Best Chessmen Ever

Another lovely Dubrovnik

I traced down another original Dubrovnik II set, owned by a retired friendly chess player in Ljubljana. I checked it out up close and confirmed it was made in Jakopović workshop in the fifties, all the details match. Sadly, the set is missing both black rooks and they were replaced. The black side chessmen are a bit faded, but overall it is a beautiful set with no damages. If only those rooks were original ...




The Fischer Set

The original Dubrovnik chess set, made in the Fifties and Sixties in Zagreb in the renowned master Jakopović's workshop. These are the pieces that Bobby Fischer proclaimed his favourite, this is the chess set that we can see him analyze with in various documentaries and photographs. This is the chess set that everybody wants to copy, but usually fails.

This set is a bit different from the original 1950 Dubrovnik chess set that was apparently used only once in the 1950 Olympiad and then never again, while this one was reissued shorly after that with some changes in design and used most notably in 1958 Interzonal in Portorož and in 1959 Candidates tournament in Bled, Yugoslavia. Note a bit bigger king, the fat rook, the bishop that looks a bit like a small child pacifier, and the differently but still superbly carved knight. These sets was very expensive at the time, costing about one average socialist worker's month pay.

The pieces are not weighted, just the way Bobby Fischer liked them, and were made from maple and beautifilly colored on the black side, note how the color has nicely faded with use and old age.

This is it, this is the Fifties Dubrovnik no. II, this is the Fischer set.


Eighties Dubrovnik II


GM Milan Vidmar's Original 1950 Dubrovnik

This set from IX. Chess Olympiad in Dubrovnik was gifted to the late GM Milan Vidmar at the end of the 1950 "Tournament of Nations". Currently in care of newly formed Ljubljana Chess Museum and it's curator, yours truly.


Bobby Fischer Talking About His Dubrovnik Chess Set

From 1999 to 2002 Bobby Fischer was staying in Philippines, residing in the same neighborhood as grandmaster Eugenio Torre, his close friend and second during the 1992 rematch with Spassky. During this time he was interviewed over the phone more than 35 times on radio stations in Hungary, Iceland, Colombia, Russia and Philippines. Most of them were done for one particular Philippine radio station, a Manila based AM Sports Radio. It was the only station that tolerated his anti-semitic rants as the interviews proved to be big rating boosters for a small and obscure radio station. His interviews elsewhere were usually a one time affair and often stopped on the air for obvious reasons.

(Warning! His words can and probably will make you uncomfortable at some point in the interview.)

On June 27th 1999 in one of these telephone interviews conducted by GM Eugenio Torre, he answered an interesting question from a listener from Mongolia:

"Where can you get the chess set like the one you used in the 1992 match with Spassky or the one that I've seen in your photos analyzing?"

This was Fischer's answer:

"What I played with with Spassky in 92 was the original Dubrovnik set, and it's very, very rare, I mean, it's almost impossible to get one, … To get one, if you can get one in good condition, you know, but it's absolutely … I think it's the best chess set I've ever played on, ... you remember, Eugene, no? It's just a joy to play with, a joy to hold, the definition of the pieces, the design, … it's just a marvelous set, but it's very hard to get, I don't have it.

On photos you see me playing and analyzing, that's another Dubrovnik set, that was made later in Croatia, I got that in Zagreb around '68 or '70 and that's a great set, but they stole it, ... That was one of the things ... That was on the cover on Life Magazine and many other pictures. I used ... That was my set that I always used to analyze with, I took it all over the world with me for years, I just loved that set ... You remember, don't you, Eugene?"

- Yeah, yeah, beautiful!

"No, no! I don't think you ... This was back earl- ... I think the set you saw was another set. No, no, you didn't see the original ..."

- Aah, the original one ... I saw only a ... probably ... just kind of a ... imitation.

"You saw a later one. This is the original one, Eugene, I loved so much I kept it in my safe, you know, like some people have their original jewels and they keep them in the safe and they will use like fake jewels ..."

- Where is it now?

