Picks

Three Chess Masters on the Sets and Strategy Manuals They Swear By

Plastic chess pieces.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Amazon.

Though I’ve never been the most incredible player, I’ve always loved chess. It was a staple in my household growing up—my parents owned multiple boards of varying shapes and sizes, from a standard wooden set to a magnetic, foldable board for car rides to a mini plastic one bundled in with other strategy games like checkers and backgammon. I played often with my dad and sister, while also challenging bots online. While I never played competitively through school or a club, I’ve continued to play on a casual basis over the years, challenging friends at bars or sparring in blitz matches with players all over the world—India, Romania, Japan, Nigeria—through the Chess.com app.

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These days, I’m clearly not alone; chess is having a unique cultural moment. As people have sought new hobbies while housebound, and as pop culture depictions of the game—most notably The Queen’s Gambit—have become more prominent, chess playing has risen in mass appeal. In November, Chess.com saw registration grow at times to more than 100,000 new users a day; in the weeks following The Queen’s Gambit’s premiere, sales of physical chess sets and chess books shot up dramatically.

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The game, whose predecessors date back to ancient Indian civilization, has, of course, never been obscure. It’s existed in various forms throughout the centuries, and its modern iteration was adopted more widely when it became an organized international competitive sport in the late 1800s. But increased accessibility to chess in a more virtual, interconnected world—free apps and websites, easy-to-access puzzles and lessons, closer connections with professional players and coaches—has also contributed to its recent resurgence. Some chess masters embrace this digitization, while others bristle at it, not unfairly. After all, nothing really beats the feeling of playing on a simple board.

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So if you’re new to the game and looking for where best to start, or if you’ve started playing online but now want to build up a home set of your own, what do you need? I asked some experts to recommend their preferred boards, books, and general gaming accessories. You may not be able to beat current world champion Magnus Carlsen right away, but these tools will set you up to embark on your new hobby in the most ideal manner.

First off: You need a board, and some pieces, naturally. Longtime coach Bruce Pandolfini—who mentored multiple legends and consulted on the book that The Queen’s Gambit is based on—told me that players at any level should get tournament-size vinyl boards from the House of Staunton, as well as sufficiently large pieces. According to him, you want a home board that’s large enough to get a good purview of the entire range of play and that will allow you to get a better feel for each individual piece’s role.

Jennifer Shahade, woman grandmaster and program director at U.S. Chess Women, also endorsed “simple vinyl chess boards with green and white or black and white squares and weighted plastic pieces,” as she put it to me. Her organization has a series of special-branded vinyl boards on Staunton, and she also recommended to me the custom designs by Wild Style Boards, which forgo the classic black-and-red-squares design for backdrops based on famous paintings and other cultural memorabilia, calling them “great gifts or items to get signed by favorite players.”

Beyond tourney-size boards, chess can also be quite portable, and if you’re looking for a set that travels well, Shahade likes Chess 2 Go’s small travel board. QuadPro also has a cheap, foldable, magnetic chess set. While it’s designed with travel in mind, the strong magnets make it an excellent choice for families, as the set stands up amazingly well to children—who might be particularly prone to bumping the board or jolting the pieces.

If you need a bit more allure to pique your children’s interest in chess, custom boards and brand tie-ins to favorite characters abound. Shahade told me over email that her 4-year-old son especially loves Story Time Chess, “a storybook and chess board with costume cutouts for the pieces especially designed to appeal to our youngest chessplayers.” She also says that “chess sets in [kids’] favorite colors can be a fun way to entice them.”

Once you’re set with your board and you’ve got down the basics of play, chess books can be a great resource to learn some strategy. Pandolfini told me that’s how he learned when he was a teenager—scouring the local library for teachings by the masters. “The all-time classic, great writers in chess, people like Irving Chernev and Fred Reinfeld, had a way of reaching out to people and putting their ideas out clearly,” he told me. Those two authors, in addition to having flourishing bibliographies of their own, also co-authored an instructional book titled Winning Chess, which features illustrated chess play examples and puzzles to help players up their game. Such diagrammed books are preferable for learning, Pandolfini said.

Winning Chess

By Irving Chernev and Fred Reinfeld.

Both Shahade and Padmini Rout, an international master from India, recommended books by Judit Polgár, the Hungarian grandmaster who’s considered the best female chess player of all time. Specifically, both spoke highly of her Judit Polgár Teaches Chess trilogy. Another accessible beginner’s book is instructor Yelizaveta Orlova’s Chess for Beginners, according to Shahade.

Kids can benefit from some strategy manuals as well. Shahade particularly likes Sabrina Chevannes’ Chess for Children and Jessica Martin’s How to Play Chess for Kids.

Once you’ve got a handle on the basics, you may want to explore the world of speed chess, which is featured in The Queen’s Gambit and puts a blood-pumping time constraint on your play. For that you’ll need a good clock for you and your opponent to utilize as you move back and forth (but don’t slam it too hard while playing!). Rout says she likes the DGT 3000 and DGT 2010 clock models, which are easy to configure and work pleasantly in any context—nothing too ornate like the clocks you see at pro speed chess tourneys. This budget option would do the trick as well.

Once chess has you firmly in its clutches—and it probably won’t take long—you may find yourself wanting to infuse it into additional aspects of your life. You can steep yourself in more reading, not just books on strategy but also love letters to the game itself and its vast historical cultural presence. Pandolfini says, “The classic book on chess history … is by [H.J.R.] Murray, a dense, immense work, written around the turn of the 1900s.” For a more visually oriented book, Pandolfini recommends He’s Got Moves, written by prodigy Oliver Boydell (and featuring a foreword from Pandolfini himself): “It’s 25 games through chess history, annotated by this really intelligent and gifted 10-year-old. It’s organized beautifully and has follow-up questions.” Rout also touts the autobiography of grandmaster Viswanathan Anand for a more personalized view of chess play in recent times. Keep in mind, too, that Pandolfini and Shahade have multiple acclaimed books of their own.

And of course, chess memorabilia abound as well, whether for yourself or as a gift for a fellow fanatic. Shahade says that the marketplace Q Boutique, from the World Chess Hall of Fame, “has a wonderful collection of cool chess gifts like chess ornaments, chess cookie cutters and wine stoppers.”