Game of Kings: The History of Chess

People have been playing board games for thousands of years. The oldest known board game is probably Mancala, an African game which moves pieces of seed, beans or pebbles around a series of pits. Mancala pits have been found carved into wood boards and stone floors from 7,000 years ago. In Egypt in 3000 BCE, people played a game called Senet: an elaborately inlaid Senet board was found in Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb.

But by far the most famous of the board games is chess, with a history stretching back almost 1500 years.


The actual origins of chess–a board game representing two armies with the goal of capturing the opponent’s King–are not very well-known. Some historical scholars have found traces of a chess-like game being played in Bactria (present-day Afghanistan) at around 180 BCE. Others have found references to similar games in the Kushan Empire of northern India at around 50 BCE.

Most historians who have researched the matter have concluded that chess is derived from an ancient game called Chaturanga, played in the Gupta Empire in northern India in the early 7th Century CE. The name means “the four divisions”, and refers to the four parts of a typical Indian Army–the foot soldiers, the horse cavalry, the war elephants, and the chariots. Chaturanga was played on a board of eight by eight squares. It may itself have been a later development of an even earlier game called Ashtapada, which was also played on a 64-square 8×8 board. Ashtapada was a race game played with dice (an origin which may be reflected in today’s chess rules which promote a pawn to a more powerful piece if it manages to reach the last row). According to legend, Chaturanga was developed by a Brahmin advisor to King Balhait after laws against gambling were passed, and transformed the popular board racing games into games of strategy and military skill.

Some time after the year 600, Chaturanga began to disperse out of India, following the trade routes. One of these routes along the Silk Road took the game to China, where it appeared around 800. Here it was influenced by the popular Chinese board strategy game called Goh, and became the Chinese chess game known as Xiangqi. From there Xiangqi went on to Japan, where it became known as Shogi.

The Indian game also traveled west, and quickly entered the Persian Empire in the 7th century. Here, the game became known as Chatrang, which was Persianized to Shahtranj. In Persia, many of the rules and some of the pieces seem to have been changed. In some versions, the game ended when the King was cornered and unable to move: in others, the game was won when all of the opposing King’s pieces were captured. Many of the chess terms we still use today are Persian in origin: the Indian “chariot” piece was transformed into the giant bird Rokh (which was said to be capable of carrying off an elephant), which later became our word “Rook”. In the Persian Farsi language, when the King was attacked one would say “Shah!” (“King!”), which became our expression “Check!”, and when the King was finally surrounded the player would shout “Shah Mat!” (“the King is trapped!”) which became our “Checkmate!.

These linguistic clues have convinced some researchers that the game of chess actually appeared first in eastern Persia and was carried from there to India. The archaeological evidence is ambiguous. Most of the earliest chess pieces (carved from wood or ivory) date to the 7th and 8th century and are found in the Tashkent and Sammarkand area, on the borderland between the two empires. These were elaborately carved representations of people and chariots. Small carved pieces representing an elephant and a zebu have been excavated in the Kushan Empire city of Dalverzin-Tepe in Tashkent, dating from the 2nd Century, but it has been debated whether they are actually chess pieces or are just small carved statues. Under the Muslims, chess pieces began to become more abstract and take on the forms they have today–the earliest such piece (a King with an Arabic inscription written on its base) dates to 791 and was found in Persia. Recently, however, excavators in an ancient palace in Albania dating to the year 465 found what they believe is an ivory chess piece. If correct, this would push the date for the origin of chess and its introduction to Europe far earlier than had been previously believed–but many scholars discount the find since there is no other evidence of chess being played or mentioned in this area until centuries later. (It should also be noted that some scholars have found what they think to be literary references to chess in 2nd-century Chinese manuscripts, and propose that the game was carried from China to India rather than the reverse, much earlier than thought.)

In 651, invading Muslims from Arabia conquered the Persian Empire. The Arabs introduced Islam to Persia, and in turn the Persians introduced Shatranj to the Arabs. The Arabs made some changes. Since Muslim religious law forbids the making of human images, the elaborately-carved Persian pieces were simplified into abstract shapes similar to our modern “chessmen”. The Indian/Persian “General” piece was changed to the “Vizier”, the court counselor who took his place next to the King. The earliest known chess manual was written in Arabic in about 850.

In the 7th and 8th centuries, Islamic cities like Baghdad became worldwide centers of learning, and Arabic Muslim culture was carried across Europe by trade networks and by military expeditions–Muslim invaders in Spain carried Arab culture with them, and returning Crusaders also carried it back with them. And one of these cultural elements was chess. The earliest references to chess in Europe are in manuscripts dating to around 800. In the year 1008, the Spanish Count of Uregel died in battle with the Arabic Moors, and his will specified the inheritance of his prized chess set. In the 12th century, Viking traders encountered the game in the area around Kiev (called “Rus”) and took it back to Scandinavia with them. By 1400, chess was firmly established all across the Christian world.

In Europe, the game underwent several additional changes. The “Chariot/Rokh” pieces became castles, called “Rooks”, the “Elephant” pieces were changed to “Bishops”, and the “Vizier” piece was changed to the “Queen”. The movement of some pieces was also changed. In the Persian/Arabic versions, each piece could move only one or two squares at a time, like checkers. This made the game very slow to play. Since it could take hours to finish a match, people often set up “mid-games”, with pieces already pre-positioned in arrangements called Tabiyas, in order to play quickly to the end. The medieval European players now changed these rules, allowing pieces like the Rook, Bishop and Queen to move an unlimited number of squares in a straight line. This greatly speeded up the game and made it more dynamic.

The Europeans then carried the game across the globe, and today Chess is the top-selling board game in the world.


2 thoughts on “Game of Kings: The History of Chess”

  1. When I was in grade school, the teacher wanted to start a chess club. A young girl in the class said “but I don’t have a chess!”

    I replied, a little to clearly, “you will soon”. I was never a favorite of that teacher…

  2. I was on my high school chess team, way back in 1978. We lost every match but one. Probably because I usually got the whole team stoned before a match. I thought it would help our concentration. Apparently it didn’t. 🙂

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