"Well now, ... The Jews took it!"

- Oh! ...

"Yea, yea ... So, that picture you see me playing with, that chess set that you see me playing with in so many magazines, on the cover of Life Magazine and I'm playing with it in a, ... the picture in a ... on the cover of Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess, it's the same picture that Bobby ... on a website."

- Oh, okay.

"That set was stolen by the dirty Jews, that's worth a fortune! I mean that set is worth easily hundreds of thousands of dollars. Maybe more. I mean, it's on the cover of Life Magazine, you know. That was stolen too, and I used to love to play with that ... 'cause the wood was so hard, it was very hard to break it, it was very, very light, perfect for traveling with, you know? And the balance of the pieces, the pieces didn't fall over, and the ... and the design, just a great, great set. That was stolen by the dirty Jews, so ... I don't want you to buy that set, you know, even if they offer ... even if you can afford it. I don't want anybody to buy any of this stuff that was stolen from me up there by Bekins, you know?... Nobody should buy it. Even if it's your intention to give it back to me. Don't buy it, don't play that game. Nobody should ... that's all stolen property. Don't buy stolen property."


P. S. Bobby is talking about three Dubrovnik sets here. The first paragraph is about the original 1950 Dubrovnik (made in Subotica, Serbia) he requested at Sveti Stefan 1992, but never owned.
The rest is about his Dubrovnik II (also "original" in a sense, somewhat rare and made in Vjekoslav Jakopović workshop in Zagreb, Croatia in the Fifties and Sixties — as opposed to cheap imitations made later and still available today) that he acquired in Zagreb in the 1968-1970 and was photographed and filmed with extensively. This set was later stored in Bekins Co. storage facility in Pasadena, California and was later sold at a public auction, because Fischer's account — maintained by a Pasadena businessman named Bob Ellsworth, — was in arrears. Fischer since claimed his Dubrovnik II set was "stolen".
The third set mentioned above briefly was most probably a simpler replica of his Dubrovnik II that GM Eugenio Torre saw him use much later in the 90's, probably at the Sveti Stefan rematch in Montenegro, where versions of the Dubrovnik could be found a dime a dozen.

Dubrovnik II Plastic Replica

An accurate replica until you get close.

Unweighted and lovely. The plastic is low grade, I see these totally worn out in local chess clubs but somehow still in play. Cheapest sets ever. And then they became rare.

Dubrovnik 70's Club Chess Set

Original, supposedly not very rare. These budget sets were produced in numbers for Yugoslav clubs and are still being used today, I snatched this one from a chess club in Ljubljana, Slovenia (and donated one of our S1EBT sets in exchange.)

The design is surprisingly close to the Dubrovik II originals, excepting few details (bottoms not fat enough, crude queen crowns). Unweighted, lacquered. No extra queens.

Noj Dubrovnik Quality Control

Food for thought:


GM Vasja Pirc 1950 Dubrovnik

Went to Idrija today, visited the Pirc family.  Do you recognize the name? Yes, *that* Pirc.
Was kindly shown late Grandmaster Vasja Pirc's original 1950 Dubrovnik by his son. Here's are the pics:

Vasja Pirc Original Dubrovnik 1950 - 05
Note the tall knight and the queen’s crown. The design was changed slightly in late 1960’s. Compare with Bobby Fischer’s favorite 1970 Dubrovnik.
Vasja Pirc Original Dubrovnik 1950 - 01
The pieces are felted but *not* weighted.
Vasja Pirc Original Dubrovnik 1950 - 03Vasja Pirc Original Dubrovnik 1950 - 04Vasja Pirc Original Dubrovnik 1950 - 07Vasja Pirc Original Dubrovnik 1950 - 08Vasja Pirc Original Dubrovnik 1950 - 09Vasja Pirc Original Dubrovnik 1950 - 10
The set includes a big but simple felted chessbox. Field size 55 mm. Inside there is a metallic badge/pin with the inscription “IX. šah olimpijada Dubrovnik, Jugoslavija.”
Vasja Pirc Original Dubrovnik 1950 - 12Vasja Pirc Original Dubrovnik 1950 - 13

The Plastic Dubrovnik

One of most popular sets on the Balkans.


