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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Drueke Chess Sets - Where did they come from and where did they go?

Drueke's Players Choice set
     Today the The Carrom Company, owner of the Drueke name, produces chess sets, boards, tables, cribbage boards, wooden poker chip racks, backgammon, dominoes, checkers and game boxes. 
    The story as it comes from William F. Drueke's daughter, Marian:
     She said that Drueke and another fellow bought out a stationary store that had a big inventory of slightly imperfect dolls and rum boxes and when, in 1914, Drueke went on the road to sell the rum boxes (used for holding playing cards) the buyer at Marshall Fields informed him tht they couldn't get chess sets and he was given sample pieces of various sizes.  When Drueke returned home to Grand Rapids, Michigan, he talked to another individual about making the pieces. Upon return to New York with the samples his sales pitch was so successful that he returned to Grand Rapids and set up a factory to manufacture the pieces.
     The Wm. F. Drueke and Co. was born and was described as a novelty manufacturer. By 1917 the company was able to start manufacturing its own products rather than outsourcing. The company moved to a small rented building and bought the equipment to produce chess sets. 
     With the war still going on, the company got a big contract from the US Army to produce rods for cleaning rifles. When the war ended the company was left with a large supply of the rods, so the decision was made to use them to produce toy rakes, hoes and shovels using the rods as handles. These were then sold to toy departments.
     By 1919 the business had outgrown its location and Drueke purchased a larger one. Not long after the move a furniture line and other household items were added that included desks, bookshelves and tables. Drueke was one of the first companies to put an electric light in a desk. 
     At that time Drueke was the only manufacturer of chess sets in the United States and he became interested in a prodigy that was touring the country, Samuel Reshevsky, because he believed Reshevsky would be a valuable resource for promoting the game. Up to that time Reshevsky's simuls had only been at local chess clubs and Drueke suggested playing in department stores. The experiment turned out to be a success and Drueke became Reshevsky's advance man in setting up exhibitions in the Chicago area. 
     Not long afterward, in 1926 Drueke phased out the business when a friend offered him a job as sales manager for a much larger firm, Stickley Brothers Furniture Company in Grand Rapids. 
     Drueke soon left though because of a disagreement over the purchase of stock in the company and, out of a job, he began selling hospital furniture and steel cabinets. In 1932 he went back into business of making cribbage boards and chess sets in the basement of his home. For the chess sets he imported the pieces from France, refinished and packaged them, selling them under the Drueke name. 
     By 1935 he was able to move the business out of his house to a rented building and added poker chips, pipe racks, dice, dominoes, roulette racks, gavels and other small games to his product line. In 1940 the company moved to a building Drueke purchased that was formerly a casket manufacturer. At that time he added three plastic molding machines that allowed him to produce chessmen, cribbage pegs and poker chips. Between 1941 and 1946, Drueke and his two sons received patents for eight games, including chessmen, boards and roulette. The first patent was for a travel set with octagon-shaped Staunton pieces that were included in sets containing chess, cribbage boards, roulette and other games shipped overseas to servicemen during World War Two. They produced 5000 games a day for the military.
     When William F. Drueke died in 1956 at age 72, his sons Bill and Joe continued to run the business. In 1971, there was difference of opinion between the brothers and Joe started another comapany, Drueke Blue Chip Game Company, even though he still owned his share of the Drueke company. The new company made about the same products, but imported their chess sets rather than manufacture them. Thus, between 1971 and 1987 there were actually two Drueke companies producing games. The 1972 Fischer - Spassky match resulted in the sale of chess sets almost doubling for Drueke especially after photos showed Fischer using a Drueke set. 
     In 1987, at the age of 85, Bill sold the Drueke Company to the Low Tech Company and shortly after Joe sold both his share of the Drueke Company and the Drueke Blue Chip Game Company to Low Tech as well. The Drueke named was then retired. 
     In 1990, Low Tech sold the Drueke name to the Carrom Company which moved operations to Ludington, Michigan. Carrom continues to produce games under the Drueke name to this day. 
     For collectors, when it comes to identifying many of the early sets produced by Drueke things get murky because the company started and stopped production so many times.  Also, by today's standards many of the sets did not exactly match up with the rather crude advertising depictions of the day. 
     Drueke's original sets were wood, but they developed three distinct designs of plastic sets: American Design (an octagon-shaped variation of Staunton design), King Arthur (basically white and black or white and red, felted or unfelted, weighted or unweighted) and Players' Choice. The latter set was introduced around 1964 and at the 1965 National Open in Las Vegas the set was on sale and was so popular that it sold out.


  1. Ah yes, the classic drueke player's choice. Many north Americans are very fond of this set. About 12 years ago I handled one at a club game but I've never owned one. At the time I considered it a rather ugly design especially the Knight but I did like the color of the white pieces in imitation wood. But now I think the set is cool.

    Attractive plastic sets are now available everywhere but the drueke is an excellent playing set. Frank Camaratta had one for sale at his chess antiques webpage. I wouldn't pay close to $200 for plastic but someone else did.

  2. I originally had a Windsor Castle set and a Rook went missing when I left the pieces in the skittles room during a trip to the bathroom. After that I bought a Players' Choice set which I left sitting on the table in the tournament room while I went to lunch. When I got back 3 or 4 pieces were missing! Some of us just never learn!