Here’s a riddle for you: what game started in India, got its name from Persia as viewed by Byzantium, has rules from Spain and Italy, and the oldest known pieces come from Norway but were found in Scotland?
The globetrotting game I’m talking about is chess. Most school children know the rules, but the history of the game is far less well known, and arguably much more interesting. The ancestor of chess was called “chaturaṅga,” which means an army with four divisions: infantry, cavalry, war elephants and chariots. These were represented on the board by pieces that would eventually become the modern pawns, knights, bishops, and rooks, respectively. The king (raja) was added later, along with a commander (Mantri/Senapati) who would eventually change into the “vizier” in Persia, and finally the queen of the modern game.
Chaturaṅga originated in India during the Gupta dynasty (c. 280 - 550 CE), but it might have stayed there had it not been for the Silk Road. Merchants spread the game around the world, first to the Middle East--where the Sanskrit word chaturaṅga became the Old Persian “Chatrang” and Arabic “shatranj”--and in the opposite direction to China, where it became Chinese Chess or Xiangqi. This second migration has been harder to trace, and at least one author says that Xiangqi came first and moved directly to Persia, but most of the evidence shows that Xiangqi came later. At any rate, once established in the courts of Persia as the game of nobility, it spread to Europe through the Byzantine and Arabian empires, who called it by the Persian name for kings: “shah.” Thus “shah mat” (meaning “the king is dead/captured”) eventually became “checkmake,” while “shah” itself became “chess.”
While the rules were still in flux during this period, the game’s popularity was uncontested. Muslims carried it as they expanded through Africa and Iberia, until finally in 10th century Spain it caught on among the royalty again. The Muslim influence on the game can still be seen in the game pieces today: under Islam, depicting animals and human beings in art was considered a form of idolatry, so abstract forms became a tradition. By contrast, pieces in northern Europe were often constructed to represent very specific nations, including individual royalty. It’s from this era and region that the oldest living chess sets date, from the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. The Lewis chess sets were actually from the Viking occupation of the area, as denoted by berserker warders biting their shields to work into a frenzy. Such details on the human figures are so specific that we know they were carved between 1150 and 1200 BCE. One lost warder (rook) from the Lewis chess sets was recently rediscovered to sell at auction for over a million dollars!
That’s an impressive amount of traveling in those first thousand years of the dark ages, ranging to all corners of the entire known world at the time, but it didn’t stop there. Wherever there’s a game worth playing, someone will write a book about it, and long before Hoyle, there was the Libro de los juegos (Book of Games), commissioned by Alphonso X of Castile, a great patron of the arts and sciences. This 13th-century manuscript covered three games, emphasizing how one was skill (shatranj), one was chance (dice), and one was a mix of both (backgammon). By this point, the queen had replaced the previous piece referred to as the “vizier” or “commander,” but she was not yet the master of the board she is today. That happened in the mid-15th century when Italian and Spanish guides codified the modern game: pawns could advance two squares on their first move, bishops and queens could move any number of spaces diagonally, and castling was derived from a previous move called the “king’s leap.” Since these rules made the queen the most powerful piece, modern chess was known for a while as "Queen's Chess" or "Mad Queen Chess". These new rules quickly spread throughout western Europe, and laid the foundation for centuries to come.
In these first thousand years of Chess, it’s very interesting to see how each culture accepts the game from a previous group, puts their own spin on it, and passes it on to the next. Some creative contributions were the result of religious prohibitions, such as the Muslim ban on idolatry. Others were political, such as the Lewis chessmen having kings that bore a more than passing resemblance to the actual kings of Norway at the time. Some modified the pieces: the Byzantines didn’t have many chariots, but the general idea of mobile cover for an archer sounded like a siege engine, so they made them look like towers, but kept the Persion name for chariot: “rukh” (rook). Others modified the rules: the introduction of the queen as most powerful piece changed the game from one of short tactical skirmishes to long strategy.
The final codification of “official” rules for chess suggest the game itself had become another of the coveted prizes countries vied over. The great power the game achieved to make itself such a prize was not without controversy. In addition to the Muslim ban on idolatry, Saint Peter Damien denounced the bishop of Florence for his enthusiastic love of the game. Their debate over the moral and intellectual value of the game has echoed throughout the centuries, with critics decrying the simulated violence, association with gambling and revelry, and general waste of time. Meanwhile, proponents have pointed to the intellectual and social stimulation, that it’s a game of skill rather than chance, and that passing the time isn’t the same as wasting it. I suppose the debate will continue as long as people believe they can tell people how to spend their time.
Whatever version of the game you like to play, with whatever pieces, you’re welcome to try our chess sets. If you’re looking for a last-minute holiday gift, the Chess, Checkers and Backgammon set is a tasteful option that doesn’t qualify as idolatry. If you already have your own pieces (or want to carve some in the shape of politicians) the Pentomino Chess Puzzle is a perfectly functional chess board in addition to being an exceptional puzzle in its own right. Here at Kubiya games, we’ll be counting down the days until International Chess Day on Monday, July 20, and along the way, I’ll be recounting other tales from the storied history of the world’s most famous game.
Thanks for gaming with me. Come stop by, I’ll let you pick white or black.
By Matthew Barrett