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How to Pick a Chess Set

Once someone starts coming to the club and catches the “chess bug” there is invariably a few questions that come up and one very common one is “what chess chess set should I buy?” This question also gets asked a lot by parents of kids or friends of people that who have caught the chess bug. They often don’t play chess themselves but want to get something that a chess player will actually like. If you have seen a glass chess set and thought “I am going to buy that for John/Jane Doe because they love chess and would love a glass set!!” then do two things immediately:

  1. Take the glass chess set out of your cart and DO NOT buy it!
  2. Read this article before buying anything.

Whether you are new to chess and looking to buy your first board, are a friend of a chess player looking for a gift, or an experienced player just looking for buying advice, this article is for you. If you just want to skip to the actual recommendations with links then just use the table of contents below. I’ll let you know right now though that there are no good chess set that are available for in-person purchases at any big-box retailer and all my recommendations are going to be online purchases (but most of the suggestions are not expensive).

What should you look for in a chess set?

Any chess set purchase should consider at least these five things:

  • Piece Recognition: You want to be able to tell which chess pieces is what instantly
  • Weight: You want chess pieces with a little weight so they don’t fall over easily
  • Visibility: You want decent contrast between the chess pieces and the board
  • Size: You want pieces that aren’t so small that they are hard to grab and move but also not so big that you need a grand ballroom size table to play a game
  • Materials: A lot of this depends on the purpose of the chess set (i.e. everyday play vs tournament play vs special occasions), but plastic is by far the most common. Mainly you want something that will last, works well, and looks nice.

Piece Recognition

The biggest problem with the glass sets and the themed novelty set is being able to tell what piece is what. The only reason you should ever buy the glass chess set or a themed chess set is if the purpose is for a collection to be displayed and not used to actually play chess. Even chess sets that are too “modern” can have this problem as well. When the game has progressed and all of the pieces are intertwined on the board, the last thing you want to be asking yourself is “is that a bishop or a queen?” A classic “Staunton” chess piece design like this is what you are going for:

Plastic Chess Pieces
Photo: USCF Sales – Regulation Plastic Chess Pieces


There are chess sets out there at places like Walmart and Target where the piece design does check the “piece recognition” box but fails miserably to “weight” category. There is nothing worse than playing a chess game and all the pieces keep falling over and knocking even more pieces over with them. I always recommend get actual weighted pieces that have a heavy piece of metal inside but even just getting pieces that are larger is better than nothing when it comes to weight. Weighted chess pieces have had the core hollowed out and a piece of metal glued inside and then covered in felt to hide the weight.  The only thing to mention about weighted chess pieces is that sometimes, with the cheaper sets, the weights are not glued good and the piece will rattle or the weight will even fall out. However, it is easily fixed with a little bit of super glue.

Weighted chess pieces
Photo: Instructables


Visibility is definitely related to the piece recognition and piece design with bad piece recognition will cause bad visibility but it is also a separate beast in and of itself. One of the primary things that cause bad visibility is lack of contrast between the chess pieces and the board or lack of contrast between the opposing square colors on the chess board itself. This is another area where most glass chess sets fail miserably. The frosted and clear pieces and the frosted and clear squares all just blur together in a visual swirl of glass and shapes and it makes it extremely difficult to tell what is going on when trying to play a game of chess. At tournaments and chess clubs you will mostly see chess pieces like the ones pictured above and a roll out vinyl board that is a contrasting color (green and blue are very popular) like this:

Vinyl chess board with green squares
Photo: USCF Sales


If you plan on playing chess frequently, you’ll want to choose a set with pieces that are easy to handle and move around the board. When the chess pieces and board are too small it makes it very easy to bump other pieces and knock them over while playing. Obviously you don’t want your main chess set to have pieces that come up to your waist, but in general bigger is better. The sweet spot for chess piece size tends to be a set where the king is somewhere around 3.5″ to 4″ tall. The size of the board is also something to be considered and should be sized in proportion to the size of the chess pieces. Chess board sizes are typically talked about in terms of the individual square size . The most common size for the pieces I recommend is a board with 2.25″ squares (20′ x 20″ total size). This size is nice and big and makes everything easy to see without the pieces being too cramped on the board while also fitting easily on most standard size tables. One exception to the above sizing advice would be if the player is looking for a very portable set that takes up less room but still meets most of the other needs. In a case like this, an “analysis set” with chess pieces that have a 2.5″ tall king on a board that has 1.5″ square might be more appropriate.


