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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

We Owe a Debt of Gratitude to Nathaniel Cooke

   Nathaniel Cooke was the designer of a set of the chess set which is now standard. Today you will often see the name “Cook” but that is incorrect because his name was misspelled as "Cook" on the 1849 patent. Prior to 1849, there was no such thing as a standard set. Instead there were innumerable varieties of sets with many being regional in design and appearance.
     In southern Europe in the early 11th century, the rules began to get standardized and as chess gained popularity in Europe, the pieces began to represent a royal court. Originally they had represented an army and so the pieces were counselors, infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots. As representatives of a royal court they came to be referred to by the names we know today.
the English Barleycorn set
  By the 1800s with chess clubs and tournaments starting to appear around the world, it became necessary to use a standardized set that would enable players from different cultures to compete without getting confused. However, it wasn't until 1849 that Howard Staunton met the challenge. Prior to 1849, there were a wide variety of popular styles in England.

     Staunton, a chess authority and organizer of tournaments and clubs in London was also considered to be one of the best players in the world, but the set that bears his name was designed by architect Nathan Cooke who based the design on Victorian London’s Neoclassical architecture. Except for the Knight; it's believed that the Knight was inspired by a sculpture on the east pediment of the Parthenon depicting horses drawing the chariot of Selene, the Moon Goddess.
The Jaques St. George set

     The simplicity of Cooke's design appealed to Staunton; that and the fact that the pieces were easily distinguishable. And so he allowed Cooke to use of his name in marketing the new pieces, which were first offered to the public in 1849 by John Jaques of London.  On the same day the new design became available in London an advertisement in the Illustrated London News that read:

A set of Chessmen, of a pattern combining elegance and solidity to a degree hitherto unknown, has recently appeared under the auspices of the celebrated player Mr. Staunton….The pieces generally are fashioned with convenience to the hand; and it is to be remarked, that while there is so great an accession to elegance of form, it is not attained at the expense of practical utility. Mr. Staunton’s pattern adopts but elevates the conventional form; and the base of the Pieces being of a large diameter, they are more steady than ordinary sets.

The Northern Upright set, was
also popular in England

     There is some confusion about the design because Nathaniel Cooke was John Jaques' brother-in-law and, also, editor of the News.   Some speculate that Cooke was not actually the designer but was an agent acting on behalf of Jaques, who was looking to increase his profits by creating a cheaper, more efficient design that appealed to a variety of players. It also helped that Jaques had Staunton's blessing.
     The design was a huge success. And because of its simplicity ion design it was relatively cheap and easy to produce. It took a while for it to become the absolute standard though; the Staunton set has been required by worldwide chess organizations only beginning in the 1920s.
     Cooke registered the design at the Patent Office on March 1, 1849 under the Ornamental Designs Act of 1842. As Cooke was the editor of The Illustrated London News for which Staunton wrote a chess column, he asked Staunton to advertise the set. The ad appeared in Staunton's column on September 8, 1849. That's why it became famous as the “Staunton” chess set.
     Recently a fellow named Daniel Weil modified the venerable Staunton design for the 2013 World Candidates Tournament in London. Weil said he looked at the origins in architecture and following the lead of Cook, he resized the set so that when the eight pieces are lined up at the beginning of play, their angle reflects the pitch of the Pantheon's pediment.
     He also slightly streamlined the pieces and the design is supposed to reflect the relative value of each piece...the more a piece is worth, the wider the base. The new Staunton pieces were also designed to accommodate different styles of play, such as the way the pieces are grasped. I wave been playing chess for a long time and was never aware that there was such a thing as a North and a South hold!
     The World Chess Set, was thus born and was the official chess set for the 2014 World Championship Match and the only set used by the players. You can read more about them at Chess House. Also, there is an interesting discussion on the design and manufacture of chess sets on Chessdotcom.

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