Origins of chess[ edit ]

The top row shows king, queen, and bishop. The bottom row shows knight, rook, and a pawn.

The game of Chess has been attributed to the Indians both by the Persian people and by the Arabs. However, the origin of the game remains lost in antiquity. The words for chess in Old Persian and Arabic are chatrang and shatranj respectively — terms derived from chaturanga in Sanskrit, which literally means an army of four divisions.

Chess spread throughout the world and many variants of the game soon began taking shape. This game was introduced to the Near East from India and became a part of the princely or courtly education of Persian nobility. Buddhist pilgrims, Silk Road traders and others carried it to the Far East where it was transformed and assimilated into a game often played on the intersection of the lines of the board rather than within the squares. Chaturanga reached Europe through Persia, the Byzantine empire and the expanding Arabian empire. Muslims carried chess to North Africa, Sicily, and Spain by the 10th century.

The game was developed extensively in Europe, and by late 15th century, it had survived a series of prohibitions and Christian Church sanctions to almost take the shape of the modern game. The modern times saw reliable references works, competitive chess tournaments and exciting new variants add to the popularity of the game, further bolstered by reliable time mechanisms, effective rules and charismatic players.


The earliest precursor of modern chess is a game called Chaturanga, which flourished in India by the 6th century, and is the earliest known game to have two essential features found in all later chess variations — different pieces having different powers (which was not the case with Checkers and Go), and victory depended on the fate of one piece, the king of modern chess. Other game pieces, often known as "chess pieces," uncovered in archaeological findings are considered as coming from other, distantly related, board games, which may even have boards of 100 squares or more.

As early as the late 19th century, an idea originating mainly from the works of Captain Hiram Cox and Duncan Forbes indicated that a four handed game was the original form of chaturanga. Other scholars have concluded that a two handed version probably existed before the four handed one and evolved later into many other versions, including the four handed version of chaturanga.

In Sanskrit], "Chaturanga" literally means "having four limbs (or parts)" and in epic poetry often means army. The name itself comes from a battle formation mentioned in the Indian epic Mahabharata. Chaturanga was a battle simulation game which faithfully rendered Indian military strategy of the time. Initial gambling and dice aspects of the game — facing condemnation from both the Hindu and Muslim cultures — were removed as the game progressed and branched into newer games.

Ashtāpada, the uncheckered 8×8 board — sometimes with special markers — served as the main board for playing Chaturanga. Other Indian boards included the 10×10 Dasapada and the 9×9 Saturankam.

The Arab scholar Abu al-Hasan ´Alī al-Mas´ūdī detailed the use of chess as a tool for military strategy, mathematics, gambling and even its vague association with astronomy in India and elsewhere. Mas´ūdī notes that Ivory in India was chiefly used for the production of chess and backgammon pieces, and asserts that the game was introduced to Persia from India, along with the book Kelileh va Demneh, during the reign of emperor Nushirwan.

A notable evolution of chaturanga was Shatranj (or chatrang), a popular two-player variant which resembled chaturanga and could be won either by eliminating all of an opponent´s pieces (except the king) or by capturing the king itself. The initial positions of the pawns and horses did not change, but there were some regional and temporal alterations for the other pieces.

Middle East

The Karnamak-i Ardeshir-i Papakan, a Pahlavi epical treatise about the founder of the Sassanid Persian Empire, mentions the game of chatrang as one of the accomplishments of the legendary hero, Ardashir I, founder of the Empire. The oldest recorded game in chess history is a 10th century game played between a historian from Baghdad and a pupil. Chess: Introduction to Europe (Encyclopedia Britannica 2007)

In the 11th century Shahnameh, Ferdowsi describes a Raja visiting from India who re-enacts the past battles on the chessboard. A translation in English, based on the manuscripts in the British Museum, is given below.

One day an ambassador from the king of Hind arrived at the Persian court of Chosroes, and after an oriental exchange of courtesies, the ambassador produced rich presents from his sovereign and amongst them was an elaborate board with curiously carved pieces of ebony and ivory.

