“The meaning which we read into these shapes is a reflection of our own experience.”

— Hans and Siegfried Wichman, Chess, 1960 —
  • In The Game

    The King is the most important player on the board. There is one king to each side. When he is lost, the game is lost. The King is usually the largest piece. Sometimes, the king has props such as a crown, scepter and imperial robes. Although not always, the piece is often male. All the other players are there to protect him. The piece moves in short, careful steps; one square at a time in any direction on the board.

  • Key Words

    Important. Regal. Boss. Powerful. Majestic. Haughty. Careful.

    No matter the culture adopting the game, the King is always named King. It is Rãja in Sanskrit, Shah in Persian and Arabic, and in Europe, it is Rey in Spanish, and Roi in French, to name a few.

  • A Closer Look

    Look at Kings. Try to identify those elements that makes the piece a king. What makes a king a king? What does the piece represent? What do they carry? Wear? Do they look royal? King-like? What about their size relative to the other pieces in the game. Are they the largest? Kings can be shown as kings, emperors, lions, generals, politicians, presidents and so much more.

  • Your Challenge

    should you choose to accept it, is to look around this gallery and look for Kings and discuss what you find with your family and friends.

More Kings


“Most gods throw dice, but Fate plays chess, and you don't find out til too late that he's been playing with two queens all along.”

— Terry Pratchett —
  • In The Game

    The Queen is a powerful piece. It can move in any direction, straight, diagonally, forward or backwards as far as it is able before being stopped by the edge of the board or until it captures a piece from the opposing side. There is one queen per side.

  • Key Words

    Regal. Smooth. Gliding. Regal. Purposeful. Powerful. Mobile. Resourceful. Haughty.

    The name of this piece varied over time. In some places it is a minister or counselor such as mantri (minister) in Sanskrit and a counselor or wiseman—vazīr in Persian and wazīr or farzīn in Arabic. In Europe, it became the Queen, inspired perhaps because it sets beside the king at the start of the game.

  • A Closer Look

    Look at Queens. What makes them different from other pieces? Is it size? Color? Notice the details. What is the Queen wearing? Crowns? Jewelry? Are they always female? Can you find Queens that are not female? Where do they come from? Queens can be represented by sorceresses, generals, advisors, generals, viziers and animals—but almost always by the strong and important people, animals or plants. Most of the time the Queen is second to the King in size.

  • Your Challenge

    should you choose to accept it, is to look around this gallery and look for Queens and discuss what you find with your family and friends.

More Queens


“I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.”

— Marcel Duchamp —
  • In The Game

    The bishop serves as a warrior since he can strike in from any direction on the diagonal. The piece moves backwards or forwards on its color (white or black). It goes as far as it is able before being stopped by the edge of the board or until it captures a piece from the opposing side. There are two bishops to each side and they take their place to the left and right of the King and Queen. Often they are the third largest piece on the board.

  • Key Words

    Spiritual. Secretive. Eccentric. Unexpected. Mysterious. Strange. Different. Foolish.

    For the most part, the name used for this piece usually means elephant. In Sanskrit is Gajah, in Persian it is pīl and fīl in Arabic—all meaning war elephant. In Europe it is often called the Bishop (although the French call it the Fou or Fool). It is believed that the abstract Arabic piece with two protruding points representing elephant tusks looked to Europeans like a bishop's mitre.

  • A Closer Look

    Look at Bishops. What do they look like? What are they carrying? Wearing? Does anything stand out? What do these things tell you about the piece? The piece often represents a religious person. Sometimes a mystical character. The Bishop could be a Rabbi, Priest, Bishop, General, Magician, Advisor or an Animal. In some French sets the Bishop is depicted as the jester, madman or fool (Fou). In some playing sets the piece is represented by a stylized Bishop’s miter (hat) while others sets show simple knobs. In some sets the bishop is a court advisor or scribe. What can you find?

  • Your Challenge

    should you choose to accept it, is to look around this gallery and look for Bishops and discuss what you find with your family and friends.

More Bishops


“Great is the rumor of this dreadful knight.”

— Shakespeare, Henry VI, King Henry in Act 2, Scene 3 —
  • In The Game

    The Knight sits on the left or right of the Bishops and the primary role is to guard the king. The Knight is allied with the king’s armies. There are two knights on each side. The piece moves three squares in in any direction with a right or left turn on the final square. So the Knight makes two steps in one direction followed by a right or left turn into another. The move looks like the letter "L". The Knight can jump other pieces. The knight is usually smaller than the bishop, and can also be smaller than the rook (castle). The knight, along with the king and the rook, has the oldest movement on the board, going back to India.

