It's hard to say who invented chess. Chess wasn't an invention so much as it was an evolution. The earliest versions of chess originated more than 1,500 years ago in India, and as the game traveled to Persia, Asia, Europe and beyond, it took on new pieces, new rules and new dimensions of play. Even modern chess isn't a static game. New variations pop up every decade and spread like wildfire across the chess world.
Let's go back to the beginning of chess history: Board games have been played in India for thousands of years. Near the turn of the first millennium, a popular dice game emerged in which multiple players raced their pieces around an 8 x 8 grid called an ashtapada board.
Around the same time, a series of nomadic armies invaded Indian kingdoms. There was pressure on Indian rulers to teach the art and strategy of war to noblemen in their courts. And that's how the first versions of chess emerged, as a form of battlefield training. According to one Indian legend, the game was invented by Grand Vizier Sissa Ben Dahir as a gift to his king.
Using the same 8 x 8 ashtapada board, Indians created a new game where each piece represented a division of the army: foot soldiers, horses for cavalry, and elephants for breaking through enemy ranks. To win the game, you had to capture the enemy's king, who was flanked by a military adviser called a vizier (no queen for now).
They called the game chaturanga, Sanskrit for "having four limbs or parts," and chaturanga was originally played with four people each protecting a quadrant of the board. Its similarities to chess — the 8 x 8 board, a row of foot soldiers protecting the major pieces, the king as the ultimate prize — convinced chess historian H.J.R. Murray that modern chess is "a direct descendent" of chaturanga, played in India since at least the sixth century C.E.
The Name of the Game
From India, a two-player version of chaturanga spread to the Sassanid Empire of Persia (modern-day Iran), where the board game flourished in seventh-century courtly life.
The Persians called the game shah, which means "king," and chess historians like Marilyn Yolam believe that's how we got our word chess. When the game of shah arrived in Europe centuries later, the Persian name was Latinized as scacus. In various Latinate languages, that became scacchi in Italian, schach in German, échecs in French and chess in English.
There's an even more direct Persian connection to the chess term "check mate," which you say when you've cornered your opponent's king. It comes from the Persian shah mat, meaning the "king was dumbfounded" or "exhausted."
Enter the 'Mad' Queen
We can thank Islam for bringing chess to Europe. Muslim armies invaded Persia in the seventh and eighth centuries, and conquering caliphs fell in love with the game. As Muslim armies pushed into Spain and other parts of Europe, they brought the addictive game with them.
"When chess moved to Europe, that's when you see some of the big changes that you might recognize today," says Emily Allred, curator at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis, Missouri. Around 1,000 C.E., a queen replaced the vizier and a bishop replaced the elephant.
In her book, "Birth of the Chess Queen," Yolam says the appearance of the queen and bishop in medieval Europe "corresponded to a new stage in European history, marked by the rising power of kingship, queenship and the Church." Empress Adelaide of Italy, a powerful 10th-century female monarch, may have been the inspiration for the original chess queen, although at first the piece could only move diagonally one space at a time.
In the 15th century, we see the introduction of "mad queen chess," says Allred, when the queen becomes arguably the most powerful piece on the board, able to move any number of spaces in all directions. Yolam thinks this all-powerful queen was modeled after Queen Isabella I, the "Iron Queen" of Spain.
Enlightenment Chess as Philosophical and Moral Training
"In Europe, chess was a game exclusively for royals and their courts until the Enlightenment Era, when it became more democratic," says Allred. "Popular books were published about chess, and it began to be seen not only as a game, but something worthy of study."
Benjamin Franklin was a chess fanatic and was a regular at the best French chess clubs. Franklin was known to refuse dispatches from Congress until he finished a match, sometimes playing all night.
But Franklin argued that all of those hours slouched over a chessboard were well spent. In a popular essay titled, "The Morals of Chess," the Founding Father made the case that chess was "not merely an idle amusement," but a training ground for forming valuable qualities like "foresight, circumspection and caution."
The Modern Chess Game
Up until the 19th century, chess players from different countries might have still used different pieces (in Russia, chess sets still had elephants) or played according to local "house rules," but the game became standardized when the first international chess competitions were held.
There had been unofficial international matches before this. One memorable 1851 game in London was between Adolf Anderssen of Germany and Lionel Kieseritzky of Russia — so memorable that it was later dubbed "the immortal game." "Series of sacrifices made by Anderssen made this game probably the most famous game of all time. He gave up both rooks, bishop, queen and delivered a checkmate with three minor pieces," wrote Yury Markushin in Chess World. "This game was called 'an achievement perhaps unparalleled in chess literature.'"
In the early 20th century, clocks were introduced to impose time limits on the length of games. Around this time, chess theory became more common, with players analyzing and memorizing different moves. In 1924, the World Chess Federation or International Chess Federation (also known by its French initials FIDE) was established.
The best players in the world were informally known as "grandmasters" until 1950, when the FIDE established a set criteria for the title. There were only 27 grandmasters in 1950. As of early 2023, there were 1,785 grandmasters, including 40 women.
The current undisputed world chess champion is Magnus Carlsen. Carlsen has been the reigning world champion since 2013 and is the highest-rated player in history. However, he has said he will not defend his title in 2023, explaining that he is "not motivated" to do so.
Variations on the Modern Game
Chess isn't done evolving, though. For a century, many top chess players have complained that standard chess has become too reliant or memorizing thousands of fixed openings and countermoves. To mix things up, people have come up with popular new twists on chess.
In the 1990s, American chess legend Bobby Fischer invented a variation called Fischer Random or Chess960. To infuse randomness into the game, the major pieces on the back row are shuffled at the start of the game (mathematically, there are 960 different possible arrangements). There's now an annual Fischer Random Championship tournament.
Another popular variation is a funky form of doubles chess known as Bughouse or tandem chess. In Bughouse, you and a partner each play an opponent, so there are two games played simultaneously. The twist is that if you capture an opponent's piece, your partner can then play that captured piece on their board.
But by far the most-played modern chess variation is "speed chess," which imposes shorter and shorter time limits on players. The fastest category of speed chess is "bullet chess," where you must take your opponent's king (or force a draw) in three minutes or less. Other categories include "blitz chess" (games between three and 10 minutes) and "rapid chess" (over 10 minutes but less than 60). Some of the world's top-ranked chess players, including Carlsen, also compete in speed chess. Carlsen is the current world champion in blitz and rapid chess.
Computers have also changed chess play dramatically. In one famous 1997 match, world champion Garry Kasparov was defeated by supercomputer Deep Blue, the first time a computer beat a human in chess. Since then, several supercomputers have beaten world champions. At the same time, most players now use computers (chess engines) for analysis and research. Online chess tournaments are also very popular.
Now That's Nuts
In September 2022, reigning champ Magnus Carlsen lost to 19-year-old Hans Moke Niemann, a popular online chess personality. In a later match between the two, Carlsen withdrew after just one move. He then accused Niemann of cheating, and a resulting investigation found that Niemann had cheated in the past by using online chess engines during matches. In a weird twist, some conspiracy theorists (including Elon Musk) have proposed that Neimann secretly received instructions via vibrating anal beads.
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