Who Invented Chess?

I recently watched the movie Riders of Justice (Retfærdighedens ryttere, 2020) starring Mads Mikkelsen and there’s a scene with a character saying, I quote, “Chess is the only game in the world where chance and luck aren’t a factor. There are no dice, no jokers or hidden elements. Everything is right in front of us and it is purely your own actions that determine the result.” I thought it was an interesting tidbit. By the way, great movie. Anyway, you know what’s coming next:

Who Created Chess?

First of all, to avoid any confusion, we never know … what is chess? Here is what Merriam-Webster has to say about that:

A game for 2 players each of whom moves 16 pieces according to fixed rules across a checkerboard and tries to checkmate the opponent’s king.

Now that we all know that we are not talking about checkers, let’s take a look at the history of the game.

First of all, it is apparently unknown who invented chess. There’s some kind of controversy about it and no credible evidence to support a lot of the claims. The reason behind that is that chess seemed to have evolved from other board games around the 6th or 7th century.

Once upon a time, there was the chaturanga, an ancient Indian strategy game that appeared around (but certainly prior to) the 6th century CE. Using pieces quite similar to the one we are now using for chess, this was a four-player war game that was played on a grid of 8 × 8 squares. Chaturanga’s popularity grew as the game spread outside India.

As things like that go, years passed, decades, even centuries, and the name changed as well as the rules. This led us to Persia where, by the tenth or eleventh century, the game became known as chatrang (or Shatranj). Now played by two players on a monochrome board, the game follows rules that are mostly the same as modern chess, except that the position of the white shah (king), on the right or left side was not fixed.

Persian youth playing chess with two of his suitors. Illustration to the “Haft Awrang” of
Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami, in the story A Father Advises his Son About Love

The game didn’t stop its travels. In fact, from chatrang it became a lot of other games, like xiangqi in China and shogi in Japan. It’s not clear when, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and what routes the game has followed to come in Europe but it was adopted by the local nobility. It went to the point that it was expected of young knights to learn to play—maybe not when King Louis IX forbade the game in France in 1254 though.

As for the name, it changed again, obviously, as it was first latinized as scacus, but in Italy, it became scacchi, schach in Germany, échecs in France, and of course, chess in England.

Europeans also changed the cosmetic details to fit their own culture (to represent the place of the Church and the King). That’s how pieces became knights, bishops, and rooks, and the way they moved was also revised—the modern queen was introduced at that point and the bishops gained in mobility. Those changes had a real impact as it became easier to deliver checkmate, this is probably why it took time for the new rules to be accepted everywhere.

Chess Became a Competitive Game

The design of the pieces became more definitive when, in 1849, artist Nathaniel Cook patented his own design (introduced in 1835). And now, only the sets based on the Staunton design are allowed in international competition.

Competition became a big part of chess. The first international tournament was held in London in 1851 and the German schoolteacher Karl Ernst Adolf Anderssen won. Quickly, other countries started to organize their own tournaments. In America, the First American Chess Congress took place in New York City in 1857. The following year, Anderssen made the trip to participate and lost his unofficial world champion title to Paul Morphy, a player from New Orleans.

In 1861, with players taking hours to analyze the other player’s game, a new element was introduced: the first time limits. More precisely, during a tournament match in Bristol, England, sandglasses were used to keep the time between moves under control. The chess clock, two adjacent clocks with buttons to stop one clock while starting the other, was invented by Thomas Bright Wilson of the Manchester Chess Club. It was first used officially during the London 1883 tournament.

Player taking the pose before the Vienna 1898 chess tournament
Vienna 1898 chess tournament – Source

The title of world champion became official in 1886. The match took place in the United States, with the first five games in New York City, the next four being played in St. Louis, and the final eleven in New Orleans. The winner was the first player to achieve ten wins. As a result, Polish-German master Johannes Zukertort became the first official World Chess Championship.

This “officialization” was not ideal as the champion was the one who decided who the next challenger was, and when and where he would defend his title. This quickly became problematic as the winners were not motivated to regularly defend their titles. To fix that, when Cuban player José Raúl Capablanca won the title in 1921, he got the other player to agree to a new rule: any player who could guarantee a $10,000 stake would be able to challenge the World Champion.

Three years later in Paris, representatives of players from 15 countries organized the first permanent international chess federation, la Fédération Internationale des Échecs, also known as FIDE. Nevertheless, the FIDE didn’t assume the authority to organize world championship matches until 1946. That’s when the Champion was stripped of his power to choose his opponent—three-year cycles of regional and international competitions were instituted to do exactly that instead. New championship titles were also introduced for junior players, teams, and women players.

The Theory of Chess

The study of chess apparently started during the 15th century as some writings have been found, notably, The Repetición de Amores y Arte de Ajedrez (Repetition of Love and the Art of Playing Chess) by Spanish churchman Luis Ramirez de Lucena was published in 1497.

Others wrote on the subject, but nothing as important as the work of French player François-André Philidor who published in 1749 L’Analyze des échecs (Chess Analyzed), a book that influenced players for decades—as much those who learned from it as those who criticized it.

For more books and informations about chess, visit chess.com!

Not the same type of sport, but I also wrote about the invention of basketball, and in another domain, about the invention of video games.

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