He then issues a challenge:
"Oh great king, fetch your wise men and let them solve the mysteries of this game. If they succeed my master the king of Hind will pay tribute as an overlord, but if they fail it will be proof that the Persians are of lower intellect and we shall demand tribute from Iran."
The courtiers were shown the board, and after a day and a night in deep thought one of them, Buzurjmihir, solved the mystery and was richly rewarded by his delighted sovereign.

The appearance of the chess pieces had altered greatly since the times of chaturanga, with ornate pieces and chess pieces depicting animals giving way to abstract shapes. The Islamic sets of later centuries followed a pattern which assigned names and abstract shapes to the chess pieces as Islam forbids depiction of animals and human beings in art. These pieces were usually made of simple clay and carved stone.

East Asia

As a strategy board game played in China, chess is believed to have been derived from the Indian Chaturanga. Chaturanga was transformed and assimilated into a game often placed on the intersection of the lines of the board rather than within the squares. The object of the Chinese variation is similar to Chaturanga, i.e. to capture the opponent´s king, sometimes known as general. Chinese chess also borrows elements from the game of Go, which was played in China since at least the 6th century BCE. Owing to the influence of Go, Chinese chess is played on the intersections of the lines on the board, rather than in the squares. Chinese chess pieces are usually flat and resemble those used in checkers.

Joseph Needham posits that "image-chess," a recreational game associated with divination, was developed in China and transmitted to India, where it evolved into the form of modern military chess. Needham notes that dice were transmitted to China from India, and were used in the game of "image-chess."

Another alternative theory contends that chess arose from Xiangqi or a predecessor thereof, existing in China since the 2nd century BCE. David H. Li, a retired accountant, professor of accounting and translator of ancient Chinese texts, hypothesizes that general Han Xin drew on the earlier game of Liubo to develop an early form of Chinese chess in the winter of 204–203 BCE. The German chess historian Peter Banaschak points to the many inconsistencies in Li´s theories while noting that the "Xuanguai lu," authored by the Tang Dynasty minister Niu Sengru (779-847), remains the first real source on Chinese chess.

A prominent variant of chess in East Asia is the game of Shogi, transmitted from India to China and Korea before finally reaching Japan. The two distinguishing features of Shogi are: 1) The captured pieces may be used by the captor and played as a part of the captor´s forces, and 2) any pawn can capture in the normal, one square straight ahead move.


Early History

A variation of chaturanga made its way to Europe through Persia, the Byzantine empire and the expanding Arabian empire. Chess appeared in Southern Europe during the end of the first millennium, often introduced to new lands by conquering armies, such as the Norman Conquest of England. Chess remained largely unpopular among the North European people — who could not relate to the abstract shapes — but started gaining popularity as soon as figurative pieces were introduced.

The social value attached to the game — seen as a prestigious pastime associated with nobility and high culture — is clear by the expensive and exquisitely made chessboards of the medieval era. The popularity of chess in the Western courtly society peaked between the 12th and the 15th centuries. The game found mention in the vernacular and Latin language literature throughout Europe and many works were written on or about chess between the 12th and the 15th centuries. Harold James Ruthven Murray divides the works into three distinct parts: the didactic works eg. Alexander of Neckham´s De scaccis (approx. 1180 CE); works of morality like Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium sive super ludo scacchorum (Book of the customs of men and the duties of nobles or the Book of Chess), written by Jacobus de Cessolis; and the works related to various chess problems, written largely after 1205 CE. Chess terms, like check, were used by authors as a metaphor for various situations.

Chess was soon incorporated into the knightly style of life in Europe. Peter Alfonsi, in his work Disciplina Clericalis, listed chess among the seven skills that a good knight must acquire. Chess also became a subject of art during this period, with caskets and pendants decorated in various chess forms. Queen Margaret of England´s green and red chess sets — made of jasper and crystal — symbolized chess´s position in royal art treasures. Kings Henry I, Henry II and Richard I of England were chess patrons. Other monarchs who gained similar status were Alfonso X of Spain and Ivan IV of Russia.

Saint Peter Damian denounced the bishop of Florence in 1061 CE for playing chess even when aware of its evil effects on the society. The bishop of Florence defended himself by declaring that chess involved skill and was therefore "unlike other games," similar arguments followed in the coming centuries. Two separate incidents in 13th century London involving men of Essex resorting to violence resulting in death as an outcome of playing chess further caused sensation and alarm. The growing popularity of the game — now associated with revelry and violence — alarmed the Church.

