The History of Chess

For fifteen centuries, chess has been among the most popular games in the world.  Taking this entire period into account at once, chess must surely count as the greatest game.  A game of skill and planning instead of mere chance, it has exerted a hold on the collective imagination of mankind like no other.

Chess is first attested as Chaturanga in India in the sixth century A.D.  Legend presents the game as the work of a single Hindu priest acting under a royal commission; this cannot be proven, and it may instead be based upon an older game, but this game shows strong similarities to modern chess.  The name, Chaturanga, refers to the four kinds of units represented in each army; in addition to the familiar infantry and cavalry, the Indian version included elephants and chariots.  The board had the same number of spaces, and each side was comprised of 16 pieces.  Even the characteristic movement of the knight seems to have existed already in Chaturanga.

In time, Chaturanga spread from India both towards China and into Persia; it is the Persian variant, Chatranj, that proved a most important step in the development of modern chess.  It is in Persia that the modern objective of mating the king is clearly present.  Even the terminology is Persian: checkmate comes from Shah Mat, a phrase that can mean that the king is dead, or that that king cannot move.  These words would eventually mean not only victory in the game, but in many countries, they would define the game itself.  The German Schach, Russian Shakhmaty, and French Echecs come from Shah and Shah Mat; the English Chess comes from the French, and so it too is derived from the Persian.

The Persians did far more, however, than pass the game on to the Arabs and add some vocabulary.  They also pioneered the concept of chess scholarship and analysis, creating a coordinate system to facilitate the description of games and then using that system to pose hypothetical chess situations.  In short, they created the culture of chess analysis that occupies much of a chess player’s time when not actively playing a game.

The Persian form of chess expanded through the Arab world into Europe.  An incomplete chess set attributed to the Emperor Charlemagne survives, demonstrating that early European chess sets still had the elephants of the original Indian Chaturanga.

Chess became fashionable in most of Europe by the eleventh century; it should be understood in this context that “fashionable” includes the concept that it was largely the pastime of the nobility and of the clergy.  During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a series of changes were made to the rules that exerted a profound effect on game play.  Pawns were permitted to move two squares from from their starting positions, rather than just one; the bishops’ movement pattern was changed; and most importantly, the queen was transformed from a weak piece to the strongest by the simple expedient of permitting her to move any number of squares in any direction, rather than simply one square in any direction.  It is said that this rule change caught many players off-guard, causing them to fall victim to the shortest possible game, the Fool’s Mate, because they forgot how quickly the queen could move.

The Renaissance saw Spain and Italy vying for leadership in chess mastery.  In a sign of things to come, improvements in transportation and communication made it possible for a southern European, and later a European, chess environment to develop.  Great chess players, such as Spain’s Father Ruy Lopez de Segura and Italy’s Paolo Boi, could know each other by reputation and even meet for well-publicized matches.  Moreover, the printing press permitted the dissemination of books of chess theory, such as a highly influential book by the aforementioned Lopez de Segura; one of the most prominent openings today, the Ruy Lopez, still bears his name.  Saunders observes (page 12) that Lopez de Segura also gave chess the word gambit, which significantly reflects an Italian origin.  Clearly, the meetings between Spanish and Italian masters had profound consequences.

Chess remained a largely aristocratic pastime through the eighteenth century, but the nineteenth century saw significant extension of the game’s popularity.  Part of this is due to social changes; for example, coffee houses had long been an important environment for chess play (and the term coffeehouse chess endures to this day), but while coffee houses catered largely to the aristocracy in the eighteenth century, they catered ever more to a common clientele in the nineteenth century.  Another part is technological; the telegraph permitted ever faster long-distance communication, and the first chess game by telegraph was held in the United States in 1844.

It should therefore be unsurprising that the waning decades of the nineteenth century encouraged international competition on a new level.  In 1886, this level of competition was formalized in a series of matches between Wilhelm Steinitz and Johannes Zukertort for the title of world champion.  This inaugurated a period in which the finest chess players in the world competed for an international title.  To a certain degree, this is the state that has endured to this day.  There remain, however, two additional factors that have greatly influenced chess in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

After the end of the Second World War, the United States and the USSR, together with their allies, were locked in the Cold War.  Neither side was prepared to hazard full-scale war, and so both sought out proxy conflicts.  Some of them were military conflicts, such as wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan; others were political conflicts short of war, such as crises in Berlin and Cuba.  Still others were played out in scientific and cultural spheres, from the space race to the Olympics.  Chess became an unexpected theatre of the Cold War.

The Soviets expended a great deal of time and energy in cultivating promising players, resulting in a most impressive series of international champions in Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Boris Spassky, Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov.  The Soviets did all that they could to use chess hegemony to demonstrate the superiority of Communism.

It was an environment in which the West was at something of a disadvantage.  The cultivation of chess masters in the West was always a far more haphazard affair.  Even if western countries had sought to compete with the Soviets by creating state-sponsored chess farms, the effort would have negated the propaganda value of a victory.  During this period, the United States produced only one world champion, Bobby Fischer, but he turned up unexpectedly, and he lost the championship by default, rather than defeat.

The other major development is again a technological one, this one concerning computers and the Internet.  For decades, computers have permitted solo chess play by offering a virtual opponent.  In 1997, a computer known as Deep Blue managed to beat world champion Garry Kasparov.  His experience has differed only in degree from that of many ordinary chess players, who have found the virtual opponent a most vexing competitor.

Through the Internet, however, computers have done much to expand the accessibility of chess.  On-line chess games have added a visual component, as well as speed and convenience, to the rapid play of long-distance games that began with the telegraph.  Also, the Internet has been a host to a wealth of information to teach chess players of all levels and to encourage better play.  With the aid of the Internet, chess has become a truly global phenomenon.


Hochberg, Burt.  Mensa Guide to Chess.  Sterling Publishing Co., 2003

Saunders, John.  Learn to Play Winning Chess: History, Rules, Skills and Tactics.  Hermes House, 2009.

Thompson, John M.  The Medieval World: An Illustrated Atlas.  National Geographic, 2009.


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