Chess Diagram Characters

Many of you may be aware of the three commercial Chess fonts offered by Alpine Electronics, Hastings, Linares, and Zurich.

Others of you may be aware of fonts available freely from such designers as Armando H. Marroquin and Eric Bentzen.

However, the history of characters for printing chess diagrams with metal type seems to be obscure.

I have found that the "Kingdom" design from Armando Marroquin resembles the chess diagram characters included in the 1923 ATF catalogue.

I have found some clues to the most common style of chess diagram pieces in (somewhat) older books: in addition to an 1897 ATF catalogue, an 1841 one from Henry Caslon also shows one cutting of this style; there seem to have been several slightly different versions that closely resembled one another. This is the style seen in Alpine Electronics' Hastings, and in Armando Marroquin's Leipzig as well.

However, the style that was nearly ubiquitous in American chess books of the 1960s, exemplified by Alpine Electronics' Linares, and also digitized as the DiagramTTUSCF font with ChessBase and the freeware Good Companion font by David Brown remains completely mysterious. This despite the fact that I've pretty much narrowed down the suspects to two: Linotype and Monotype.

I have learned that it was in use as early as 1942 - and that a variant, with an alternate shape for the Pawn to resemble that of the older style of chess diagram symbols, was not only used in the book "The Golden Treasury of Chess", but also by at least one newspaper.

Also, an account on the web of the publication of a book about the Fischer-Spassky match in 1972 notes that chess diagrams had to be set using metal type, although the rest of the book could be done by means of phototypesetting.


  • Let's not forget Cheq, designed by John Renner at Adobe.

    And yes, that last name is not a coincidence. If I remember correctly, he's the grandson of Paul Renner of Futura fame.
  • I was totally in the dark of the existence of these "types" until recently while, when you think about it, it is totally logical to make them. For me, till I noticed them, they were just "there" (perhaps made as cliche's which would be actually extremely inefficient). Ran into this example at the Lettergieterij Westzaan in the Netherlands.

    I think we can definitely can use some more chess love!

  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 131
    I see that the mold you have pictured must be a very old example, since the black pieces are on the bottom of the diagram. While having black at the top is an almost universal convention, even in the late 19th Century there were exceptions, for example in James Mason's The Art of Chess, at which I was just looking today.
  • I have a memory, as a child, of seeing a French chess diagram in which the bishop was represented not by a mitre but by the head of a fool wearing a cap and bells. I have not been able to find any pictures or a font. Have I invented my memory? If not, is there such a font available? My apologies if I am off-topic.
  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 131
    edited October 29
    Oh, yes, this is quite common in older French chess books. Such books are represented on the Internet Archive, and in Google Books, among other places. That's because the French name for the Bishop is the "Fool". The Russian name for the Bishop is the "Elephant"; chess diagrams with it shown as such are less common in Russia, but they are sometimes found in books on chess for children, for example.

    There is even a modern digital Chess font by a designer from Mexico (Condal, by Armando H. Marroquin) that shows the Knight as the usual horse's head, but which shows the Bishop as a knight's helmet from a suit of armor. I was not aware that the Bishop was called a Knight in Spanish, so I am unable to account for that particular choice.

    Here is an example:

    EDIT: In Spanish, the Knight is called the "Caballo", which is cognate with Cheval in French - it means "horse". That takes care of one. The Bishop is called the "Alfil". I thought that was just the name of an old chess piece that moved two squares diagonally, which was replaced by the Bishop.

    But it's cognate to the Italian Alfiere, also the name of the Bishop in that language. And I looked up the meaning of that word - it means "military standard-bearer". So indeed that Chess font is appropriate to the meanings of the Spanish names for the pieces! One learns something new every day.

    Here's an example of this style from an old Italian book on Chess:

    And here's an example

    from an old Dutch chess book, where the Rooks are also different in addition to the Bishops.
  • Contemporary typefaces with well-designed chess symbols include Tabac by Suitcase (“The figures are precisely stylised using a combination of traditional Czech club and Staunton shapes. When turning on contextual alternatives, normal white spaces are automatically replaced with chess square spaces, making chess typesetting a breeze.”) and Typotheque’s Greta.

  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 131
    Tabac is interesting; the symbols are designed so that while they remain representations of the top of a chess piece, as is the convention for chess diagrams, the bases are rounded so as to suggest a picture of a (solid, three-dimensional) playing piece.
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