It’s such a popular game it’s even referenced in songs. Did the first person who played it ever think chess would become a constant feature in most cultures and households?
Do you play?
An Accessible, Dynamic Game
It crossed my path when I was young and even then I could identify the many skills the game draws on. If you love strategy, logic and creativity, there’s something in this game for you.
And thanks to technology, you don’t even have to look for a partner to play with you. These days, you simply go online and find a virtual or international opponent.
Let’s see how this game evolved and why it became so popular that it’s even considered as a sport for the 2020 Olympic Games. Will you be one of the future spectators cheering for your favorite chess ‘athlete’?
Since it’s played by all ages, perhaps you’ll even play there yourself. Let’s get you started.
What is Chess?
Chess, as it’s known by today’s international standards is played on a board with two different colored blocks, usually black and white. There are 64 squares in rows of 8×8.
Each player has a set of 16 pieces, and players can move one piece in each turn:
- 1 x King: Can only move one square at a time
- 2 x Rook: Moves any number of squares, but not diagonally
- 2 x Bishop: Only moves diagonally, any number of squares
- 1 x Queen: Can copy any piece’s moves
- 2 x Knight: Moves in an L-shape, two squares forward and one across
- 8 x Pawn: Can move one square ahead
One player has a white set, while the other’s set is black.
Players take turns and move pieces. They can take an opponent’s piece out of the game if it’s in the way of the player’s current move.
During each turn players make moves to eventually close in on the opponent’s King, putting it in a locked position of ‘Check Mate’. This is when the King can’t move in any direction, due to opposing pieces being in positions where they can take the King out of the game.
Sound like something you would be good at?
How Did It Start?
You would think such a popular game with millions of followers has a crystal clear history. Not so with this board game. While most people agree the game comes from India, some suggest it has its origins in China.
No matter which story you believe, people from ages ago gave us an engaging game. Its popularity only grows, so it won’t disappear from the scene soon.
Which story rings true for you?
Starting in India
Let’s rewind to the 6th century where people in India played ‘chaturanga’.
Chaturanga is viewed as the precursor of chess, because it has significant features that are still central to the game today:
- Most chaturanga boards had 64 squares, though variants have been found at archaeological sites
- There are two players, each with a set of playing pieces. The playing pieces differ in looks and powers.
- Winning or losing is determined by the fate of one piece in each set.
In these original games the 32 pieces were often modelled after animals such as elephants or horses.
From India to Persia
The next country to take on the game was Persia. Persians found it so riveting that it became part of educating the royals at court. You can imagine this prominence gave the game a stage from where its popularity could escalate across the known world.
And this also happened.
From Persia to Islam
When Muslims conquered Persia they started playing the game too. There are written records of games dating back to the tenth century. In some legends and stories, there are even references to the concept of Check Mate (Shah Mat in Persian).
The game pieces often kept their original names, even when a new culture started playing it. However, Islam has strict rules against using humans or animals in art. When used by this culture, the pieces’ designs became more abstract.
How did it reach the rest of the world?
Influencing the Globe
In many civilizations, written records and archaeological finds show other countries’ versions of the game were still sparked by seeing chatarunga played by Indians. These countries include:
- China: They called the game Xiangqi, but its goal and number of pieces are exactly the same as chatarunga’s. In China the pieces once again changed, as people played with flat units distinguished from each other by written names.
- Japan: The game reached Japan via China and Korea. But here we see some changes as thiscountry preferred playing on a 9×9 board and the game was called Shogi.
- Europe: Thanks to the Muslims who spread their version—called shatranj—wherever they went, the game gained international attention. It was prominent in the Byzantine empire and fighting armies took it all the way to Southern Europe.
- Russia: There was an automatic influx of the game from Europe to Russia around the ninth century.
- Mongolia: An altered chess game was played on 10×10 boards and Mongolians called it Hiashatar. This game was still prominent even in the late 1880s, but today the country also plays chess as we know it.
You can see why I advise you to give the game a try. Even in its original version it was so enjoyable that it automatically gained popularity wherever it was seen.
Though it still underwent many changes across the centuries, the fundamentals were the same.
Who Loves Chess the Most?
Perhaps statistics also prove where it had its origin. At least 70% of Indians play chess. In contrast, it features less in other cultures:
- In Britain 12% of the population play the game
- 15% of Americans enjoy it regularly
- In Russian homes, 43% of family members pursue chess
The Chinese Legend
One other possibility of its origin exists, though it’s seen as legend rather than fact. In 200 BC a commander designed a board and playing pieces to represent a battle.
Supporters of this story believe this inspired the original Indian version. However, the game disappears from Chinese history only to resurface around the 7 th century.
Whoever played it first, the person understood what people wanted. It’s been entertaining people for the past 14 centuries.
Development Over the Ages
Though many societies loved and accepted the game of chess, they still thought they could do better. That’s why the game you play today is not an exact copy of shatranj or chatarunga.
Especially in Europe, players made adjustments—mostly because they wanted the game to evolve faster. What you’ll play today took form in the 1400s and 1500s across Europe, when especially the Queen and Bishop pieces gained more power on the board.
But changes kept on coming. The current ‘stalemate rules’ only appeared in the 19 th century. And here’s an interesting addition to the rules: Currently a player could lose a tournament game if his or her mobile phone should ring during the match. Technology impacts every part of society and sport!
Changes also involved the pieces themselves, as the term ‘Castle’ was only used from 1527 onward. Of course that also influenced its design.
It’s amazing that a game could garner so much attention. This is proven by the many books written on the subject, some dating back to the 1400s.
And when do you know a society takes a game very serious? When they start competing professionally. This happened in the 1830s. The first tournament was held in 1851 in London and the winner Adolf Anderssen can be labeled as the first chess master. This title is much sought after today.
It wasn’t only chess rules that changed over the centuries. People were always looking for ways to make the game more enjoyable. And people’s perceptions of what that meant, differed:
- In its original form the focus was to make a move as quick as possible without much deliberation.
- It evolved into a strategy game where players needed to consider each move and its consequences.
- This method became a problem when tournaments started. Players simply took too long, as they often took hours to make decisions. Organizers wanted to change this and this is where timed games started.
Are you ready to try out your first game yet?
If you’re still looking for motivation to go online and play your first game, this fact proves it’s worth
Today’s group of regular chess players numbers 605 million adults. This makes it one of the largest communities in the world. And that excludes the many children and teenagers who also love the game.
Do you picture yourself as a future chess player? It’s proven to improve both creativity and problem solving. It could be a fun way of learning new practical skills. No wonder it was much respected centuries ago and still has prominence in the modern world. Will you benefit from its fun and effects too?