Chess is widely considered to be the oldest of all board games. It is a sport in more than a few countries, and a test of skill played by millions the world over. Modern chess sets have 32 pieces, 16 black and 16 white, on a board comprised of 64 squares. This finite arrangement of figurines and playing surfaces has led to a wide variety of chess sets over the years. They range from cheap plastic chess sets to beautiful hand-made works of art worth thousands of dollars to collectors.
On the low end, chess sets can be had for very little. Many boxed sets come with plastic pieces and boards from the large toy companies, usually bundled with pieces for the other preeminent board game, Checkers. It's a great way to start learning the game with little investment in equipment. The durability of plastic also makes a great choice for children.
Chess clubs, on the other hand, usually favor even less expensive chess sets. Vinyl boards that can be rolled up for easy portability, along with a bag of plastic pieces are the chess sets of choice. They make for practical large-scale playing sessions that can be moved to any location, be it a park, cafe, or school auditorium.
Once the decision is made to invest in a quality chess set, the choices are practically unlimited. Specialty shops, both online and on the street, usually carry an assortment of boards and pieces comprised of different styles and materials. The first step up is usually a wooden set, either machine or hand-carved. Above that, almost any material is possible. There are chess sets available in pewter, marble, glass, and even leather. Some extremely high-end chess sets can be found that are made of precious metals and stones like jade, gold, silver and ivory.
Besides materials, the style of a chess set is a very important consideration. This determines how the pieces themselves will look. The Staunton chess set is probably the most popular in the world and the one used in tournament play. Most people would readily recognize the look of the various pieces in this set, named after the former Grandmaster. There are many more ornately designed styles to choose from beyond the standard, and this is where the fun really starts. Some chess sets depict ancient armies, and some may be themed on characters from movies and TV shows--the possibilities are endless.
Finally, digital chess sets are worth mentioning here. With the rise of the Internet, more people now play online, sitting in front of their computer screens. The advantage of a computer program is that it allows experimentation and choice from hundreds of virtual chess sets. One day you can play on a classic black and white Staunton chess set and the next on one themed after the characters of Star Wars. And after looking at all the exquisite choices, it might help when you really do decide to purchase a physical chess set of your own.