  • Key Words

    Guard. Warrior. Protector. Aware. Noble. Prance. Elegant. Energy. Defense. Fierce.

    The Knight has always been a horse. It is Ashva in Sanskrit, Ghora in Persian, and Faras in Arabic. In Europe it became a knight in English, caballo, meaning horse, in Spanish and cavalier, meaning rider in French.

  • A Closer Look

    Look at Knights. Find several different types. What do you see? Do the details of the pieces tell a story? What story? How does the artist express the energy of a Knight? Most often the piece is represented by a horse. Why? Knights are also represented by other things. What other types of Knights do you see? Can you find any other types of Knights?

  • Your Challenge

    should you choose to accept it, is to look around this gallery and look for Knights and discuss what you find with your family and friends.

More Knights

Rook (Castle)

“The chessmen or miniature soldiers have different shapes among different nations, according to the talent and imagination of the craftsmen.”

— Thomas Hyde, 1694 —
  • In The Game

    The rook moves in straight lines sideways, backwards or forwards. The piece can go as far as it is able before being stopped by the edge of the board or until it captures a piece from the opposing side. There are two rooks to each side.

  • Key Words

    Tall. Strong. Stiff. Immovable. Mobile. Straight. Narrow. Proper. Impregnable. Solid.

    Since the Persians adopted the game, the name of this piece has stayed the same. In Sanskrit it is Nowka (chariot). The Persians called it rukh (chariot), and this name for the piece was used by the Arabs as Rukhkh. In Europe, the word was kept but the shape of the piece, an abstract V-shape, was interpreted by Europeans as twin siege towers, and thus the piece came to look like a tower, castle or fortification. Occasionally the words tower or castle were used for the piece name.

  • A Closer Look

    Look at Rooks. What makes them different than other pieces on the board? How are they represented? What kind of details can you observe? What about its size? Rooks often represent a castle, fortress or home of the king and his armies. It has been represented as a tower, wall, house or hut as well as a chariot and elephant. In some sets, elephants are used with howdahs (carriages) on their backs. The rook can equal in size almost any piece on the board except perhaps the king. Rook is a very old name for this piece. It is borrowed from Persian (rokh) and Sanskrit (rath) meaning "chariot."

  • Your Challenge

    should you choose to accept it, is to look around this gallery and look for Rooks and discuss what you find with your family and friends.

More Rooks


“The pawns are the soul of chess.”

— French Chess Master François-André Danican Philidor —
  • In The Game

    The Pawn is the least in power but the most in number and that is its strength. There are eight pawns on each side. The Pawn moves forward one square at a time except on the first move when it can move two squares. If by chance a Pawn makes it through the other side, it becomes a queen. Pawns protect the king by being “road-blocks” to other pieces or overpower opponents diagonally left or right.

  • Key Words

    Peasant. Worker. Shuffle. Surprising. Plodding. Defense. Modest. Humble.

    It is thought the name Pawn comes from the Old French word paon, which comes from the Medieval Latin term for "foot soldier." In Sanskrit it is padãti, and in Persian and Arabic, it is piyãdah.

  • A Closer Look

    Look closely. What kinds of pawns can you identify? What do they represent? What are the wearing? Carrying? What about size? Did you notice that Pawns are often the smallest pieces on the board? They can represent foot soldiers but also peasants, workers, or any group of people or animals.

  • Your Challenge

    should you choose to accept it, is to look around this gallery and look for Pawns and discuss what you find with your family and friends.

More Pawns

Explore Chess Sets

  • Pageantry & Show

    Chess sets are also created for lavish display or as presentation pieces. Generally these sets are highly representational, intricate, detailed and usually large. They were not easily played, and really are not meant to be played but rather to be displayed as curiosities. Some were commissioned and presented to kings, queens, generals or other very important people. Some have special display cases in which they were housed.

    Even though you might find sets like these elsewhere in the world, show sets were particularly popular in Europe. They were skillfully made of the finest materials. They are highly decorative with fine details engraved, carved or worked into and onto the pieces. Often embellishments, such as swords, spears or cannon were added to create interest.

  • A Closer Look

    Look closely at these sets. Notice the details. What do you see? What about the details? What are kinds of similarities can you find? How are these sets impressive? Would these sets be hard to play? Can you come up with a reason the set was created?

