‘The game possesses a literature which in content probably exceeds that of all other games put together’, wrote H.J.R. Murray (A History of Chess, 1913). Nobody has challenged this statement. I make a parallel claim. The number of peripheral activities generated by chess exceeds that of all other games combined. These activities range from those only slightly removed from over-the-board chess to those where the game is almost irrelevant. It is impossible to list them all, but here are some. Playing in non face-to-face mode, e.g. by correspondence, on the internet, or against a computer; playing heterodox versions, e.g. progressive chess; composition (with its own many specialities); knight tours; computer programming; literature; fine art; decorative art; collecting. We have experts on chess-related philately, pub signs, beer mats, gardens, New Orleans Mardi Gras doubloons. Almost no aspect is untouched.
Despite this rich diversity there appears to have been no study of chess diagrams, a topic that bears upon art, history, literature, the design of chessmen, psychology, type design, printing technique, etc. After I have discussed the diagram’s evolution, and development, and also considerations of design, I hope that you will agree that this is a worthwhile area of study.
Before the age of printing, board positions were shown in three ways. Sometimes an artist would impose what is in effect a diagram onto a painted scene, as in , from Tractatus de ludo scacorum ms (15th century). The upper part shows King Evilmerodach and, below, his courtiers, playing chess. The effect, especially in the period before perspective was understood, can be almost comical. In technical manuscripts, fairly straightforward diagrams were given, as in this pair  from Bonus Socius (13th century), problems 47 and 48. The third method was to give the equivalent of a diagram imposed on a natural surround, as in  from a Persian ms (probably 16th century), no 211 in the Royal Asiatic Society’s collection, and  from the Alfonso ms (1283). In the first of these the pieces are named in black or red ink, and in the second an attempt is made to give a realistic side-view representation of each piece. In both cases the sides are distinguished by colour.
Print brought with it new problems, some imaginary. The most obvious one was how to represent the colour of the men using only black ink. In , Lucena, 1497, the white men are outlined and filled in white, while the black men are solid black, making identification difficult when they are on black squares. White plays up the board, as has been the standard practice ever since, but in this case the opponents ‘look at’ each other. Later the custom developed of having both sides standing on their bases. Köbel  Schachzabel, 1520, used a different approach. The men are printed white or black to contrast with the colour of the square. This largely solves the clarity issue, leaving the direction as the indicator of the player’s colour. Again the men look at each other, but this time they play across the board. Another technique is seen in , Saul, The famous game of chess, 1614. The men are represented by their initials, and the sides again distinguished only by their direction. This time the two sides ‘look away’ from each other. Saul called rooks dukes, and used the initial K for both king and knight. The jolly illustration, again with bizarre perspective, shows the player on the left with a pawn in each hand (hence missing from the board). They have already chosen their colours and are now deciding who is to have the first move. In those days it was normal for a player to retain the same colour during a series of games, first move alternating.
The early printing of diagrams was done by means of wood blocks, cut for the whole board. Damiano’s book, first published in 1512 , used blocks of a fairly similar design to those used by Lucena, but without the elaborate borders. In 1560 Gruget published a French translation of Damiano (passing it off as his own work) and this was in turn translated into English by James Rowbothum in 1562. They printed a different kind of diagram, , based on lines and initial letters, and using movable type. Diagrams of the kind printed previously were declared to be impossible, because it would impose on the printer the necessity to have a block for every possible position on a chessboard! Rowbothum explained it. ‘And in the meanetyme content your selfe with this, for I assure you the difficultie to expresse, or set out the types and figures of the men is so muche and the chardges so greate, that as yet no man would euer gladly take in hand to prynt them. Albeit Hieronimus Cardan in his boke de varietate rerum, geueth a certayne forme and maner, how to set out in print the cheste bourd and the men vpon it, according to the diuersitie of the colours blacke and whyte. But he that would folow him shuld cut as many bourdes and diuers figures of men as the playe hath diuers ways to bee played, whiche would be intollerable charges. And therefore (curiositie set a part) take in good worth these types and figures here presented vntyll some better inuention be founde.’
Of course, better inventions were found. One approach was to print the board first, and then overprint the initials of the men. In Stratagèmes des échecs, 1802, the white men are in red, black in black, , and the square grid identities (a-h; 1-8) given. A similar approach was made by Petroff in 1824 . To achieve the same effect in monochrome, Mouret, 1836  indicated the colour by inverting the type for the black men. Le Palamède, , in the same year used ‘white’ letters for the white men. The penalty for that is that the underlying square, if shaded, has to be specially printed with white space. Possibly this diagram was type-set square by square, with founts for white men on dark squares.
Before turning to the modern style of diagram, with its figurines designed to mimic the shape of the men, it is worth looking at an early 18th century diagram  from a ms that has recently been printed in facsimile (Il dilettevole, e giudizioso giuco de scacchi.) The charm of this unique document should be recorded.
