A Brief History of Chess
Author’s Note: I wrote this aimost fifty years ago, during the Bobbie Fisher- Boris Spassky World Chess Championship held in Reykjavík, Iceland in 1972.
This was the beginning of the chess boom that continues to this day. You can’t call it a revival, because previous to this, chess was a fringe activity, at best, played by old men on park benches arguing in Yiddish, nerds before they were known as such, and pipe-smoking, well-to-do elder gentlemen player one other on seculded leafy estates.
I was captivated by the match and who wouldn’t be: the ‘Free World’ vs. the Soviet Communists, a brash, ill-mannered young American vs. the gentlemanly Grandmaster of old-school ways and traditional chess thinking. I went out bought every chess book I could find in Harvard Square and at the Chess Shop on Newberry Street (including the infamous Blue Book of Chess. At that time, the Blue Book recorded every move in evey championship match from the days of Lasker onward.. I also picked up a championship-scaled chessboard with the requisite ivory-styled pieces, a chess clock, and the like. But the one thing I could not find was a definitive History of Chess.
So I decided to write one myself. After countless hours of research (no internet, nor on-line journals, no Wikipedia, just Harvard’s Widener Library’s dusty stacks, I drafted The Tangles of Timee: A Short History of Chess over that summer and now present it to you here.
— Paul JJ Payack
Chess yields us, when we need them most
Companions in our loneliness.
As masterful a player
as Emmanuel Lasker regarded chess as neither an art nor a science but rather a
war in which the pieces served as troops and the players the generals. This
stemmed from the notion that chess was invented as a war game and so, that is
the manner in which it should executed. Undoubtedly reality is reflected in the
idea that chess originated either as an aid or substitute for warfare.
that to understand its creation all that is needed is an understanding of the
method of classical warfare. Lasker explained that opposing armies would take
their positions in nearly straight lines separated by a nearly level plain. The
generals, in order to make their plans comprehensible to their commanders,
would sketch the original position and later movements of their pawns and men.
Lasker was fond of using the Battle of Cannae, 216 BC, as an illustration. At
Cannae, the Carthaginians under the command of Hannibal defeated a Roman force
nearly twice their number with superior strategy.
Lasker thought that
it was entirely possible that Hannibal not only drew lines and placed stones on
a board to explain his stratagems, but did so on what would one day be called a
chequer-board. This was given the now familiar shape of a square divided into
sixty-four smaller squares, colored black and white alternately. Though
Lasker’s contention that chess was invented as a game of war is undoubtedly
true, he seems to have postdated its conception by some eight centuries and
misplaced it by several worlds.
After a millennium
passed in the Buddhist era, various references occur to a game that seems the
direct forbear of present-day chess. According to Sanskrit literature, apart
from the central king and counselor, the pieces represented the quadrants of
the ancient Indian army: war chariots, cavalry, elephants, and foot soldiers.
The Upper Basin of the Ganges, or thereabouts, was the locale where
this game first
appeared. Since the area was a Buddhist stronghold, it is not unreasonable to
assume that their monks had a hand in its inception. Since Buddhists oppose the
killing of any form of life, it can be hypothesized that the game was invented
as a bloodless substitute for war (by allowing men to engage in a combat of a
In this version the
infantrymen moved as pawns of all times and places, excepting the modern
two-square debut. The cavalrymen were placed and manipulated in the same manner
as the knight. The elephants’ movements were diagonal and limited to two
squares, therefore they were inherently weaker than the bishops into which they
were later transformed. The chariots were equal in every respect to the castles
which through some ripple in history came to be called rooks. And the
counselor, beside the king, moved diagonally also and only one square per move;
as time passed its powers were increased to that of the bishop, thereby
considerably enhancing the complexity of the game.
Chess spread rapidly
(in historical terms) from the Subcontinent to the curiously diverse cultures
further west, each leaving ineradicable traces of their time and culture.
Persia bestowed the name to the game. Words, unlike mathematical formulae, both
lose and gain in their sojourn through time and place. Aside from the usual
etymological eddies, the development of the name flowed as follows. The Persian
shah “king” came through the Arabic and the tangles of time to Europe as, among
other variations, the Old French (e)sches, plural of (e)schek “check” derived
from “shah.” From there it was but a minor simplification to the Saxon and
Modern English word “chess.”
