The origin of Chess is mysterious, convoluted, and a subject of endless debate. India, China, and Persia are often given credit, though there is no solid consensus and likely, there never will be. So the question remains, who invented chess?
Unfortunately, no one knows who invented chess or if there was even a single individual responsible for its inception. According to Wikipedia, the earliest predecessor of chess originated in India in the 7th century CE.
What makes the history of chess so exciting, is the countless legends, tales, and myths that surround it, as well as the interesting variations of the game. Chess evolved as it traveled West along trade routes, conquests, and immigration, eventually becoming the game we understand today.
History Of Chess
The journey of Chess across the ages is fascinating and inscrutable. Some believe that it got its start in Northern India. Others believe that Persia was the point of creation while some argue in favor of China.
The largest consensus is that around the time chess entered the history books it was called Chaturanga, which—in ancient Sanskrit—translates to, having four limbs.
You can watch this video on TED-Ed YouTube Channel on a brief history of chess.
In China, where many believe that Charuranga traveled, chess was called Xiangqi and the game was modified to place the pieces on the lines rather than in the squares. From here it moved to the Arab countries where it was called Shatranj.
- Shatranj: This is the Arabic form of chess. It was played during the time of the Sasanian Empire. Though its origins are directly from Chaturanga, Shatranj is largely responsible for modern-day Chess, as this form made its way into Europe by way of Spain. Later, it spread from Spain to France, from France into the Nordic countries, and into what is modern-day England thanks to William the Conqueror’s invasion.
- Shogi: The Japanese variation of Chess was claimed to come from Chaturanga as well. It is widely thought that Chaturanga made its way to Japan from China and Korea and the Shogi variant of Chess was the eventual result. Shogi is still played in Japan today. (Also Read: Chess Vs Shogi)
- Chaturanga: Many experts believe that this is the game that eventually became Chess, the direct-line ancestor so to speak. The first mention of it came from the historical records of the Gupta Empire in India. Modern-day scholars believe that it is closely related to Shatranj, which eventually became the Chess of today.
- Xiangqi: The Chinese version of chess. The story of the field commander, Han Zin, is a fictionalized event, with Xiangqi most likely being an offshoot of the original Chaturanga. From China it passed to Korea and Japan, becoming known as Shogi.
The pieces may have changed, but the core of the rules remained similar across its travels until it arrived in Europe via Spain. In Europe, the opposing sides became red and black, a convenience because of the predominant ink colors at the time.
By AD 1100, the game was beginning to resemble what we see today, with Kings, Queens, Knights, and Bishops. It wasn’t until the 1800s that chess completed its final, major evolution with competitive chess, becoming modern chess with the modern rules that have dominated the last two centuries.
It’s largely agreed that chess has been around for almost 1500 years.
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When Was Chess The Most Popular?
For three hundred years, Chess dominated Western culture between AD 1100 and 1400. During that period, it was mostly played as a game between nobles and the various monarchies across Europe.
Chess became an integral part of medieval society, so much so that it shows up in much of the historical writings of the time. Knights were expected to know how to play and even the coffins of dead nobles were carved in chess effigies.
Chess became so popular that gambling on the game swept the countryside leading to edicts against gambling by those in positions of power. The Catholic Church thought it evil, yet clergymen were constantly caught playing it.
It was during this period that the pieces took on shapes and became the familiar, named pieces that we know today.
Also Read: Why Are Chess Pieces Named What They Are?
The massive popularity of the game died away as the fifteenth century wore on, not rekindling as a historical note until the Cold War between Russia and the U.S.
On August 8, 1972, the game peaked as American Bobby Fischer squared off against Boris Spassky. According to The Atlantic, “The 1972 PBS broadcast of the Fischer-Spassky games is still the most popular television chess show in history.”
Garry Kasparov further popularized the game by becoming the youngest person to ever win the World Chess Championship. Garry went on to defeat the first chess computer before later losing to a superior supercomputer.
Some experts believe that we currently live in a time where chess is more popular than it ever has been. 605 million people play chess worldwide, according to FIDE (International Chess Federation).
Considering the fact that the next most popular sport is soccer, and only 250 million people play, that’s saying a lot about the popularity of Chess today.