Slow Motion Pawn Capture Test

Another day, another test ...

Sets tested:


Dubrovnik DGT Red

Here’s a chess set with a story.
Last December a nice lady from UK wanted to surprise her husband for Christmas. The hubby is a chess nut. She figured a handcrafted top end chess set from Slovenia will do the job. So she ordered a Dubrovnik from the GNovak workshop. You know, the one our BCE’s are made at.

But there’s a waiting list, they said. Delivery in January at best. Christmas? Yea, right, ...

So she begged. Unable to handle the situation, the workshop pointed her at me. Try that guy, they said. We just made a very nice one in custom dark red for that guy. Go and ask. It’s not like he needs it.

So she went and she asked. Made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. So I sold her that set, shipped it to London on 24th and I hear the hubby is happy.

The workshop promised I’ll have a replacement in early January. Yea, right,...

Got it in March.

But this one is special. This one I ordered custom rigged. See the video.

One of a kind.


P. S. Anybody asking for this one will be paying through the nose. You have been warned.


A custom job for a friend, his daughter is turning four. These will last her for a lifetime. I chose the colors carefully by trial and error. Refelted the magnetic slide top box thrice.


Tug my sleeve @bestchessmen if you want one. We’ll talk. :-)

In the background is my Cherry Red Dubrovnik, this one has the DGT sensors inside. A trained eye surely recognizes the DGT Walnut e-Board on the pic? Hi-tech. Not weighted, just as Bobby Fischer liked them.

At top right you can catch a glimpse of the latest red ZmartFun ZMF-II Chess Clock from the first factory run of the new model. Expect a review soon. Spoiler: Great clock! Top shit in the price range.


Friction Test

Blitz players usually want their chessmen fast and sliding smooth. On the other hand, some detest the superfast action and prefer more solid grip on the chessboard.

The materials used are all-important. Here are the differences in friction:

Indian noname cloth on a noname sheesham tournament pawn. At the low price end one gets what one pays for. Should outperform leather, amazingly, it does not. Cheap and mushy:


Slovenian blue leather on a BCE Stage 2 Western collared pawn. Elegant deliberate slower action:


Croatian HQ billiard cloth on a Dubrovnik 1950 pawn. We are talking old style 1950 coffehouse billiards here. Rough but surprisingly fast. Generously cushioned feel:


Belgian Simonis 860 billiard cloth on a BCE Stage 1 Eastern pawn. Designed for maximum speed. Difficult to cut with machine, frays easily. This felting is optional on BCE sets, requires custom gluing and manual scissor cutting. Results in somewhat uneven cut:


The Simonis is best by far if speed is what one wants. Slides perfectly across any chessboard including plastic. Custom job only. This is as good as it gets.


The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Pawn)

Comparing a few more pawns up close. Some good, some bad, some for goats only.


The Dubrovnik 1950 Pawn

Best pawn in chess history. It’s hard to compete against *this*:

The Dubrovnik 1950. Sure the damn thing is stable, look at that fat bottom! These guys are a little on the short side and cannot be knocked over by accident. Malice with intent required. Very ergonomic, the collar is just right. Generously felted with green billiards cloth. Note the custom red stain.


Best Chessboard Size

So what is the right board size for your particular chess pieces, really? One rule of thumb goes like this: The king’s diameter should be about 75 % of the field size.

Say what?

Numbers are hard. Over here we use a simpler rule of our own. More practical too. Here’s how we do it:

Testing the board size - 15

Take a king and a queen and place them on diagonally adjacent squares. Place a bishop between the royal pair. See if the bishop has any chaperoning elbow room. If not, you got some shopping to do. Your board is crowded. Bigger is better.

Here’s a detailed video:

You’re welcome.


The Dubrovnik Chess Set

There's a legend of the most beautiful chess set ever that is impossible to buy, made in a country that no longer exists.