The culmination of
this bloodless substitute for bloodletting is the murder of the enemy king,
although the modern game ends euphemistically with the checkmate. This term,
too, can be traced through a millennium to Persia. Shah mat “checkmate” means
‘the king (shah) is dead,’ where “mat” is related to the Latin stem mort-
“death” found in “mortuary.”
Within a generation of the Hegira, the Arabs conquered Persia in the sacred name of Mohammed. As is usually the case, the two cultures became inextricably entwined and from that time forward it was the Islamic culture that became the primary vehicle of chess. As the game was carried from land to land it underwent a series of transmutations, some
surprising and some not so surprising at all.
The Elephant was
reduced to its ears. That is it was simplified (for reasons of convenience and
religion) to a lump of wood, with a cut extracted from its center. An item of
far more interest concerns the Arab rukh which predates the English rook for
crow. It is still a matter of some controversy whether the rook was actually a
chariot, a bird, or even a ship. It is highly probable that in differing
cultures in differing centuries it was each.
In Arabia there seems
little doubt that the chariot was replaced by a moderately prominent member the
then-current mythology. In Arabian Nights the rukh was an enormous bird of
gigantic girth which was inordinately wide of wing; a vast magnification of the
eagle or condor. In most variations, the bird had the ability to carry an
elephant, and sometimes several, in its talons. The thread of interest that
lies about and through all variations of the rukh myth is that it was, whatever
else, a deadly enemy of the elephant. (Later, with the aristocratization of
chess, the elephant would be transformed into an ecclesiastic.)
Soon chess was a
commonplace throughout the world of Islam, from Andalus in the West to the
Indus in the East. The Moors carried chess to the Iberian Peninsula during the
eighth century of the Christian era, and the Eastern Empire in Byzantium also
learned of the game before the century had waned. From Iberia it spread to the
north of Europe, while Russia seems to have acquired the game directly from
India. (In Russian chess bears its original name, shakh-maty.)
During the High
Middle Ages chess became a leisure time activity of the feudal lords, and the
pieces began to resemble the aristocracy. (The rukh became, curiously enough, a
castle.) A knowledge of ‘Nights and Days’ was considered a social grace for
every genteel and parfait knight. Obviously, one reason for this was the
connection between chess and war. Soon the powers of certain pieces were
increased,making the game much more lively or, if you prefer, deadly.
That lump of wood
with the split was not recognized in Europe as an elephant. This was
understandably so, since to the folks of medieval Europe an elephant was just
as much a mythological creature as the rukh, and possibly more so. To those who
were unaware of its esoteric meaning, the elephant, also suggested a bishop’s
mitre, an old man, a count or a fool. To this day in French the man is called Le
Fou “the fool” and it is diagramed as a cap and bells.
The English, however,
were the first to introduce chess diagrams to printing and since the piece
remained a bishop there (and in Iceland) the bishop’s mitre would soon become
the worldwide standard. However, Germans use this now universal symbol for
their laufer “runner” while Russians use the mitre for their slon “the
The evolution of the
king’s counselor into the queen has been attributed to the similarity of the
Arabic word fere “advisor,” to the French vierge “maiden” but probably can be
more simply attributed to the make-up of the feudal court. A parallel between
the historical liberation of women and the glorification of Mary by the
Church could also have been factors in the metamorphosis.
And finally, a
mention should be made of pawns; those so adequately named pieces which are
even denied the status of chess ‘men’. They are, without exception in all
cultures, represented by conveniently small and humble objects. For these there
seems a universal need. History: read it and weep.
There are some 1.7 x
10 to the 29th methods of playing the first ten moves of this ancient and
storied game. (The Greeks, clever as they were, didn’t even possess a symbol or
number for any number larger than ten to the fourth, a myriad.) This being so,
it becomes comprehensible why, while chess has ebbed and flowed through
history, it has never been successful as a method of channeling the human mind
to that combat of a higher sort.
To be sure, there
have been wars of every possible description since its inception some thirteen
hundred years ago, and when the number of possible permutations is envisioned
even in this relatively simple game, it becomes obvious why there is more than
adequate room for that phenomenon, war, in the universal scheme of things. This
nightmare, even when contained by a square of sixty-four smaller squares, has
the potential to continue in a million billion varying guises for eons on end
(and still there would remain variations untried).
When one of the first
Caliphs, Omar b. Al-Khattab, was asked if chess were lawful he replied, “There
is nothing wrong in it; it has to do with war.”