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Monday, September 12, 2011

Who Invented Chess?

The exact origins of the game of chess are unknown and controversial.  It is commonly held that it originated in India during the Gupta Empire.  In the 6th century it was known by the Sanskrit name of caturańga, but the first evidence of the game is from Sassanid Persia (circa 600 CE) where it was known as shatranj. It had four divisions of military - infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariotry - which later became pawns, knights, bishops, and rooks, respectively.  India is the most popular location for the origin of chess, but the theory is mostly a result of the British occupation of India, and how impressed they were with Indian civilization.

Krishna playing his consort Radha in this 18th century miniature.
Image courtesy of this www.nationalmuseumindia.gov.in. 

Another version of its origin is that it was invented by a royal advisor of a Persian king, who wanted to teach his sovereign prudence.  Persian texts say it came from "Hind", which is actually the land of the Indus, but frequently attributed to India. These texts are also repeating legends.  So far convincing archaeological evidence is missing, but the oldest known texts are Persian.  When the Arabs conquered Persia in the 8th century, they adopted the game and later introduced it to Europe where it had spread by the year 1000 CE.  The Sassanid Persian game was known as shatranj.  Islamic sets had abstract shapes to the pieces, following the taboo against depicting humans in art.

A Persian miniature of the game shatranj being played from a 14th century
manuscript describing how the game was brought from India.

Yet another theory is that it originally came from China.  China lays claim to an ancient game called Xiangqi, which may have played as early as the 3rd century BCE.  It was closely related to military strategy in ancient China.  Xiangqi is translated as "elephant game" or "figure game", but could also mean "constellation game".  To make things more interesting, apparently there was more than one game in ancient China called xiangqi, which also makes it more of a dilemma. The rules were evidently closely related to military strategy in ancient China.

Xiangqi board, courtesy of www.clubxiangqi.com.

There is also an ancient Chinese board game called Liubo (literally "six sticks"), which is thought to have been invented in the middle of the 1st millennium BCE. It was very popular in the Han Dynasty (roughly 200 BCE - 200 CE), but was then replaced by the game of Weiqi, or Go.  There is archaeological evidence for Liubo, and some literary evidence as well.  Liubo boards and game equipment have been found as grave goods.  The game had a board, counting chips, multi-sided die (one game found had an 18-sided dice), and six throwing sticks.  Many scholars believe that liubo was the basis for xiangqi, and it was transmitted to India where it developed into caturańga, but no liubo boards have been found outside of China.  Whether chess originated in China, India, or Persia is still to be definitively determined.  It obviously traveled along the Silk Road, the question is west to east, or east to west?

A pair of Eastern Han Dynasty ceramic tomb figures playing liubo.

Modern chess is a result of the game catching on in Europe.  The game went through a number of revisions in Europe, withstanding prohibitions and bans by the Church, until it became the game recognizable today. It did not become popular in northern Europe until figural pieces were developed. Because it was introduced through the courts, it became a prestigious game.  At one point in time it was played for money, leading Louis IX of France to forbid the gambling in 1254, but to no avail.  The game played in the Middle Ages was very slow, often lasting for days.  As rules changed, checkmate was easier and the games shorter. Some monarchs were known to use living people as chessmen on a checkered pavement or field.

Modern hexagon chess for three people.

Writings about chess began appearing in Europe in the 12th century, basically didactic works and works devoted to chess problems.  In the 15th century, there began to appear books on the theory of chess.  Strategies for openings and endgames were published.  Coffee houses in big European cities became centers for chess.  But one of the most interesting, and beautifully illustrated, books was completed in 1283.  (See tomorrow's post.)

I can conceive of playing this game...
(Image courtesy of www.dimensionalized.com.)
...but not this!
(Image courtesy of  www.matrixchess.nl.)

Soon competitive chess evolved, as did the variants of modern chess.  Today one can play speed chess, engage in competitions, and even play against computers. While it still retains the reputation of a game for brainiacs, it is played by all levels of society, and books on all aspects of it are being published.  Anyone for 3D chess?
Unless otherwise noted, images are courtesy of Wikipedia.

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