Also Read: Why Is Chess So Fun?
Why Was Chess Invented?
The invention of Chess—or the why of it—is a series of legends, probably without much truth as several different countries have them. No one really knows the answer as to why it was invented, when, or by whom.
A popular Indian legend has a bored King hiring a destitute mathematician to develop a game that the King would find entertaining and so followed the game of Chaturanga.
An ancient Chinese legend gives credit to Han Zin, a field commander who developed the game of Chess, called Xiangqi, to represent two opposing armies in a specific battle in which he fought. The game languished before springing back to life in AD 700.
In Japan, the name it was given was Shogi. The problem with Japan and China is that the two games—Xiangqi and Shogi—bear less resemblance to the modern-day version of Chess than Chaturanga, which is far more similar.
It could have been that the Chinese and Japanese versions of the game evolved around cultural lines to the point where they are in modern times. It could also be that those games were never derived from Chaturanga at all.
The truth is, chess has changed, morphed, and evolved over centuries piled on top of centuries. Why the game was invented is shrouded in obscurity where it will probably remain.
One thing is certain, the legends that have cropped up over the 1,500 years of Chess’ existence remain a colorful and enticing part of its history.
Chess History Facts
Chess is a product of its own astounding history and despite the many legends that superseded its journey out of the East, there are many factual, historical truths about the game.
- In the late 13th century, a Friar by the name of Frà Jacopo de Cessole, wrote the book, About The Game of Chess. A hundred years later, it was translated into English and printed using Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, becoming only the second book to ever be printed in English.
- The Queen was originally called the Advisor. The Advisor could only move one space diagonally. Later, the move was modified to two spaces. That all changed in the 15th century with the coronation of Queen Isabella. After that, the Advisor became the Queen, with the most powerful moveset on the Chessboard.
- In 1997, “Deep Blue,” a supercomputer developed and manufactured by IBM, defeated world-renowned chess player Garry Kasparov, ushering in the age of supercomputing and software-led chess techniques.
- Spain contributed another historical change to the rules of chess in 1280 with the move, ‘en passant,’ in which a pawn can capture an opposing pawn that moves two spaces on its opening move if the moving pawn passes the horizontal space next to the stationary pawn.
- “Deep Blue” wasn’t the first computer to defeat a chess master. In 1988, “Deep Thought” defeated Bent Larson. Later, Deep Thought was defeated by Garry Kasparov two times. Kasparov would later lose to Deep Blue, the successor to Deep Thought.
Each fact has its own history with unique and engaging stories behind them. It’s part of what makes chess one of the most fascinating historical studies out there. With such an illustrious history, the tales are bound to be exceptional.
While no one will ever know who invented chess, exactly where it originated, or what the concepts were behind its original design, it has an amazing history, much of which has become a legend.
Across the centuries the popularity of Chess has waxed and waned, but there isn’t any doubt that it remains a popular today that captivates the minds of hundreds of millions of players.
It’s doubtless that the evolution of Chess, crafted carefully for millennia and a half, will continue for another millennium. Who knows what Chess will become tomorrow or what its history will look like in a thousand years.
You May Also Like To Read:
When Was Chess Invented?
While no one knows definitively who invented Chess or from which country it was derived, according to Wikipedia, the earliest predecessor of chess originated in India by the 7th century CE.
Who Is Known As The Father Of Chess?
Wilhelm Steinitz was the first official World Chess Champion and remained so from 1886 to 1894. Because of this feat, he is considered “the father of modern chess.”
Which Country Invented Chess?
The answer remains unknown. While many scholars believe Chess arose from the Northern parts of India, there is no consensus and the subject remains a mystery.
Wills, S. (May 11, 2012). How America Forgot About Chess.
Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/05/how-america-forgot-about-chess/257049/
(n.d.) World Chess The Best Mind Wins.
Retrieved from: https://www.fide.com/images/stories/NEWS_2012/FIDE/120806_YouGovPressRelease.pdf
Higgins, C. (July 9, 2017). A Brief History of Deep Blue, IBM’s Chess Computer.
Retrieved from: https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/503178/brief-history-deep-blue-ibms-chess-computer
History of Chess Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_chess