Novica 1

The Dubrovnik.

The year was 1950. A Serbian sculptor Petar Poček was commissioned to design new chessmen for the upcoming IX. Chess Olympiad in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia. The event was held with an impressive flourish as state authorities with marshal Tito in the forefront were involved. No expense was spared. In the spirit of the times a special ad hoc art committee of the ruling Communist Party was formed to approve the design.

(Update: It is claimed by at least one Serbian chess collector that the first 1950 Dubrovnik was designed by Josip Poček, but this information is still not verified and is heavily disputed by the some members of Croatian Chess Federation. It is quite possible that the original 1950 Dubrovnik was designed by Croatian cartoonist Andrija Maurović and made in Zagreb, but we are not yet sure.)

Photo below (and video above) featuring IM Branko Grosek's 1950 Dubrovnik, currently in care of the Grosek family, Ljubljana, Slovenia:

No religious symbols was the order of the day. The designer came up with a beautiful set with smooth curves, opposite capped bishops (for easier bishop/pawn distinction) and surprisingly elegant knights done differently than the usual Staunton Elgin marbles style. Unconventionally wide at base, felted in green, light, sturdy, utilitarian but elegant chessmen with a nod to great Staunton/Jaques of London tradition, the pieces were made out of maple and chestnut in natural color. No extra queens were included, a laughable idea at this side of the iron curtain, (where an upside-down rook is traditionally used in an unlikely event of promoting to another queen). Every set was boxed in a big folding veneered chessboard felted with baize, field size 60 mm. Big mother of a board folding into a box with a simple hook latch. A small metal badge with inscription “IX. šah olimpijada 1950 Dubrovnik Jugoslavija” adorned the inside of the box.

Below are photos of GM Vasja Pirc's (of the Pirc Defense fame) original Dubrovnik, currently in care of the Pirc family in Idria, Slovenia. The set is in astonishing mint condition, there's nary a scratch on this particular 1950 jaw-dropping chess set.
Vasja Pirc Original Dubrovnik 1950 - 05
Vasja Pirc Original Dubrovnik 1950 - 09
Vasja Pirc Original Dubrovnik 1950 - 13

The unweighted (!) pieces were (according to late Mr. Karakljajić) produced in an unknown workshop in Serbia. Alas, this is not verified and is heavily disputed. It is quite possible they were made in a Zagreb woodshop where master carver Jakopović (more about him later) served as a young apprentice. About 100 sets were made. After the tournament they were gifted to the players, seven of them to the victorious Yugoslav team:

  • The few remaining were sold off at a price equivalent to one average months pay in 1950’s Yugoslavia. Only a handful remain today.

The Dubrovnik design was used again in 1958 Interzonal tournament in Portorož, Yugoslavia with young Bobby Ficher competing and earning his Grandmaster title at age 15. This was his first encounter with the Dubrovnik chess set, later proclaimed as his favorite chess set design. Again, a limited number of sets was produced. We have no information on what happened to them. The same goes for Dubrovnik sets from the 1961 International Tournament in Bled, again with Fischer competing (and winning second place behind Mikhail Tal.)

In the Sixties the renowned Croatian cartoonist Andrija Maurović designed a reissue of the set to be produced in greater numbers and sold to general public., Some minor details were changed, most notably the size of the pieces (all the pieces a bit fatter and taller by about 2 mm), carving of the knights (simpler cut lines, larger heads) and the number of cuts in the queen crowns (only 5 as opposed to original 12 to 15). The redesigned sets were handmade by master carver Vjekoslav Jakopović in his workshop in Zagreb, Croatia. Maurović's original design blueprints and drawings were used in production of Noj, d. o. o. reproduction of Dubrovnik II chessmen.

