.
Do you recommend weighted pieces?
“Weighted pieces are definitely handy to have, but they’re not required for tournaments,” Hartmann said. “Both plastic and wooden pieces can be weighted.”
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