Being a year into the Coronavirus pandemic, I started thinking about how for many of us who have spent most of the time in a form of lockdown, different Netflix series have categorised different parts of lockdown. First Tiger King was all the rage, then we had various crime documentaries, Bridgerton, and The Queen’s Gambit. The Queen’s Gambit was a drama set in the 1950s and 1960s which followed a young woman who was a chess prodigy as she rose through the ranks, beating all the men around her. Many people who had never played a game of chess found themselves quickly invested in the series and the game itself. But how many know just how old the game of chess is – and that it can be traced back at least 1,500 years?

A 1430 Persian manuscript showing two players playing Shatranj, one of the forms of chess which grew out of the original game, chaturaṅga.

Chess as a game has evolved over the centuries, with different rules added over time. However, the earliest game which formed the origins of chess came from India in the 6th century with a game called chaturaṅga. Chaturaṅga was a strategy game which focused on four branches of the military: infantry, cavalry, elephantry and chariotry. These parts of the military were represented by pieces on a board which today are known as the pawn, knight, bishop, and rook. The fate of the game also rested on one piece, the modern-day king. In fact, the game of chaturaṅga has been argued by many to be centuries older than this, possibly as old as 255BC.

Chaturaṅga was played on an 8×8 board, although it did not have the chequered pattern of chess boards today. The different pieces were able to move in different ways and for different distances, like modern chess. By 600 AD, chaturaṅga had been brought from India to Persia where it was considered a noble game, taught to princes and members of the court. The Persians added the idea that you call something out when attacking the King, which have evolved today into “check” and “checkmate”.  50 years later, Persia was conquered by Arab Muslims who took up the game for themselves.

Otto IV of Brandenburg playing chess with a woman, from a manuscript created between 1305 and 1340.

Over the next few centuries, the game spread from Islamic territories in the Middle East up to Russia and across into Europe. By 1000 AD it had spread throughout Europe, probably helped by interactions with Islamic-owned territory in Spain. In medieval Europe it became a very popular game, featuring in many pieces of literature. It was again considered a game worthy of the elite, to be taught to nobles and royals, and having an expensive chessboard was a signal of wealth and status; Queen Margaret of Anjou (15th century) had expensive chess sets made of jasper and crystal. Chess became so important, it was even considered by 12th-century writer Petrus Alphonsi to be one of the seven skills that a good knight must have.

Two kings and two queens from the Lewis chessmen, 12th-century chess pieces carved from ivory found in Scotland. Medieval European pieces portrayed the figures they represented.

Despite chess’s association with knightly virtues and kings and queens of Europe, some members of the church became alarmed with the rising popularity of the game. Many medieval games had aspects of gambling, and so the church became concerned that chess could be a vice. There was even an incident in 13th-century London where people were killed after a dispute over the outcome of a game of chess. Some places tried to regulate against it, but these laws were widely ignored and the popularity of the game continued.

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After Christian Europe adopted chess from Islamic countries, they began to make their own mark on the game. Whilst Islamic pieces did not look like the figures they represented, Christian countries began to carve pieces to look like men and animals. They also slightly adapted the pieces to represent kings, queens, bishops, knights, and men-at-arms. As the medieval period grew to a close, some of the pieces started to change in power. In earlier chess, the queen and the bishop were quite weak pieces, but in the late 15th century the pieces started to take on their modern moves.

A 12th-century Iranian chess set. Note how the pieces do not represent their figures. Held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The first reference to the new movement of the queen piece comes from a Catalan poem from Valencia in the 1470s called Scachs d’amor or “chess of love”. The poem is the first text to fully record a complete game of chess and is also the first to record the modern rules of chess. Whilst the poem records the game of chess, it is also representing the wooing of a lady, as the game is being played between Mars and Venus.

With the new moves for the queen and bishop, the game became a lot quicker to win and so the focus of the game became quick, tactical moves instead of long-term planning. From this time until the late 19th century, the style is known as Romantic chess. As the 19th century arrived, competitive chess tournaments became popular, but people would take hours to analyse their next move making the tournaments difficult to run. As a result, ways to alter the speed of the game – such as speed chess, and allotting a certain amount of time and moves before the game ended – developed.

An ivory mirror case from c1300 showing a couple playing chess, with onlookers.

The first modern chess tournament was held in London in 1851, and its popularity in popular culture continued into the next century. Chess was not exempt from politics, however, and during the 1930s, Nazi Germany spread propaganda that hailed Aryan players as the leaders of Romantic chess which was ended by cowardly Jewish players. After the Second World War, Soviet players started to dominate world chess, as seen in The Queen’s Gambit. Although chess does not grab the headlines like it once did, it is still a popular pastime and huge tournaments are still held across the world. And, despite a few changes over time, someone today could easily play a game with someone who lived centuries ago.

Previous Blog Post: Monthly Round-Up: History in the News, January 2021

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4 thoughts on “A Brief History of Chess

  1. Dear Gemma (Hollman) I belong to quite a few history groups & I wondered if you would mind if I shared some (lots) of your posts from the emails I receive, from your blog, and your Facebook page “JUST HISTORY POSTS”? I would of course credit you in each of the shared articles AND enclose the link to the blog or fb page the story came from. There are several pages of yours of interest to members of the groups I am in, and of course you will get lots of free publicity! Best wishes JR Monteiro (Joao Rozo) ………………………………………..


    1. Hi there Joao, thank you for your message. Of course you can share links to my blog posts and share my Facebook posts. Please just share the link and a brief summary rather than copying and pasting the whole post word for word, though.

      Liked by 1 person

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