One rare nonpolarizing event in 2020 was the release of Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit.” The miniseries about orphaned, struggling chess prodigy Beth Harmon not only captivated audiences, but it also stoked a thirst for the game of chess. Has there ever been a better time to sit quietly looking at game pieces crafted in the vision of a royal court, using strategy and stillness in the pursuit of triumph? And not have to do so through a screen? Whether you’re new to the game or a longtime aficionado, it may be time to refresh your tools.
Chess expert and author of “How to Network” and “How to Land Your Dream Internship” Tam Pham is more than a little giddy about the game’s renaissance, and offers a few pointers about how to shop for a new chess set.
“There are many options out there, but I’m drawn to this one with roll-up vinyls and weighted pieces,” he says. “When I was 13, I won a contest hosted by thechesswebsite, and the founder mailed me this exact chess set. It’s quite affordable now that I’m older, but at the time, it felt like Christmas had come early, and I couldn’t get enough of it!” Pham used to teach chess to children in schools and at his local library, and then to friends at his co-working space (hence the book about networking). He used sets like this one for teaching new students. “They’re simple, affordable, easy to set up, spacious to play on and convenient to bring anywhere,” he says.
While he loves a fancy glass chess set for special occasions (“The Queen’s Gambit” season two premiere, anyone?), he suggests steering clear of them for children or for those new to chess. “The best chess set I ever played with was made of glass, but it was too bulky to carry around, unclear at times to differentiate between the two colors of glass and a pain to set up and clean up,” he says.
While it’s tempting to add one of those multiple-games-in-one sets to your cart, Pham advises against it: “I would avoid those cheap 10-games-in-1 wooden sets. The pieces are so small and light. It’s easy to lose them and hard to see them clearly with such a small board.”
And if you’re looking to self-gift or give someone else a really special set? “If I wanted to splurge, I would love to buy the official wooden chess sets they use for the world championship,” Pham says. New year, new checkmate goals. Now it’s your move: Start scrolling for our favorite chess sets that are still in stock online.
Endless Market ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Chess Set (starting at $150.24; etsy.com)
The spitting image of the set Beth Harmon used in “The Queen’s Gambit,” this handmade one is crafted with wood and mother-of-pearl.
WorldWise Imports 3.5-Inch Sheesham French Chess Set With Walnut Board ($80.99; bedbathandbeyond.com)
A refined French-style option with pieces carved from sheesham and boxwood, and a board made from walnut and maple veneer.
Umbra Wobble Chess Set ($249.99; amazon.com)
An innovative design sees magnetized wooden pieces resting in concave squares that create a cool movement in the board, and the pieces’ weighted bases keep them from falling off.
Official World Chess Set ($310.00; worldchess.com)
These are the only pieces approved for play by the official World Chess Championship — and thus, they’re Pham’s splurge self-gift.
LeatherOCityUSA Handmade 16-Inch Marble Chess Set ($204.99; etsy.com)
With that classic black-and-white marble inlay, it doesn’t get much more elegant than this.
Arlmont & Co Yasmine Challenge Onyx and Marble Chess ($51.99, originally $66.99; wayfair.com)
Measuring just 5 inches by 5 inches, this pretty onyx and pink marble set is a more affordable and smaller option, making it a perfect home accessory for any space.
CappadociaDream Onyx Marble Chess Set (starting at $99; etsy.com)
Available as a mini set or more full-size set, this marble option has green facing off against white, and reviewers love the quality and the green velvet case it arrives in. According to them, it’d make an excellent gift for your favorite chess master.
WE Games Tournament Chess Set ($17.50, originally $21; amazon.com)
Nothing bad about basic when it comes to starter sets, Pham says. And this one, with its roll-up board and plastic pieces, is perfect for a beginner or frequent traveler.
John N. Hansen Co. Wood Magnetic Chess Set ($18.99, originally $19.99; macys.com)
It doesn’t get much more affordable for a foldable board that’s also magnetized so you don’t lose your pawns quite so easily. You could even play in a car!
Amerous 15-Inch Magnetic Wooden Chess Set ($43.99, originally $49.99; amazon.com)
This is also handmade from a magnetized, high-quality wood — plus, it comes with two extra queens and even a carrying case.
Bobby Fischer Learn to Play Chess by WE Games ($21.50, originally $29.99; amazon.com)
Highly rated for teaching at-home-always-right-now children.
Harry Potter Wizard Chess Set ($39.99, originally $99.99; amazon.com)
OK, it’s not just kids who love Harry Potter, but whether or not you’re a kid, this is all about fanning out, and wizarding strategy.
Jumbo Checkers and Chess ($99; llbean.com)
This 24-by-24-inch oversize board and its pieces are sealed and primed for outdoor gaming.
True Brands Clear Chess Board Game ($25.99; wayfair.com)
To be clear, this set is glass (aka not recommended by Tam Pham for children starting out), and the pieces are shot glasses with the king, queen, pawns, etc. emblazoned on each glass — so perhaps a perfect chess set fit for adults bored at home?
Acrylic Chess ($200; westelm.com)
The ultimate example of aesthetically pleasing and functional.