Jakopović's chessmen were used in most events on the Yugoslav soil in the sixties. Here's a video from the 1968 Svetozar Gligorić vs. Mikhail Tal WC candidate match in Dom sindikata, Belgrade, Yugoslavia:

Dubrovnik sets were now available for sale in chess shops and were usually commisioned as prizes at local tournaments. Here’s an example of such a set awarded to a tournament winner in Deskle, Slovenia on December 22nd 1968, note the additional ornamentation:

Dubrovnik 68 - 06
Dubrovnik 68 - 11
Dubrovnik 68 - 12

Other woodshops soon followed and a plethora of lower price & quality replicas started to be sold wildly in early seventies in Yugoslavia and neighboring countries. There was a lot of variety in carving quality and coloring of the pieces, the cheapest sets were often lacquered in black.

The Dubrovnik replica sets were soon discontinued as the cheaper and simpler Subozan sets from Subotica flooded the market. By his own admission, world champion Bobby Fischer bought his Dubrovnik in 1970 in Zagreb. He can be seen analyzing with it in numerous photographs and film clips. This set was put in Bekins Storage Co. warehouse storage room in Pasadena, California. The contents of the storage room were later sold at a public auction, because Fischer's account —maintained by a Pasadena businessman named Bob Ellsworth — was in arrears. Fischer since claimed his Dubrovnik was thusly stolen from him.

Here is the transcript of his radio interview, discussing the original 1950 Dubrovnik:

"What I played with with Spassky in 92 was the original Dubrovnik set, and it's very, very rare, I mean, it's almost impossible to get one, … To get one, if you can get one in good condition, you know, but it's absolutely … I think it's the best chess set I've ever played on, ... you remember, Eugenio, no? It's just a joy to play with, a joy to hold, the definition of the pieces, the design, … it's just a marvelous set, but it's very hard to get, I don't have it."

Discussing his 1970 Dubrovnik:

"On photos you see me playing and analyzing, that's another Dubrovnik set, that was made later in Croatia, I got that in Zagreb around '68 or '70 and that's a great set, but they stole it, … That was one of the things ... That was on the cover on Life Magazine and many other pictures. I used ... That was my set that I always used to analyze with, I took it all over the world with me for years, I just loved that set ..."

"On the cover of Life Magazine, you know, that was stolen too, and I loved to play with that ... The wood was so hard, it was very hard to break it, it was very very light, perfect for traveling with, you know. And the balance of the pieces, the pieces didn't fall over, and the design, just great, great set."

Bobby Fischer Dubrovnik
Bobby Fischer 03 - Dubrovnik
Bobby Fischer Dubrownik room
Bobby Fisher Dubrovnik close
Below are three fantastic and copyrighted photos by David Attie, showing Fischer's Dubrovnik in great detail. The original prints can be purchased at Rock Paper Photo, we strongly encourage visitors of this blog to do so:

In January 1972 when interviewed by Ira Berkow, Fischer mentions his Dubrovnik thusly:

"Look at these pieces. Smooth and light, no hard edges, beautifully carved. The best set for playing with that I've ever seen. Here, feel this knight!"

By his request, the original 1950 pieces from a private Belgrade collection were used in 1992 Fischer/Spassky World Championship Rematch at Sveti Stefan, Montenegro that year. Fischer proclaimed it as "the best chess set I have ever played on".


This particular set from the 1992 Sveti Stefan match was actually a combination of *two* original 1950 Dubrovnik sets, a cleaned up and refinished hybrid, as the organizers were unable to locate a complete set in good enough condition (pieces missing, pawn collars broken) to be used in such a prestigious event. After the match one of the arbiters IM Nikola Karakljajić sold this hybrid to a Serbian collector Novica Matić and it was since offered for sale on (and later removed from) GM Siniša Dražić's blog, a friend of Mr. Matić.

