Why Is Chess Called Chess? (Explained!)

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Chess is a battle of brains and wits. The game requires a person to think of endless possibilities and a multitude of different case scenarios. Amidst all the strategizing of what is my opponent thinking, or what move should I use next, have you ever also found yourself wondering, why is chess called chess?

The name “chess” has travelled through various cultures, starting with a completely different name in Sanskrit which is “Chaturanga” then travelling to the Middle East before making its way to Europe and finally being called “Chess”. 

The game originated in ancient India and was called something completely different. As the game reached popularity in the west and various other cultures. It somehow gained popularity under the name, “chess.” To this day, the game has many different names from many different languages from various parts of the world.

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Why Is Chess Called Chess?

Chess is called chess probably to honor the most important piece of the game, the king. The name chess is derived from the Persian word for king.

The reason the entire game is named after the king is that it is a crucial piece that determines if a person has won or lost. Though the queen is arguably the most powerful piece in chess, it is the king who determines the final result.

The game of chess comes to an end when someone declares checkmate. Checkmate is when the king is backed into a corner and has no way of moving forwards. Historically checkmate is derived from the Persian translation of “the king has fallen.” Since the entire game’s fate depends on the king, the game itself is also adequately named in honor of the king.

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How Did Chess Get Its Name?

Chess got its name from the globalization of the game itself. After it originated in India, the game of chess gained popularity in different countries of the world. The game, upon its origin, was called something very different, “Chaturanga”. When introduced in Persia from India, locals began referring to it as “Shah” for the sake of simplicity.

Once the game was introduced in Europe, it underwent various changes as it made its way through the continent. From the Arabic version of the name “shantraj”, the game in Latin came to be called “ludus scacorum”. This was followed by further renaming such as “scacchi” in Italian, “esches” in French, “schachspiel” in German, “escas” in Catalan, “schaack” in Dutch, and finally “chess” in English.

What Was Chess Originally Called?

Chess originated in India during the Gupta Empire in the 6th or 7th century CE and was called “Chaturanga.” The word “chaturanga” is the Sanskrit for “four-limbed.” This name bears references to various aspects of the game. For instance, “four-limbed” can be interpreted as referring to the squares or checkered pattern of a chessboard.

The word “chaturanga” is used to refer to the four army divisions of the ancient Indian military system. The word was popularized due to its use in the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, where it was used to refer to a military formation consisting of four divisions.  These four army divisions were the infantry, cavalry, elephantry, and chariotry.

The game “chaturanga” was initially used to plan battle strategies and sharpen the mind in preparation for battle. Depending on usage, the word “chaturanga” translates to mean “army.” For this reason, it is most likely that the name “chaturanga” was chosen due to the game’s close mimicry of actual battles that take place in real life.

When Was Chess First Called Chess?

It is unknown who or when chess was first called chess. Since the game earned its name after its introduction in Europe, likely, chess was first called chess in the 9th or 10th century. The word “chess” itself is predominantly a Western or European term. Thus, it is safe to assume that it was first called chess around the time the game was introduced in Europe.

The original version of the game chess was called “chaturanga” and was founded in India in the 6th or 7th century. The game was introduced to Persia and parts of Southern and Eastern Asia shortly after. During this time, the game was probably referred to as its Persian translation, “Shāh.” Sometime after this, the term was modified in various parts of Europe before being called “chess.”

The first signs of a chess match played in Europe were at the beginning of the 9th century and middle of the 10th century. Thus, it can be said that probably chess was first called chess in the 9th century. 

However, if one were to speculate, a hypothesis can be made that chess was called chess even before the 9th century during the rule of the Byzantine Empire when European merchants traveled to Persia.

Where Did The Word Chess Come From?

The word chess comes from the Persian word “Shāh” or “King”. And this word was translated and interpreted in various ways in its journey through various parts of Europe. Eventually to become “Chess”. Though it was called “Chaturanga” or “Four limbed” originally, neither the meaning nor the word made its way to Europe. 

Chess, or as it was then known, “chaturanga” originated in India. The game was introduced and popularized in Persia at around 600 CE. The Persian language did not consist of the sounds “ch” and “ng”. This linguistic complication resulted in the simplification of the name. Since Persian people were incapable of pronouncing the word “chaturanga”, it slowly started getting pronounced as “Shatranj”.

The word “Shatranj” soon became further became abbreviated to “Shāh”. This is partly because the term “Shāh” is a shortened linguistic fragment of “Shatranj”. However, the main reason for this lexical change was due to the importance of the king piece in the game of chess. As explained earlier, the entire fate of chess is dependent on the position of the king.

While playing the game, many Persian people started shouting “Shāh” which means “king” and “Shāh Māt” which means “the king is hopeless” when they were about to win. “shatranj” started getting recognized as “Shāh.” Shortly after, the terms were further modified. “Shāh” became “chess”, and “Shāh Māt” became “checkmate.”

Who Invented Chess Name?

It is unknown who first invented the name chess. The word came into use through its popularization by a mass group of people. That is why it’s not possible to point out one person in particular for the coinage of the name chess. 

From a global perspective, Chess eventually earned its English name following rapid modification as it travelled through Europe. Thus, in a much-generalized manner, Europe may be credited for the coinage of “chess”.

If we look at the game itself rather than its western name, the credit for giving chess a name can be given to the Mahabharata. The original name of chess, “chaturanga,” was first used in The Mahabharata to describe a battle formation. So, it can also be said that the person who invented the name chess is whoever wrote the Mahabharata.

Recommended Read: Who Invented Chess?


The history of chess is complex yet interesting. The change of the game’s name over the years reflects perfectly how human beings and cultures have such strong influences on the language. The universality of its appeal also connects us closer together as a continually globalized word.

I hope this article helped you find the answer to why is chess called chess? Now that you know the interesting history behind the game’s name, you may find a greater appreciation for the cultural and historical significance this game holds. Thank you for reading.

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