The king can have many different appearances depending on the chess set you are using. The king’s piece can look like he is wearing a cross, ball, plume, French lily, or crown on top of his head.
In modern chess sets, the king (♔, ♚) looks like a tall, royal figure with a cross on its head. The schematic representation of the king also shows the cross, but the body looks like a crown. The algebraic notation for the king is represented by the letter K.
The cross is the most common representation of the king in chess, even in non-Christian countries. The king can also be recognized as the tallest chess piece in a set (106 mm, standard Staunton size), even taller than the queen (90 mm, standard Staunton size).
Why Does The King Have A Cross?
In chess, the cross on top of the king symbolizes the power of the monarch under the Christian religion. The king’s cross represents the divine right of the king to rule over his people. In chess, the cross helped the king to differentiate itself from the (otherwise visually similar) queen.
Symbolism is deeply rooted in the game of chess. The king in chess symbolizes leadership, and the authority of this leadership was historically rooted in religion.
In medieval times, it was believed that the monarch was given his powers by the grace of the divine. The king had so-called divine rights. The spiritual realm and the crown were interconnected and could not be seen as two separate entities. God’s mandate was the reason the monarch was in power, it gave the king his political legitimacy.
The chessmen can be seen as a small medieval society. The king and queen were the crown, given their power by the cross (i.e. the divine). The bishops represent the church, which supported the royal pair. The knights represent the army, and the rooks the castle’s walls. Pawns were the normal footsoldiers or peasants in society.
Chess King Without Cross
The origins of modern chess are clearly rooted in Christian society. Modern chess is a westernized version of a game that is much, much older. Before chess was introduced in Europe and the Americans, the pieces had many different forms.
That’s right, the king in chess also exists without the cross.
Before modern chess, the king was shown in many other ways. The looks of the king can be culturally different, and the cultures have mixed over time. The cross is the common standard in the official Staunton chess sets, but a lot of varieties exist.
Abstract or themed sets usually do not show a cross, or any type of religious symbol for that matter. So if you happen to be looking for an atheist or non-religious chess set, that’s where you should look. Many chess set varieties exist, and these sets can nowadays be found all over the world.
King With Ball
A chess king with a ball design is commonly found in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Russia. The most famous variant is the Dubrovnik chess set. This is a more neutral approach to the ‘religious cross’ in the Staunton chess set.
The Dubrovnik set has been redesigned several times They are notably timeless due to their more abstract design, which is not influenced by any cultures or religions.
The more neutral Dubrovnik chess set has been used in official FIDE tournaments and has been praised by legendary players like Bobby Fisher: “This [1950 Dubrovnik chess set] is the best set I have ever played on. It is marvelous.”
Other chess sets that have a King with ball design include Imperial c1900-1901, Calvert, St. George, Northern Upright, and some Zagreb chess set variants.
King With Plume
Northern European chess sets will sometimes use a plume instead of a cross for the chess king. This design is commonly found in the colder regions of Europe is traditionally used. They can have plume designs, but also ball designs.
Chess sets that have a king with plume design include Finnish, Reykjavik, or some Lund designs, among others. The image below shows an example of such a design (the king is the tallest piece).
King With Frech Lily
The fleur-de-lys or fleur-de-lis (French lily) chess set is a more subtle variation on the common cross. While the lily can have some resemblance to the original cross, there is a notable difference. The middle part is much thicker and the sides are much less pronounced. It’s not a cross, it’s a flower.
The image below shows a French lily design. The Royale series chess set in House Of Staunton also has this design on their king.
King Figure With Crown
In sets where pieces are more pronounced, like figurines, it’s common for the king piece to wear a crown. There are two major distinctions, as the Asian (most notably Chinese) sets will use more traditional headwear that would be royal, but not necessarily a crown.
The figures in a Chinese chess set will often show the king and queen as a pair with traditional royal clothing. The cross will generally be omitted, and replaced with traditional Hanfu headwear.
The Isle of Lewis chess set will generally use a crown for its figurines. An example of an older Lewis chessmen set is shown in the image below, so you can get an idea of the design these unique pieces have.
King With Half Moon And Star
While chess originated in the Muslim world, a king will rarely be depicted with a half-moon (i.e. crescent) and star. However, some designers have culturally adapted their chess set designs to fit a certain cultural or religious belief outside of the more commonly found Christian cross.
A notable example is a Muslim crescent and star chess king design, which is infrequently found in designer sets from the Middle East and Northern Africa. An example of such a design is shown below.
Themed Sets Have Many Representations
There are a large number of themed chess sets with their own unique visuals and representations. From Star Wars to abstract art, and from mechanical to mythical figurines: every design will assign a different look to the pieces.
Sometimes, this makes it a bit more difficult to know which piece is the king. In such cases, it might be a good idea to discuss which piece represents which. Do this before you start the game, and perhaps (impermanently) mark the chess pieces so you won’t forget.
What is the coolest representation of the king you have seen in a chess set? What would you want the king to look like, if you had the opportunity to design one of your own? Join the discussion below and let’s have a chat about it!