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Happy World Chess Day!

The image shows actress Anya Taylor-Joy with a Staunton chess set in a scene from the Netflix series, The Queen's Gambit. Source:

Happy World Chess Day! Lots of IP to do with chess, though the original game itself can’t be patented since it evolved from roots dating back at least to 7th century India, and possibly much earlier.

But there is an IP story behind the most widely used design of chess set in the world today, the Staunton, which start with a patent (strictly speaking, a registration under the Ornamental designs Act of 1842) granted in 1849.  

If you’ve ever seen old chess sets – and, indeed, many modern ‘novelty’ ones — you will realise that many of them, though often works of art, are totally impractical for playing modern chess; frequently too tall, over-designed and easily knocked over, or with pieces that can be easily confused.

To solve this problem, games company Jaques of London launched a new set, and in a brilliant piece of marketing got Howard Staunton, then the UK’s best and most famous chess player, to allow them to use his name and even sign the first 500 sets made. Later sets used a facsimile of his signature.

As always, there is some dispute over the origins of the designs. It may have been master woodcarver John Jaques himself; he may have used some design cues from chess books from the 1820s; or it may have been the work of the man whose name is on the original 1849 registration, British journalist, Nathaniel Cooke (incorrectly spelt on the original document as Cook), who edited a newspaper which published regular articles by Howard Staunton. Or it could have been a combination of all three. We’ll never know.

Wherever the inspiration came from, it wasn’t Staunton who designed the set that bears his name, although he definitely endorsed them (possibly for a fee, although, like many great chess players, he had a huge ego, so it may have been simple self-aggrandisement).

But what we do know is that the Staunton design was adopted as the official set for use in championship games by the International Chess Federation (FIDE).

Which brings us to why we are celebrating World Chess Day today, July 20th: it celebrates the establishment of FIDE on July 20, 1924, in Paris (so happy 99th birthday, FIDE!). That same year, FIDE announced that the Staunton set should be the one used for its competitions (as illustrated in the Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit – see image) although the original design has been refined many times since 1849.

Image: actress Anya Taylor-Joy with a Staunton chess set in a scene from the Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit. Source:


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