Diagrams in the Rowbothum style appeared until the end of the 18th century. E. Stein’s Nouvel Essai sur le jeu des échecs, 1789 is an example . The giant step for chess-kind took place early in the 19th century with the development of movable type depicting each chessman, rather than relying upon initial letters. These little pictures had to be recognisable from the sets used at the time, and, by the end of the century, were to become the source of figurine notation also. The Staunton pattern, the basis of all modern figurines in diagrams, had not been designed when pictorial diagrams first appeared, some of which look strange to our eyes.
Among the first books to use movable type figurines in diagrams were  Stratagems of Chess, 1816, the English edition of the book above , and  Kenny’s Practical Chess Exercises, 1818. The king differs from the queen only by a sceptre, pawns are as big as rooks, and the custom of knights looking left is established. The same publisher was involved, but the printers differed. The engraved frontispiece of the Kenny book displays a slightly different design , the knights looking away from the centre. Lewis’s Oriental Chess, 1818, treats the pawns in a novel way , but the king/queen distinction is the same. A totally different fount was used by Pohlman , in his Chess, 1819. Note how the king and queen are differentiated. This book, coming so early in the history of figurine diagrams, is all the more remarkable because it contains the whole of Philidor with a diagram for every pair of white/black moves, a total of almost 2,400.
Within a few years the main design features had become more or less standard, as shown in the coloured frontispiece  of Lewis’s Chess for Beginners, 1835. The same fount was used in Staunton’s Chess Player’s Chronicle, the example  being from 1841. Similar founts were used in other countries, e.g.  from Le Palamède, 1842, and  from Deutsche Schachzeitung, 1846 (this was the short-lived Leipzig magazine). Note that each of these treats the bishop in a regional manner. The other German serial of the time, Schachzeitung (renamed Deutsche Schachzeitung in 1872) used an English-style bishop from the outset, as the example  from 1846 shows. The depiction of the bishop’s mitre is noteworthy, bearing in mind that the German name for the piece is Laufer, meaning runner. The French name, fou, means jester. To this day the greatest variations are in the bishop’s representation.
An oddity from this period is , from Walker’s Art of Chess, 1846, showing the famous Szen position in ‘3-D’. Some years later, 1881, Brentano’s Chess Magazine added a shadow effect to one diagram,  giving a kind of 3-D effect to the men on a 2-D board. Brentano’s usual fount was more standardised, as this  also from 1881, shows. An example of highly decorated framing of the board is shown in  from the famous Chess Player’s Handbook of Staunton, 1847.
At this stage we have reached a point in our essay where diagram printing can be said to have reached maturity. Letterpress, offset-litho, or computer-generated diagrams are virtually alike in appearance. (There are animated ‘diagrams’ in some computer chess games, but these are outside the scope of this paper.) However, the set-up-cost of producing a hot metal fount is high compared with computer generation, and there was little incentive to experiment in the early modern period.
To examine the design of chess diagrams in the light of modern practice, a selection from material to hand is given. Because some are examined more than once, identification is given at the end of the paper. Some references are made to diagrams already discussed. This is far from a complete survey.
1. The board.
The dark squares of the board are usually represented by hatching. The earliest diagrams used solid black [4, 5], but this is no longer found. Some examples of tinting , or dots [32, 33], appear, but hatching is the most frequent method. Usually the lines go from bottom left to top right, as would be natural for a right-handed draughtsman, but there are some top left to bottom right [19, 34], or horizontal . The most popular number of lines per square are 15 [44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50], 17 [35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 43], 19 [20, 42, 51, 53, 54], and 23 [19, 21, 22, 23, 28, 55], but there are cases of 13 [16, 17], 21 [25, 52, 56], 25 , 29 [24, 34], 31 , 35  and even 39 . This last is so dense that it reproduces as solid colour.
The intensity of 'blackness' depends on the thickness of the hatching as well as the number of lines, but this has not been measured. Typically the width of the line is the same as the gap between lines. The overall dimensions of the board also affect the visual density.
Some designers appear to believe that if black is beautiful then the blackest is the best. Here the opposite is true. The reader needs only an aid to distinguishing one square from the next, and one admittedly eccentric fount  uses all white squares. Comparison of the same fount design on a background of 15 [45, 46] and 17 lines [40, 38] show that the former is clearer.
In a few cases the individual squares have ruled frames [24, 30, 31, 37, 38, and of course 58]. The board is framed sometimes with a single, sometimes a double rule. Occasionally there is a single rule and then a heavy rule on two sides only, to give a slightly three-dimensional aspect to the board . The square reference letters and numbers can be printed at two or four sides of the board [10, 11, 12, 16, 30, 34, 37, 40, 42, 45, 58]. In one case this is done in a minimalist fashion .
