The following is a classic article from our newsletter series, written by Don Morgan.
It has a history spanning millennia. To trace its roots you need to be an archeologist. And yet it remains one of the most popular games of the 21st Century. There are clubs, web sites, tournaments, magazines, and a musical devoted to it.
We’re talking, of course, about the one and only CHESS. This enigmatic game has, in turns, been described as “intellectual gymnastics” (Wilhelm Steinitz), “mental torture” (Garry Kasparov), “life” (Bobby Fischer), “ruthless” (Nigel Short), “the gymnasium of the mind” (Adolf Anderssen), and “a total [ahem] mystery” (Ellis Redding, The Shawshank Redemption).
Its legacy is so vast that much of the details have been lost. However, many scholars agree that the earliest form was the Indian battle-simulation game chaturanga, popular throughout India in 6th century AD. Chaturanga was the first game to feature game pieces with different powers, and the first to have its outcome depend on the fate of one piece-the “king.” The name chaturanga is related to the Sanskrit phrase “four divisions,” meaning the four divisions of ancient militaries: infantry, cavalry, elephantry and chariotry.
The original chaturanga spread to East Asia, although the version played in China is thought to have incorporated elements from chess’ rival traditional game, Go, which dates to the 6th Century BC! Similarly, a prominent variation of chess in Japan is called Shogi.
By the start of the 7th century, historians believe, chaturanga had spread to Persia, where it was dubbed chatrang. Players would shout “Shah!” (Persian for “King!”) and “Shah mat!” (“the king is finished”) similar to the way “Check” and “Checkmate!” are used today.
After the Muslim conquest of Persia, it is believed that chatrang became a popular diversion as a means of re-enacting real-life battles. The oldest recorded game in chess history is a match played in the 900s AD between a Baghdad historian and his pupil.
The Muslim shatranj featured pieces that were beautiful and ornate, but comprised of abstract objects because Islamic law prohibited the crafting of statues in the likeness of humans or animals. Shatranj was carried to North Africa, Sicily, and Spain by the 10th Century.
Chess began to gain a foothold in Europe once figure pieces were incorporated and ornate boards were produced. During the medieval era, chess became seen as a prestigious game of nobility. Numerous chess books were written between the 12th and 15th centuries. It was during the 12th Century that the characters with which we’re familiar today were established.
During the Middle Ages, a game could last for days. Chess was frowned upon by the Church due to its potential as a time-waster and as an incentive to gamble. The rules for chess continued to evolve in Europe during this period. It appears that the first incarnation of chess to feature modern chess moves for each character appeared around 1500.
Chess became more widely recognized as a competitive sport in the centuries that followed, and the first modern tournament was held in London in 1851. In modern times chess is perhaps surpassed only by soccer’s World Cup as an occasion to display national pride. During the Cold War, in particular, chess matches between “eastern” and “western” opponents became symbols of a larger political reality and gave way to movies like White Knights and the musical Chess. At the same time, chess theory became a legitimate sociological and academic pursuit. And the drama of man vs. machine was embodied in highly publicized match-ups between accomplished chess champions and computer counterparts.
With a history this diverse and interesting, what’s not to love about chess? It is a game like no other that has been enjoyed by peasants and kings the world over. It’s easy to learn but impossible to master.