The set was not sold as the asking price was ridiculously high. A chess collector from Brazil contacted Mr. Matić in 2014 and was given the hybrid (in exchange for an undisclosed sum of money) with an understanding that it will be eventually returned to Serbia. No contract was signed. Here is the video of the set, filmed in Dubrovnik by the set's current caretaker that wishes to remain anonymous:

Today the original 1950 sets are almost impossible to find and cannot be bought. An old grandmaster friend of mine showed me six pieces of unknown origin but does not have a complete set. On a short visit I shot a picture on his coffee table:


A few of the originals are still owned by the families of the IX. Olympiad participants, as the sets were gifted to them at the end of the tournament. Some were sold at a somewhat high price to general public at the premises during the Olympiad. At the time of this writing (spring 2015) the following originals have been located and documented, historically owned by:

  • GM Milan Vidmar, chief arbiter at IX. Chess Olympiad in Dubrovnik 1950. Set was donated to Ljubljana Chess Museum and is currently in care of Izmet Fekali. Located in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
  • GM Vasja Pirc, Idrija, Slovenia, Olympic team Yugoslavia 1950. Set currently in care of the Pirc family. Located in Idrija, Slovenia.
  • GM Stojan Puc, Ljubljana, Slovenia, Olympic team Yugoslavia 1950. Set currently in care of the Puc family. Located and displayed in offices of Noj, d. o. o., Brezovica, Slovenia.
  • Unknown origin hybrid (from two damaged and incomplete sets, original owners not known), used in Fischer/Spassky match in 1992 at Sveti Stefan, Montenegro. Set currently in care of anonymous collector. Located in Brazil.
  • IM Branko Grosek (bought the set on the Olympiad premises in 1950 in Dubrovnik). Set currently in care of the Grosek family, located in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

None of these sets can be purchased. Don't even ask.

One of the sets was gifted to GM Svetozar Gligorić, a member of the Yugoslav Olympic team. He supposedly gifted it to Bobby Fischer in early sixties and was stolen in the seventies. This is not verified, as Fischer never mentions this particular story in any interview and the set cannot be located. (Not to be confused with Fischer's Jakopović Dubrovnik, sold off by Bekins storage warehouse landlord, claimed stolen by Fischer as a part of "Jewish conspiracy" against him.)

The spirit of the new design lives on. Today a rough and simplified plastic replicas of the Dubrovnik set are being sold in Serbia and Croatia.

Some setmakers are using the basic idea only but introducing own designs and naming conventions like “Zagreb” or “Yugoslavia”. Note the opposite colored finials on kings and queens in the modern variants -- in the original Dubrovnik only the bishops enjoyed the privilege. However, these sets are not even close to utility and specifications of the original pieces and have dubious historical origin. Their supposed Yugoslavian heritage is pure marketing fiction. This and similar designs were never used in any tournament on Yugoslav soil:


Today a small family business in Slovenia is producing near perfect replicas of the historic Dubrovnik chess sets:

Noj Dubrovnik Black - 12

Original 1950 pieces used in the 1992 Fischer vs. Spassky rematch were used as a reference, courtesy of a Belgrade collector Novica Matić. Yes, these were handled by Bobby and Boris themselves, here's a photo:


The knights are the trademark of the Dubrovnik set. At this time there are only two artisans in the world (one in Brezovica and one in Slovenske Konjice, Slovenia) having the necessary carving skills to do the Dubrovnik knights properly. Just take a look at the prestigious House of Staunton’s try at it, I rest my case. It is a dying art.


Their so called Dubrovnik II replicas are based on original blueprints and drawings provided by Šahovska naklada of Croatia. This organization is claiming copyright over the Dubrovnik design and awarded explicit permission to Noj, d. o. o. for using it in their replica chess sets. However, they did not take any legal action against any manufacturer for unauthorized use of said design to date.


Here’s a pic and a video of my personal red stained Dubrovnik II, modified with DGT coils:


And here’s the Noj, d. o. o. 1950 reissue Dubrovnik:


P. S. This essay is and will be constantly updated as the new information is gathered. The information is presented as is and some of my sources will for various reasons not be revealed. It's a dog eat dog in the chess collecting world. It is only natural that some collectors are cherry-picking and hiding (and others revealing) the information in an attempt to enhance the value of their particular collections. I try to reveal the truth under the layers of various admissions and stories to the best of my abilities. Nevertheless, be advised I am one of the collectors also. :)

Caveat emptor!

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