Tracing the history and origins of chess can yield interesting insights about the history of human civilization. Because chess has become a cultural artifact, examining its historical origins can bring forth an understanding of how societies from different periods or centuries and regions invented and developed this board game through cultural and informational exchanges.
Several allegories and assumptions exist regarding the historical origins of chess. According to the book “The Immortal Game of Chess: A History of Chess” authored by American lecturer David Shenk, numerous poetry and proses produced from thousands of years ago have conveyed allegorical reasons for inventing this popular board game.
From Myths to H. J. R. Murray: When Did It First Emerge? Where Did It Originate?
For example, mathematician Pythagoras invented a similar game to convey abstract realities about numbers and mathematics. The Greek military leader Palamedes also allegedly created a game that demonstrated the art of battle positions.
There was also an extraordinary story about the vicious Babylonian King Merodach who lived during the sixth century BCE. Xerxes tried to influence people from the unjust kingship of Merodach by inventing chess. The game instilled how rulers should behave and how subjects should play their role in protecting their superiors and territories.
Another account tells that chess first emerged in India and became widespread during the Middle Ages as an instrument used by the military to present strategies in a visual and compelling manner.
Shenk made it clear that the aforementioned are mere myths or works of fiction. Accordingly, historians have come across different chess stories that explore the themes of social consciousness, freedom of choice or free will, struggles in politics and society, the nature and mystery of the divine, the capacity of the mind, the nature of competition, and the brain-versus-brawn assumptions. Each story delivers some truths and realities about a specific time when a society strived to explore and appreciate something about their difficult past.
Nonetheless, in pinning down the closest origin of chess, educator and historian Harold James Ruthven Murray remains the authority when it comes to the history of this popular board game. His 1913 book “A History of Chess” argued that chess originated from India. He was the first to identify the geographical origin of chess.
Murray studied Latin and Arabic for the sole purpose of tracing the history and origins of chess. He needed these languages to understand historical and archaeological manuscripts that he acquired as part of his paper trail. Note that it took him seven years to complete his research before pitching his findings and ideas for publication. The result of these efforts is a comprehensive 900-page book that remains a valuable primary source for chess historians.
An Ancient Board Game from India: Was Chaturanga the Predecessor of Modern Chess?
In his book, Murray said chess originated from India around the sixth century. To be specific, this popular board game closely resembled an ancient game in India called chaturanga. Take note that “chaturanga” literally means “four arms” and has been associated with the word “army” in Sanskrit. Furthermore, these four arms coincide with infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariot.
But what exactly is chaturanga? The ancient game closely resembles modern chess, but the exact rules and instructions remain unknown. Historians have assumed that it is closer to the rules and instructions of its Persian successor called shatranj or chatrang. Comparisons across other chess predecessors led historians to assume that the gameplay of chaturanga involved an eight-by-eight board with major pieces occupying opposite board edges and foot-soldiers occupying subsequent rows.
The pieces of chaturanga were the following: the Raja that coincides with the modern king, Mantri or Senapati that coincides with the contemporary queen, Ratha or the chariot that coincides with the modern rook, Gaja or elephant that coincides with the current bishop, and the Padati or foot-soldiers that coincides with the modern pawn. Except for the Gaja, the moves of the other pieces are similar to their corresponding chess counterparts.
Nonetheless, the primary goal and objective of chaturanga was simple: to capture the Raja, similar to the primary purpose of modern chess in which the player must capture the king or his or her opponent.
The Persians were the first to adopt chaturanga around the seventh century. However, other chess historians claim that the Persian version called chatrang was the closest version that resembled modern chess. Note that the history of chaturanga might be traced further back in China.
Some hypothesized that this ancient Indian game developed along the trading routes of the Silk Road. These routes had been the venue for cultural and informational exchange for centuries. Participants include the Xinjiang Province of China, Delhi in India, Tehran and Baghdad in the Iran-Iraq region, and Kabul and Kandahar in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the arrival of the Indian board game in Persia marked the beginning of its spread in the Middle East and the Muslim world.
From Shatranj to Chess: What Was the Role of Islam and Muslims in Popularizing the Game?
Chatrang was the Persian version of chaturanga. It specifically emerged during 600 AD. This was the time when the Sassanid Empire ruled Persia and occupied territories outside modern Iran to include Central Asia and Eastern Arabia, as well as the Levant and Caucasus. The influence of the empire was thereby expansive.
However, around this time, the influence of Islam was also emerging and spreading in the Middle East and Near East, as well as in Central Asia and further to Southeast Asia. The Sassanid Empire succumbed under the Muslim conquest and became part of the Muslim world from 633 to 644 AD. The Muslims also adopted the game chatrang but later called it chess.
Islam advanced in Europe around 700 AD with the Iberian Peninsula conquest that included modern Spain and Portugal, among others. The cultural and informational exchanges included the introduction of shatranj. Accordingly, there were three paths by which the board game entered Europe. These were Spain from North Africa, Italy through trade routes across the Mediterranean, and European Turkey up to the Balkans from Asiatic Turkey.
The game further spread in Northern and Western Europe to reach Britain and Eastern Europe to reach Germany. By the start of the first millennium, Europeans were playing a board game that became known as chess.
Murray examined how the word “chess” became widespread in the Western world through etymology and exploration of nomenclatures over time. According to him, several chess terms that appeared in medieval Europe are traceable back to Arabic and Middle Persian terms. The Persian word “mat” corresponded to the European word “mate” and the modern “checkmate” usage.
The Persian and Arabic words “shah” corresponded to the European terms “scac” and “check” that also further evolved to the English word “chess” and the French word “echecs.” The modern Spanish name for chess is “ajedrez,” which is rooted from the Arabic word “ash-shatranj.”
From these etymologies, it is easy to deduce how the modern word “chess” came from the Muslim word “shatranj” that, on the other hand, came from the Persian word “chatrang” and the Indian Sanskrit “chaturanga.”
Summary: The History and Origins of Chess Game
The book of Harold James Ruthven Murray remains the most valuable primary source detailing the history and origin of chess. Through his research that involved examining manuscripts and etymologies, he argued that chess originated in India around the seventh century. Accordingly, the ancient Indian strategy board game chaturanga was the predecessor of modern chess.
However, some historians have hypothesized that these ancient board games also evolved along the Silk Road trading routes. These routes had been the venue for cultural and informational exchange for centuries. Participants were traders and migrants from Xinjiang Province, Delhi, Tehran and Baghdad, and Kabul and Kandahar.
Nonetheless, the arrival of the Indian board game in Persia marked the beginning of its spread in the Middle East and the Muslim world. In Persia, chaturanga became shatranj. The Muslims later adopted the game and called when it conquered the Persian Sassanid Empire around 633 to 644 AD.
As Islam spread across the Middle East and in Europe around 700 AD, the board game became widespread. The game further spread in Northern and Western Europe to reach Britain and Eastern Europe and further to Germany. By the start of the first millennium, Europeans were playing a board game that became known as chess.
Take note that other board games similar to chess existed alongside chaturanga. Murray mentioned that it is possible that the strategic board games sittuyin in Burma, chandaraki in Tibet, chator in Malaysian Peninsula, shatra in Mongolia, and shogi in Japan, among others, all descended from the similar strategic ancient board game that emerged in India. The evidence remains unclear, but this assumption illustrates that strategic board games similar to chess evolved simultaneously across the world.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- MacDonell, A. A. 1898. “The Origin and Early History of Chess.” The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. 117-141. JSTOR: 25207939
- Murray, H. J. R. 1913. A History of Chess.
- Shenk, D. 2006. The Immortal Game of Chess: A History of Chess.