Chess is often seen as a rich man's game, played on top of a heavy marble board encrusted with jewels, but you don't have to have been born into New York's high society to own one of these antique chess tables. From functional multi-game tables to pieces that belong in a museum, antique chess tables run the gamut of prices and styles, leaving a little something for every collector.
Chess's Popularity and the Development of Chess Tables
With Netflix's hit television series, The Queen's Gambit, chess was thrust back into the mainstream. Slowly, it's been deconstructed from its elite, socially stratified roots and is becoming a game anyone can enjoy. Yet, a beautiful aspect of the historic game is that you don't have to play chess to acquire chess-related memorabilia and collectibles.
While chess is most often played on a relatively cheap board with a standard set of pieces, just 100 years ago, chess was a much more elitist and aristocratic strategy sport. Coinciding with the boom in recreation and gaming in the 19th century, elaborate chess tables (small tables with solid chess board tops) were present in the homes of high society families around the world.
Although chess tables are a thing of the past, chess players, private collectors, and people with an affinity for historic design are captivated by genuine antique chess tables.
Common Antique Chess Table Characteristics
It's almost impossible to identify a chess table as something other than a chess table (without it having been heavily modified) since the tabletops depict the iconic alternating light-color, dark-color 64 square sequence of the game of chess. While modern chess tables aren't as popular as old ones, the majority of those that've survived to today were built during the gaming boom in the late-19th century, and they illustrate the many styles and design trends in demand then. When creating these luxurious chess tables, there were a few key characteristics that changed depending on which region of the world you were in and what century it was. Some of these characteristics include:
- Wood types - Almost always, chess tables have been built from wood. In general, these tables were made with expensive and refined woods like rosewood and mahogany, which coincided with the economic status of people who originally played chess.
- Tabletop materials - The actual tabletops of chess tables have been made out of all kinds of materials, ranging from things as cheap as stone to as expensive as marble.
- Decorative design - Typically, the more ornate and intricately designed the chess table (such as with gilt and inlay), the more valuable it is.
Difference Between Chess Tables and Game Tables
The game table is to the chess table like rectangles are to squares, at least in spirit. Game tables don't have to have chess boards on their tabletops or have attachments that can be laid flat for chess/checkers. Rather, they're a surface meant for tabletop games to be played on. For instance, card games, backgammon, chess, and checkers are all popular recreational activities that required a flat surface and often a specialized board.
However, since chess is a massively popular game, particularly throughout the past few centuries, game tables began incorporating chess boards almost 100% of the time. Thus, it is possible to find antique game tables that you still have to provide the chess board and pieces for, but at the same time, you can also find those that already have the board. Yet, most designated chess tables weren't made to be transitioned into other game tables. Or at least, the ornately designed and expensive ones weren't. Tables meant for the common man that didn't feature a lot of decoration or expensive materials were frequently equipped with attachments that allowed other gameplay.
These tables came in a variety of styles, such as removable tabletops that hid pieces underneath, drop leaf or foldable tabletops that unveiled a new board design for a different game, or tables with compartments and drawers that stored game equipment. Take, for instance, this Regency era games table that has four compartments and a chess board tabletop.
Antique Chess Tables' Value
Antique chess tables are a valuable collectible, often because of their fine building materials. Marble, mahogany, and similar materials add value. Yet, they aren't an item that flies off of antique store shelves, nor are people lining up at auction to take a crack at them. Unfortunately, if you're trying to sell an antique chess table, you might find that procuring a buyer, and one who's willing to pay the amount you want, is difficult. Add in transportation/shipping costs, and you'll find that it might be worth keeping the thing after all.
Part of the problem for sellers might lie in the fact that those interested in the game itself don't see the immense monetary value in antique chess tables. When evaluated, antique chess sets are often listed between $5,000-$35,000. Factors that can increase the base value of a well-preserved table include multi-game tables, expensive materials like marble and mahogany, or predating the Victorian period, which is rarer.
For instance, these are a few beautiful examples of the different types of antique chess tables currently on the market, and what they've been listed for:
- This Victorian sewing table with fold over chess and games boards was listed for $1,503. It's made out of a lesser valuable wood (walnut) and from the late 1800s, all which keep its value lower.
- This Victorian inlay wood and papier-mâché chess table is delicate and hand-crafted. While it is finely crafted, the materials are inexpensive and Victorian-era game tables are less rare, so it's listed for relatively affordable $2,368.77.
- A more expensive Late-18th century chess table features gold plated shoes. It's finely crafted, European, and predates the Victorian period (1780s), leading to a higher listing price of $6,244.93.
- An early 19th century Regency mahogany games table is not only unique and made from an expensive wood, but its removable top reveals a backgammon interior, and it predates the Victorian period, leading to a listing price of $15,000.
- This early 19th century Regency satinwood chess and checkers table looks simple, but the well-preserved condition, 1820s manufacture that predates the Victorian period, marble inlay top, satinwood, and combination of games makes this a valuable table that's listed for $21,500.
Where to Find Antique Chess Tables
Given that chess is a centuries-old game, there's a long international history of crafting beautiful, artistic chess tables meant for more than just an afternoon competition. These works of art are pieces of furniture in their own right, and while a niche collectible, there are a multitude of retailers dedicated to offering them to the public. Most of these retailers sell their wares online, and these are a few places to start:
- Chess Antiques and Collectibles - Specializing in antique Staunton and pre-Staunton chess sets, Chess Antiques and Collectibles is a great retailer full of exquisite antique chess tables. They also purchase antique and vintage chess sets, and if you're interested in either selling or buying, you can reach out to them via their email or contact form.
- Antiques World - A high quality UK antiques furniture retailer, Antiques World has both brick-and-mortar and online locations for you to browse through their wares. If you live outside of the UK, shipping is available, but for rather steep fees depending on what parts of the world you need something sent to.
- Love Antiques - Love Antiques is an antiques retailer that sells all sorts of old stuff from various antiques dealers. Brokering the transaction between the seller and the buyer, Love Antiques has a revolving inventory and currently has a selection of antique chess and game tables to browse through.
- 1st Dibs - 1st Dibs is one of the best antique and vintage furniture auction marketplaces on the internet, and antique/vintage chess tables are just one of the many items that they sell.
Check Mate on These Deals
Take a page out of Millennials and Gen Z's book and take back something that was once only afforded to the social elite. Whether you like understated, simple wooden tables or live by the 'more is more' philosophy, there's an antique chess table out there that can bring your dinner-at-the-Biltmore dreams come true.