2. The figurines.
The conventional designs give more or less a side view of a Staunton pattern pawn, rook, and knight (without its base), and the top only of king, queen, and bishop. However there are many variations.
The typical king is shaped in the manner of Queen Victoria’s royal crown [40, 45] with varying degrees of elaboration [30, 34, 36, 42, 48, 52], but one popular style is a simplification . An early computer-generated shape  can be compared to later versions – K (Linares), K (Habsburg), K (Crystals). Eccentric designs can be found [31, 58]. Pohlman’s early pattern  has the merit of enabling a clear distinction to be made between the heavy-jawed king, in his Christmas cracker hat, looking right, and the crowned queen looking left. White kings are sometimes camouflaged by excessive detail [21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 27, 42].
With a few exceptions [44, 48] the queen is shown as a spiky coronet, with pronounced points varying in number from three to five. In one case , the coronet is on a pedestal. Sometimes the 'pearls' on the tips are greatly exaggerated, perhaps as an aid to identification [30, 32, 34, 36, 41]. This latter can be important if so much detail has been added to the white figurine that it does not stand out clearly on a dark square . Computer-generated – Q (Linares), Q (Habsburg), Q (Crystals).
The most common defect in the design of chess diagrams is when the pursuit of detail and elegance robs the white pieces of clarity. Rooks perhaps suffer the most in this respect when the 'stonework' is drawn on the tower [21, 22, 23, 25, 28, 30, 42, 51, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57]. Early rook figurines sometimes had a door and perhaps a window also, giving the appearance of a gate-house [19, 20]. This style is found later in some central European founts . Computer generated – R (Linares), R (Habsburg), R (Crystals).
In all languages other than English, Portuguese, and Icelandic the bishop is named after something else, and this manifests itself in the figurines, although the bishop figure is recognised universally. In France, for example, the bishop is a fou, i.e. a jester , in other countries it is a standard-bearer [24, 39, 49, 52]. Frequently the bishop looks more like a mitre than does the Staunton design, but there are exceptions [33, 44, 48].
The two common styles are the frontal view with cross [21, 22, 25, 28, 30, 38, 41, 42, 43, 46, 50, 51, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57] and the slightly rotated mitre displaying the cleft, and usually without the cross [31, 34, 35, 36, 37, 40, 45, 47]. Computer-generated – B (Linares), L (Habsburg), L (Crystals).
If the bishop’s interpretation displays the most variety, the knight’s displays the least. All display a horse’s head facing (with very rare exceptions  to the left. It has been suggested that players always pick up a knight by the back of the head, never by the nose. Therefore, for a right-handed player it feels natural for the knight to face left. The main difference between founts lies in the amount of detail [33, 42]. Computer-generated – N (Linares), N (Habsburg), N (Crystals).
These come in three styles, fat [30, 34, 38, 46], medium [21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 28, 39, 41, 42, 43, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57] and thin [35, 37, 40, 44, 45, 47, 48, 49, 54]. Originality can break out [31, 32, 33]. Computer-generated – P (Linares), P (Habsburg), P (Crystals).
Given the international nature of chess it is obvious that a universally recognised symbol is superior to the initial letter of a piece, when writing the notation for game scores. For example, the initial B represents a bishop in English, but a rook in Magyar, and a pawn in German. The Hungarians were the first to use figurine notation in a chess journal (Magyar Sakkujság 1897). Today it is frequently found.
The proportion of the area of a square to be occupied by the shape of the man is a consideration. The same size men can be on different size squares. Compare 57 and 43 where the men are of the same height, but the sides of the squares of the former are about 25% longer.
Some of the recent computer-generated figurines make up in clarity what they lack in grace .
There are now many computer founts for figurines. I have shown three popular ones.
What makes a good fount? Inevitably this is a matter of taste, and therefore the following comments reflect my personal taste.
The function of a diagram is to enable the reader to grasp the position displayed. Its purpose is communication. Whilst elegance is important, it is bad design to sacrifice clarity in order to improve artistic appearance. Thus if detail makes a white man hard to see on a black square, then it is excessive. For example 22 – the rook on f4; 42 – the king on g1, and the rooks; 54 the queen on e3, and the rook on a1. Look also at 36, where the difference between the white and black queens is slight. My choice would be 45, but with the figurine height to square area ratio as in 38, and also with pawns as 38. Sometimes the ‘thin’ pawn can be overlooked when on a black square, e.g. 44, the pawns on b2 and f4.
A fount that looks good on the drawing board can be unsatisfactory when printed at 10 point.