The practice of playing chess for money became so widespread during the 13th century that Louis IX of France issued an ordinance against gambling in 1254 CE. This ordinance turned out to be unenforceable and was largely neglected by the common public, and even the courtly society, which continued to enjoy the now prohibited chess tournaments uninterrupted.

By the Mid 12th century, the pieces of the chess set were depicted as kings, queens, bishops, knights and men at arms. Chessmen made of Ivory began to appear in North-West Europe, and ornate pieces of traditional knight warriors were used as early as the mid 13th century. The initially nondescript pawn had now found association with the pedes, pedinus, or the footman, which symbolized both infantry and loyal domestic service.

The following table provides a glimpse of the changes in names and character of chess pieces as they transitioned from India through Persia to Europe.

+ A comparison of the Sanskrit, Arabic, Latin and English terms for chessmen Sanskrit Arabic Latin English
Raja (King) Shah Rex King
Mantri (Minister) Firz (Vizir) Regina Queen
Gajah (war elephant)Al-PhilEpiscopus/Comes/CalvusBishop/Count/Councillor
Ashva (horse) Fars Miles/Eques Knight
Ratha (chariot) Rukh Rochus/Marchio Rook/Margrave
Padati (footman/footsoldier) Baidaq Pedes/Pedinus Pawn

The game, as played during the early middle ages, was slow, with many games lasting for days. Some variations in rules began to change the shape of the game in by 1300 CE. A notable, but initially unpopular, change was the ability of the pawn to move two places in the first move instead of one.

New alterations, made after 1475 CE, led to further evolution of the game: the queen — a powerful new piece — was introduced, leading to additional value being attached to the previously minor tactic of pawn promotion. The war elephant of the chaturanga also evolved into the bishop, giving the piece more range. This rise of "unwarlike" figures and a departure from the pure military symbolism prevalent in India and Persia may have bought these pieces closer to the court and ordinary household.

The queen and bishop pieces remained relatively weak until the game reached an evolved form, very close to the modern form of chess, by the late 15th century.

An Italian player, Gioacchino Greco, regarded as one of the first true professionals of the game, authored an analysis of a number of composed games that illustrated two differing approaches to chess. This influential work went to some extent in popularizing chess and demonstrated the many theories regarding gameplay and tactics.

The first full work dealing with the various winning combinations was written by François-André Danican Philidor of France, regarded as the best chess player in the world for nearly 50 years, and published in the 18th century. He wrote and published L´Analyze des échecs (Chess Analyzed), an influential work which appeared in more than 100 editions.

Rise of the modern game

Competitive chess became visible in 1834, and the 1851 London Chess tournament raised concerns about the time taken by the players to deliberate their moves.Chess: The time element and competition (Encyclopedia Britannica 2002) On recording time it was found that players often took hours to analyze moves and one player took as many as two hours and 20 minutes to think over a single move at the London tournament. The following years saw the development of speed chess, five-minute chess and the most popular variant, a version allowing a bank of time to each player in which to play a previously agreed number of moves, eg. two hours for 30 moves. In the final variant, the player who made the predetermined number of moves in the agreed time received additional time budget for his next moves. Penalties for exceeding a time limit came in form of fines and forfeiture. Since fines were easy to bear for professional players, forfeiture became the only effective penalty.

In 1861 the first time limits, using sandglasses, were employed in a tournament match at Bristol, England. The sandglasses were later replaced by pendulums. Modern clocks, consisting of two parallel timers with a small button for a player to press after completing a move, were later employed to aid the players. A tiny latch called a flag further helped settle arguments over players exceeding time limit at the turn of the 19th century.

A Russian composer, Vladimir Korolkov, authored a work entitled "Excelsior" in 1958 in which the White side wins only by making six consecutive captures by a pawn.Chess: Chess composition (Encyclopedia Britannica 2002) Position analysis became particularly popular in the 19th century. Many leading players were also accomplished analysts, including Max Euwe, Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov and Jan Timman. Digital clocks appeared in the 1980s.

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article No 1319 / last change on 2008-03-28, 03:13pm

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