Proto-Tal Chess Pieces, c. 1940

An interesting set that adopts a good number of Staunton design elements. I call it the “Proto-Tal” set because it is so similar to the Tal set in a pre-Annexation photo of Keres and Mikenas playing in an Estonia-Lithuania Friendship Match in Tallinn in Spring 1940 that the two must be related. We already have examined the development of the Tal chessmen here in From Tallinn to Tbilisi: the Evolution of the Tal Chess Pieces.

Tal chess pieces of the 1940 Keres-Mikenas game in Tallinn, Estonia. Photographer unknown.

The Prot0-Tal set is tournament-sized but unweighted. My specimen retains its original black cloth bottoms. The king’s cross is decidedly non-Soviet, evidence of its origin in Estonia or another Baltic state prior to their Annexation by the Soviet Union late in 1940. Here are the proto-Tal pieces:

Proto-Tal chess pieces. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Proto-Tal chess pieces. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

For comparison sake, here are the 1940 Tal pieces in Mike Ladzinski’s collection. The knight is better developed and carved. The bishop’s miter is cut. The pieces are weighted and are covered with red rather than black cloth.

1940 Tal chess pieces. Mike Ladzinski Collection, photo.

I believe the Proto-Tal set preceded the 1940 Tal set because the knight of the Keres-Mikenas photo is a mature Tal knight, very similar to those appearing in photos of events from 1940 to 1979, whereas the Proto-Tal knight is barely pubescent. I also believe it to be of Baltic, possibly of Estonian origin. We know that Tal sets appeared in the Baltic region as early as 1940 from the Keres-Mikenas photo. We also know that Mike Ladzinski’s c. 1940 Tal set came to him from Lithuania, and that Ron Harrison’s Proto-Tal set like this one came to him from Estonia. These facts support an inference of the set’s Baltic origins.

Proto-Tal chess pieces. Mike Ladzinski Collection, photo.
Proto-Tal chess pieces. Ron Harrison Collection, photo.

Alternatively, it is also possible that rather than being the source of the Tal set, the Proto-Tal set is a simplified version of the early Tal set manufactured for popular rather than tournament use. This would explain the greatly simplified knights, the lack of weighting, and the absence of a miter cuts on the bishops.

The Proto-Tal set appears to have originated in the Baltic region prior to its annexation by the Soviet Union, and to be the progenitor of the widely loved Tal chess pieces.

Author: Chuck Grau

I'm a chess collector, chess player, and retired attorney. I've been collecting Soviet and Russian chess sets since 2014. I'm interested in their history, design, and the people who made and played with them.

2 thoughts on “Proto-Tal Chess Pieces, c. 1940”

  1. Curious if there is any indication on the number of surviving proto-Tal sets. Are the tournament Tal sets more numerous? That could be an indication that these sets originate prior to the 1940 Keres-Mikenas game.


    1. I know of four surviving specimens of the Proto-Tal set. I know of four surviving specimens of a Georgian version of the Tal set, and one of the Baltic version. It’s hard for me to draw any conclusions from that other than they all are very rare.


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