1. Tractatus de ludo scacorum ms (15th century). Fol. 6.
2. Bonus Socius ms (13th century). Positions 47 & 48.
3. Persian ms no 211 in the Royal Asiatic Society’s collection (probably 16th century).
4. Alfonso ms (1283). Facing p. 33.
5. Lucena. Repetícíon: de amores e arte de axedres. [Salamanca c. 1497.] Folio 39.
6. Köbel. Schachzabel Spiel. Oppenheim, 1520. Title page.
7. Saul. The famous game of chess. London, 1614. Title page.
8. Damiano. Questo libro e da imparare giocare a scachi. [Rome, 1512.] Title-page.
9. Gruget [Damiano]. Le plaisant iev des eschez. Paris, 1560. Folio ciii,
10. [Montigny.] Les stratagèmes des échecs. Paris, 1801-2. Vol. 2, p. 64.
11. Petroff. Øàõìàòíàÿ èãðà. St. Petersburg, 1824. Book 3, facing p. 8.
12. Mouret. Jeu d’echecs. Paris, 1836. Plate 1.
13. Le Palamède (periodical). Paris, 1836. 1st series, vol. 1, p. 39
14. Il dilettevole, e giudizioso giuco de scacchi ms. Example 33. Facsimile, Milan, 1998.
16. Stratagems of Chess. Second edition. London, 1817. p. 103.
17. Kenny. Practical Chess Exercises. London, 1818. p. 164,
18. Kenny. Practical Chess Exercises. London, 1818. Frontispiece.
19. Lewis. Oriental Chess. London, 1817. No. 49.
20. Pohlman. Chess. London, 1819. p. 212.
21. Lewis. Chess for Beginners. London, 1835. Frontispiece.
22. Chess Player’s Chronicle. (periodical). London, 1841. p. 201.
23. Le Palamède. (periodical). Paris, 1847. 2nd series, vol. 7, p. 154.
24. Deutsche Schachzeitung. (periodical). Leipzig, 1846. Vol. 1, p. 96.
25. Schachzeitung. (periodical). Berlin, 1847. p. 140.
26. Walker. Art of Chess. London 1846. Frontispiece.
27. Brentano’s Chess Magazine. (periodical). New York, 1881. Facing p. 261.
28. Brentano’s Chess Magazine. (periodical). New York, 1881. p. 149.
30. Lindörfer. Grosse Schach Lexikon. Gütersloh, 1977. p. 146.
31. Langfield. Chess. London, 1978. p. 47.
32. Varnusz. Selected Games of Lajos Portisch. London, 1979 (printed in Hungary). p. 46.
33. Levy & O’Connell. Oxford Encyclopedia of Chess Games. Oxford, 1981. p. 363.
34. Enevoldsen. Skoleskak. Copenhagen, 1973. Column 267.
35. Hooper & Whyld. Oxford Companion to Chess. Oxford, 1984. p. 46.
36. Négyesy & Hegyi. Combination in Chess. Budapest, 1965. p. 84.
37. Alekhine. On the Road to the World Championship. Oxford, 1984. p. 110.
38. Lundin. Erik Lundin spelar upp sina schachminnen. Skara, 1979. p. 50.
39. Rinck. 1414 fins de partie. Barcelona, 1950. p. 138.
40. Hartston. Teach Yourself Chess. Sevenoaks, 1985. p. 1.
41. Alekhine. Íà ïóòè ê âûñøèì øàõìàòíûì äîñòèæåííÿì. Minsk, 1982. p. 137.
42. James & Hartston. The Master Touch. London, 1979. p. 96.
43. Lasker. Brettspiele der Völker. Berlin, 1931 p. 17.
44. Cordingley. The Next move is.. London 1944. p. 45.
45. Whyld. Learn Chess in a Week-end. London, New York, 1993. p. 48.
46. Littlewood. Chess Tactics. Marlborough, 1984, p. 61
47. Cozens. The King-Hunt. London, 1970. p. 79.
48. Renaud & Kahn. L'Art de faire mat. Monaco, 1947. p. 56.
49. Vukoviæ. Škola kombinaranja. Zagreb, 1951. p. 162
50. Neishtadt. Øàõìàòíûé ïðàêòèêóì. Moscow, 1980. p. 118.
51. Maróczy. Paul Morphy. Berlin & Leipzig, 1925. p. 144 (the famous ‘opera’ game.)
52. Richter. Kurzgeschichten um Schachfiguren. Berlin, 1947. p. 150.
53. Nimzowitsch. My System. London, 1929. p. 104.
54. Voellmy. Schachtaktische Bilder. Basel, 1935. p. 78.
55. Household Chess Magazine. (periodical). 1865. p. 41.
56. Wiener Schachzeitung. (periodical).
57. British Chess Magazine. (periodical). 1886. p. 461.
58. Bronstein. Ñàìîó÷èòåë øàõìàòíîè èãðà. Moscow, 1981. p. 14