Why championship chess sets are so expensive

  • Hand-carved wooden chess sets can cost anywhere from $US50 ($AU68) to $US5,000 ($AU6,768).
  • Of the 32 chess pieces, much of the value comes down to how well the knight is made.
  • A single knight takes specially trained artisans two hours to produce.
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Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: With every shaving and small incision, master artisans turn these trunks of wood into 32 hand-carved chess pieces. You can pick up a plastic set for $US20 ($AU27), but a wooden set certified for the World Chess Championship costs $US500 ($AU677). Much of the value of a high-quality set comes down to how well just one piece is made: the knight. There are less than 10 people who are trusted to carve the knights for the official World Chess Championship sets. So, how are these chessmen made? And why are they so expensive?

At this factory in Amritsar, India, artisans carve the pieces for the official World Chess Championship sets. And the factory produces only 250 of them each year. Artisans train over four to five months, learning to masterfully shape each figure. These small blocks of boxwood were once large trunks, dried for three to six months, cut down, and shaped to the necessary size.

Each block is attached to a lathe, which turns the block rapidly before artisans begin to carve. Artisans use particular steel tools, called cutters, designed to make the proper cuts and overall shape of a chessman. Once the cutter makes contact, it immediately changes the wood, and any slight misstep could ruin the final shape of the piece. No piece is more difficult to produce than the knight. While other pieces are carved in just a few minutes, a single knight takes two hours to produce. Less than 10 people are trained to craft knights for these championship sets.

Baljeet Singh: It’s been around 10 years that I have been crafting these knights. It takes a lot of effort to learn this craft, and it took around five to six years for me to learn.

Narrator: Compare that to the four to five months it takes an artisan to learn how to carve the other chess pieces. But unlike these other chessmen, the knight isn’t an abstract representation of a medieval figure. It’s designed to look like a realistic horse head. It’s the most detailed of all the pieces. Each carving is intentional, from the hair on a knight’s tail to the curve of its neck.

Singh: Even to shape the neck of the knight, it takes a lot of time. Even these sides take a lot of time.

Narrator: The quality of the final piece largely depends on the skill of the artisan. A top-quality knight must be completely symmetrical.

Singh: I have to use the sandpaper to smoothen it properly, and carve the ears, nose, and head perfectly. As you can see, both the sides are matching and in proportion.

Narrator: But it’s just as important that all four knights in the set look totally uniform. Otherwise, the set altogether won’t be nearly as valuable. According to The House of Staunton, a large manufacturer of chess sets, a set of finely carved knights can represent up to 50% of the total cost of the chessmen.

The other chessmen have specific height and width requirements designed by architect Daniel Weil. The king must be the tallest, at 95 millimeters, and have a base that’s 39 millimeters wide, the largest of them all.

The pieces have defining characteristics, like the king’s crown or the refined jewel at the top of the queen’s coronet. These distinct features require more time and effort for the carver. The king’s crown in a championship set should have eight small cuts and be slightly rounded along the edges. Compare this king to the king of a regular set, which has a much simpler straight-edge design. Pieces with even simpler designs than that, like a rook, take these artisans seven times longer to produce compared to regular chess sets.

Aditya Chopra: If the chessman is of a championship set, then we are only able to make 25 to 30 kings in a day because it’s a very special design. If we’re talking about making chessmen for tournament players, which are used in vast quantities, then a carver is even able to make 200 to 250 chess kings in a day.

Narrator: But the design of these chess pieces isn’t solely aesthetic. It can actually affect the outcome of a game. Each piece must be the correct height: the king being the tallest, followed by the queen, bishop, knight, rook, and pawn. The detailed features are also essential, by lowering the chances a player will make a mistake.

Chopra: If you see in the Medieval Ages, the chessmen were not really in a good form. The chessmen were round; some of them were spiral. The knights were not even carved in the shape of a knight. In this form, you can see the kings properly, the knight, very distinguished. The bishop has a miter cut; the queen is very sharp. So you can easily distinguish between all the six pieces.

Narrator: This is known as the Staunton design, the only style allowed in international competition today. Pieces used in the championship match have an electronic coil, making it possible to track and broadcast each player’s move. A full set with this tracking component costs about $US700 ($AU947) more. The weight of each piece along with the felt bottom are two more significant factors that affect the game. Both make the chessmen easier to use, effectively upping their value.

Chopra: If the pieces are properly weighted, then they do not fall while you’re moving the pieces on the board. And it also gives a very nice and a special feel to a chessman.

Narrator: Some chessmen must be dyed black and dried for 10 days. All of the pieces are buffed and polished three times before they’re assessed for quality. Chess has been played for over 1,000 years, with some form of the game first appearing in India around the 6th century. Over the past two centuries, high-level competitions have drawn international interest in the game. Today, tournaments continue to keep the game popular, as do displays of these competitions in the media. The release of the limited series “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix sent sales of chess sets skyrocketing in November 2020. And although this demand is a positive for the industry, it also poses a challenge to chess producers like Aditya.

Chopra: It is very difficult to find good-quality, skilled carvers for manufacturing chessmen. And even after four to five months, six months, we don’t know if the carver will be good enough to carve nice chessmen. So nobody wants to spend so much time and realize that he was not able to carve the desired quality of chessmen.

Narrator: Without enough experienced carvers, these sets could become more difficult to produce. And it’s fair to expect that $US500 ($AU677) sets like these and similarly hand-carved ones could get even pricier in the future.