Plastic is the most common material for chess pieces by far and for good reason. Plastic is cheap and can be used to make chess pieces in any imaginable design while typically being virtually indestructible. While I have seen the occasional metal pieces set, the only other primary choice for materials is wood. All the same above recommendations apply to both wood and plastic sets and the material is really just a matter of budget, taste, and purpose. Wood sets are usually quite attractive and are great to own but are defintely much more expensive and less durable. I own a nice wood set but typically only use it at home and don’t take it outside of my house. I definitely recommend a nice looking solid plastic set for your first set, for kids, or for taking to tournaments. If you are reading this to help decide on a gift for a person that already has a nice plastic set then you could consider a nice wood set like this (but it’s going to cost 5 to 6 times a plastic set):

Wooden chess set
Photo: USCF Sales

Chess Set Recommendations

There are hundreds if not thousands of chess sets out there and what one person likes versus another is often a matter of taste. That said, I think almost every chess player will agree with the above criteria for the functional aspects of what makes a good chess set. My go-to place for buying almost all my chess equipment is the US Chess Federation Shop. They regularly have sales and coupon codes for 10%-25% so be sure to look for that. There are some good chess sets on Amazon too but you have to be much more careful because there is a lot of junk as well and most of the good stuff has actually just been the USCF selling their stuff on the Amazon marketplace under the House of Staunton name.

Everyday Chess Set (First Pick)

My go-to recommendations for a solid set of weighted chess pieces that look great, have a great weight, and will last for years that can be used at home, the chess club, and any chess tournament is the Fischer Series pieces. For the chess pieces alone, I prefer the Fischer series 4″ king version because they are nice and big without being unwieldy and have a great weight to them. This is actually the set that the SMTX Chess Club uses for all their meetups and tournaments. If you are looking for chess pieces that are a little smaller then there is a Fischer series 3.75″ king version as well. One thing I want to stress though is that I HIGHLY recommend staying away from the natural color in those pieces and to stick with the black and white version. I find the “natural” color to be far to orange-y. Now most of you will likely be wanting to buy the full set with the board so my official recommendation is going to be to do the “Design Your Own Deluxe Combo” but you have to manually select the options you want but don’t worry, I am going to guide you. The great thing about this set is that you get to pick a bag, pieces, and a set for a very reasonable price (about $40 with my recommended options). You can even throw in a clock in set as well for an extra $28 to $100 depending on the clock you pick. If you get a chess clock this way you will save about $5 over buying it in a separate purchase. if you want advice on what clock to buy I suggest you check out our article on “How to Pick A Chess Clock”.

Photo: USCF Sales – Design Your Own Deluxe Combo


$30-40 depending on options ($85-$140 with clock). Suggested options:

  • Bag Color: Totally up to you
  • Pieces: Fischer Series with 4″ King in black and white
  • Board: Vinyl roll up board with 2.25″ in whatever color you prefer (I prefer green or blue)
  • Clock (OPTIONAL): The Tap N Set touch in whatever color you want is my pick but the Wholesale Chess Advanced Digital is a great budget option. See “How to Pick a Chess Clock”

Who/What is This For: 

Someone needing a great everyday chess set that they can use at home but is also good taking to tournaments, the chess club, the coffee shop, or really almost anywhere. This combo deal is especially good when you need the whole setup because you can get the bag, board, pieces, and even a clock at pretty good discount.

Why We Like It:

This chess set is great looking, super functional, very affordable, and will last many years. The “Build Your Own Deluxe Combo” is great as well to customize the set to fit your needs and color preferences. 

Everyday Chess Set (budget pick)

If on a budget and only looking for a chess board and pieces but still want a set that looks good, has some weight,  is still just  as durable as the first pick, and that is still great from play at home, the chess club, and any chess tournament then the “Classic Triple Weighted Regulation Set” may be for you. Even if you are on a budget, I still suggest getting a weighted set because they are just so much better to play with. The only exception to this is if you are getting the set for a young child and durability with rough handling is a big concern. If that is the case then I would suggest going with the “Solid Plastic Regulation Set”. Just keep in mind that the unweighted sets are more frustrating, especially during speed chess, because they fall over much easier. Just be aware that these sets are just the board and the pieces and do not come with a bag or clock option. If you need those items as well I suggest you go with my first pick.

Triple weighted regulation chess set
Photo: USCF Sales – Triple Weighted Regulation Set


$15-18 depending on which one you go with

Who/What is This For: 

Someone on a budget who just needs a board and pieces they can use as an everyday chess set at home, for tournaments, the chess club, the coffee shop, or really almost anywhere. 

Why We Like It:

This chess set is super cheap, functional, and will last many years. 

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