  • Your Challenge

    should you choose to accept it, is to look around this gallery and look for sets that might be created for SHOW and discuss what you find with your family and friends.

  • Just For Play

    Since the earliest days of chess, most pieces were made for play. As such, each piece (King, Queen, Bishop, Knight, Rook and Pawn) had to be different from each other and well balanced (not tippy) and easy to move. Pieces were often distinguished by size or other attributes in relation to the whole set. Colors were used to differentiate one side from another. The checkered board developed as a visual aid in moving pieces on the board.

    In the Far East pieces might be discs (checker shaped) with identifying characters on them. In the Middle East forms were developed for play that largely avoided representational images. Europeans first adopted pieces from the Middle East, but quickly began creating their own pieces for play. By the 18th and 19th century patterns developed such as Selenus, Régence, St. George, Barlycorn, Calvert and Old English.

    As chess tournaments became popular in the late 18th century, the need for a universal playing set became essential. Players using sets they were unfamiliar with could and did make mistakes. Eventually an international style developed as a standard playing set. It was first designed in 1849 by Nathaniel Cooke and sold by the toy firm Jacques of London. The British Chess Champion and writer on chess, Howard Staunton, endorsed the set and the pattern is known as the Staunton style today. You probably learned to play chess on such a chess set.

  • A Closer Look

    Look at these sets. What makes them playing sets? Which would you like to play with? Have you ever played with a set that was difficult to play? How was it difficult? Have you played with a set that was wonderful to play? What do you remember about that?

  • Your Challenge

    should you choose to accept it, is to look around this gallery and look for Playing Sets and discuss what you find with your family and friends.

Design is the Thing

  • Design is the Thing

    Many people love the idea of creating and designing chess sets. Artists, designers, architects, engineers, and people like you have tried their hand at making sets. They want to make a set to represent a symbol or tell a story. Sometimes they want to create a new kind of playing set. But whatever the reason, they keep making them. And they make them out of every conceivable kind of material, in all shapes and sizes telling all kinds of stories.

    A number of European porcelain factories, including Limoges, Herend, Meissen and others employed designers to create chess sets based on stories.

    Some designers create chess sets based on the game itself. Josef Hartwig (German, 1980-1955) designed a set of chess pieces in 1923 that used shapes based on the function of each piece. For example, the bishop is an “X” to represent the moves the piece can make on the board.

    In New York, a group of artists, collectors, musicians and designers began a project they called The Imagery of Chess. The 1944-45 exhibition was planned by Dada artist Marcel Duchamp to challenge the idea of what a chess set should be. It was held at the Levy Gallery in New York and 32 painters, photographers, sculptors, critics and composers created chess sets, works of art and music. The number 32 was chosen because of the number of pieces in a game of chess. One of the artists, ceramicist Carol Janeway (American, 1944-2015), was the only woman in the exhibition and went on to sell the set she designed commercially.

    Today artists and designers create one-of-a-kind sets inspired by endless subjects and ideas that chess offers them. Some are functional and others are wonderful show pieces that would be difficult to play.

  • A Closer Look

    Look closely at these sets. How are they different? What are the materials? How are they made? What shapes do you see? What inspired the designers or artists? Could you play these sets? What do you think of these sets? How would you design a chess set? What would you use for materials?

  • Your Challenge

    should you choose to accept it, is to look around this gallery and look for chess sets designed by ARTISTS AND DESIGNERS and discuss what you find with your family and friends.

Whimsy, Souvenir, Keepsake & Oddballs

  • Whimsy, Souvenir, Keepsake & Oddballs

    Almost from the beginning chess sets represent conflict, resolution, stories, memories and pop culture. In short anything that concerns, surprises or delights us can be represented in a chess set. The pieces and the game suggest all sorts of meanings or ideas. When we travel, we often bring back chess sets that remind us of where we have been. We like chess sets that tell stories—political, historical or represent our favorite superheroes, characters or tales.

    You can also find stories where the game is used as a symbol or idea in sermons, stories, tales and books. Think Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. In Europe, The Game and Playe of Chess (1474) by William Caxton, was one of the very first books printed in English. It was based on a book of sermons by the Italian friar Jacobus de Cessolis titled in English the Book of the Customs of Men and the Duties of Nobles or the Book of Chess.

