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How Chess Made History-- From Ancient India to the Renaissance

By Laura Wise

Chess is a strategy game that has been played for thousands of years and is still played in modern times --- whether in tournaments of grandmasters or to pass the time in coffee shops. Learn how chess grew from its origins in ancient India to the game we know today.

Origins in Ancient India

Do you know where this classic game originated? The history of chess originated in northwestern India around 550 CE, but this early form of the game did not resemble chess as we know it today. It was played with dice, and checkered squares were not developed until 1,000 years later. There were also no standard rules, so the game varied between regions. It changed even more as it spread around the world.

One can trace the origins of chess to India's “Chaturanga” or “Ashtapada,” two Sanskrit names for the game. “Chaturanga” means “four parts,” referring to the four divisions of the army represented by the chess pieces: five foot soldiers, three cavalry, one chariot, and an elephant. “Ashtapada” means “spider,” and refers to the number of squares on the board — eight on each side, like spiders' eight legs.

The Spread to Persia

Chess had spread to Persia by 600 CE, where it was popular among the upper classes. The game was used to educate princes and noblemen in strategy, as a safe way to learn about war and tactics without actually having to fight. Via trade, chess also spread to Africa. When the Persian Empire fell to the Muslims in the 7th century, chess was given an opportunity to spread and develop still further.

Muslim Influence on Chess

The Abbasid and Umayyad Empires were ruled by Muslim dynasties and populated by a diverse range of people of different religions, regions, languages, and cultures. They traded with Europe, Russia, India, the Far East, and Africa, and stretched from the Middle East and former Persian Empire across North Africa and most of Spain. It was this worldwide influence of the empires that enabled chess to spread so far and to so many people. With the initial conquest of Persia, however, it was feared that the Muslims would ban chess due to a law in the Qua'ran forbidding gambling. However — after a century of debate — theologians ruled chess officially acceptable and the game regained its old popularity.

Not only was chess legalized, a detailed literature of standards, rules, and chess etiquette was created as the game gained in popularity. One change brought about by the influence of Islam was that the design of the pieces became more abstract, due to the Commandments "Thou shalt not make unto thyself a graven image" and "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," which forbid creation and worship of images and idols. All Muslim art of that time period is similarly abstract, and people are rarely depicted. However, a different form of art found expression through chess: a poem in the Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam, a Muslim mathematician, philosopher, and poet, uses chess as a metaphor for life and death. The famous quatrain reads, "Tis all a chequer-board of nights and days, / Where Fate with men for pieces plays: / Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays, / And one by one back in the closet lays."

Chess in the Far East

Around 800 CE, Buddhist missionaries from India spread chess to China. In China, the board was organized in a rectangle, 9-by-10 squares instead of 8-by-8. A river was added to the middle of the board, as well as two counselors on either side of the King, who was called the General. Apparently, the emperor was enraged that a piece in such a lowly game should be named after him, and had several players beheaded before "King" was changed to "General." The counselors are comparable to European bishops. The Chinese also added two cannons in front of the knights.

From China, chess spread to Korea and from there to Japan, where it was called "Shogi," the "Generals’ Game." Shogi was played on a 9-by-9 board and had twenty pieces. This version also allowed captured pieces to change sides and join the game again on any empty place.

The Game Spreads to Europe

With the conquest of Spain by Muslims from northern Africa, Europe was introduced to chess. In the 14th century, chess was one of the many goods, items, and ideas exchanged through war and trade during the Crusades. Trade from the Middle East to Russia and from Russia to the rest of Europe was also influential in spreading the game.

Under European influence, chess pieces became less abstract. By the time of the Renaissance, chess rules had also been standardized in Europe. Light and dark checkered squares were developed, as were the bishops and a powerful Queen. Making the Queen a more powerful piece than the King caused controversy, and until the game was standardized, the new version was often mockingly called "The Queen's chess." This led to the invention of castling to keep the weak King from being captured too easily. The pawn's move "en passant," or "In passing," was also invented during this time.

Europeans added to the already extensive literature about chess, but by the time of the Renaissance, the game itself had reached its final incarnation as the chess we play today.

References (December 11, 2008). “Origins of Chess.” Retrieved July 11, 2011 from the website:

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