  • A Closer Look

    Look closely at these sets. What are the subjects of the set? What stories do they represent? What do you see? How do the details help? How are they alike? What is your favorite? What set would you like to have? Do you know a story that could be made into a chess set?

  • Your Challenge

    should you choose to accept it, is to look around this gallery and look for chess sets that tell STORIES and discuss what you find with your family and friends.



George E. Muehleck, Jr.
Gallery of International Chess Sets

A 1957 exhibit curated by the museum’s director Clifford Dolph led to the creation of this permanent exhibit of chess sets. Today there are about 100 sets of these sculptures in miniature, representing the many countries, cultures and periods in which chess has been played.

This exhibition features a global historical overview of chess, anecdotes and stories of chess, and over 80 of the museum’s unique chess sets and chess-related works of art. Wall-mounted cases hold complete boards and sets, and the height of the displays enable easy viewing by people of all sizes, especially young people.

George E. Muehleck Jr. (1920–2011) was a native of New York City and graduated from the School of Medicine at Tulane University in 1944. After completing a medical residency at St. Vincent Hospital in Portland,Oregon, he went into private practice in nearby St. Helens. Dr. Muehleck was along-time admirer of Maryhill Museum’s chess set collection. A fervent player himself, he played with anyone who was willing to challenge him. He enjoyed playing multiple matches simultaneously with other enthusiasts from around the world—sending and receiving moves through the mail. One such game was followed by a trip to the Soviet Union where he visited a one-time opponent whom he had befriended. This gallery is dedicated in his memory.

George E.Muehleck, Jr.

Interview With Colleen Schafroth

Executive Director, Maryhill Museum Of Art

A Word of Thanks

This special interactive program is supported by a generous gift from Jean D. Muehleck given in memory of her husband George E. Muehleck, Jr.

As no project of this caliber can be completed without the efforts of many others along the way, I want to sincerely thank Curator of Art Steve Grafe and Curator of Education Louise Palermo, Maryhill Museum of Art, who provided initial input and ideas for the project helping me to structure this interactive project towards a discovery program with an emphasis on looking. Three cheers to Anna Goodwin, Collections Manager at Maryhill Museum of Art for her support with collections data and photography. A great shout-out goes to Chris Smith, the creative genius behind the design and program. I also want to thank Chris’s work partner, Jennifer Smith, whose enthusiasm gently pushed the project forward. Many thanks to the many photographers who photographed the chess collections over the years whose images can be found throughout this program. These include Bill Bachhuber, Steve Grafe and Jerry Taylor. Last but certainly not the least, I am grateful to all those who gave so freely to the museum’s collection of international chess sets since the first exhibition at Maryhill Museum of Art in 1957. This project would not have been possible without them.


Pictured are early European chess sets showing a progression from early Arab to European pieces. Drawings by Edna Rix.

  • A Brief History Of Chess

    People have invented and played games for centuries. But of all of them, it is chess that has been the most popular over time, and is one of the longest lived games on the planet.

  • The Game

    Chess was invented in India over a thousand years ago as a game of strategy. It probably evolved from the Indian game of chaturanga, played with two or four players and sometimes with dice.

    Over time it spread East and West from India, changing as it moved to and from groups of people and place to place. In the East chess took different forms and had different rules. In the West it took a thousand or more years for it to travel from India through Persia and Arabia before it reached Europe. During that time, it slowly became the game we know today.

    Europeans first learned the game from traders in the east or from the Muslims who once ruled parts of Spain or southern Italy. The name chess comes from an old French word that in turn probably came from an earlier Persian word: shah or king. The game quickly became a favorite throughout Europe. Europeans changed the name of some of the pieces to king, queen, bishop, knight and foot soldier (pawn). The Persian name rook (sometimes called castle) was confused with the Italian name for tower and so survived.

    However the game was slow to play and sometimes took days to finish. There were also too many variations of the game. By 1500, efforts to shorten and standardized the game resulted in the game we recognize today. As Europeans colonized the world they took chess with them to all parts of the world.

  • The Pieces

    Very early pieces used by the Indians and the Persians were probably carved to represent the military: generals, soldiers, elephants, horses, ships, camels, forts and ramparts. When the Arabs began to play, they created simple shapes and forms abstracted from these older pieces. When chess was introduce to Europe, artists first just copied the Arab models, but before long began to decorate surfaces before eventually carved them in the round. Their subjects were kings, queens, knights, bishops, castles—the people and things they were familiar with in everyday life. Still other artists continued to make simple playing pieces as these were more practical for play.