A History of Chess
The invention of chess has been variously ascribed to the Arabians, Babylonians, Castillians, Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks, Hindus, Irish, Jews, Persians, Romans, Scythians and Welsh. Specific individuals have sometimes been credited - the Greeks claimed Aristotle invented Chess - but no invention stories are reliable. We can make a few deductions, however, from what is known.
The oldest name for chess is chatauranga, a Hindu word referring to the four branches of the Indian army, elephants, horses, chariots and foot soldiers, which were in existence after the birth of Christ. Therefore, chess is at least 2.000 years old. Its exact age can’t be determined with any degree of accuracy, because it was originally played with dice and references to “skilled dice players” as long as 5,000 years ago may or may not refer to early forms of chess. The ambiguity is due at least in part to the Indian ashtapadia, the forerunner of the modern chessboard. It has been used for various games, most of which involved dice. The Hindus didn’t stop with two-player chess, either. They even developed a four-handed version, with and without dice, in which each player had eight pieces. The diceless four-handed version is still played in India. Indian rules varied greatly from place to place, and as the game spread eastward, its rules were altered to suit local tastes. The Burmese, for instance, start their game with the Kingside pawns on the third rank and the Queenside pawns on the fourth rank. Before any movement begins, the major pieces are located anywhere behind the pawn according to tactical discretion of the individual player. The actual moves are identical to the original Hindu chess moves. The Chinese place their pieces on the intersections of the lines rather than on the squares and add a celestial river, akin to no-man’s land, between halves of the board. Their version has only five pawns to a side, but adds two cannons ahead of the Knights, and a counselor on either side of the King. In China, the King is called the general because a Chinese emperor was so insulted at seeing a figure of himself in a lowly game the he had the players executed! In order to play the game without undue risk of life and limb, Chinese players demoted the piece on the board -- or so the story goes. Interestingly, the Japanese allow captured pieces to change sides and rejoin the game against the old army at any vacant place on the board.
The Persians learned chatauranga from the Indians, corrupting the name chatrang, and codifying its rules. They spread a consistent game to the rest of the world, along with the idea that the rules ought to be uniform. Since the Persians took up chess, there have been rule changes, but each change was adopted universally throughout the West. Chess spread very rapidly in the Persian Empire. The Persians never took to the four-handed game, and looked down on dice-chess. The latter did spread to Europe via the Moslems, where it persisted until the 14th century. The Moslems, most likely learned dice-chess direct from the Hindus.
The Persian Empire fell to the Moslems in the Seventh century, and chess became very popular in the Modern world. At least, it did after the theologians decided that chess playing wasn’t contrary to the teachings of Mohammed. This decision took about one hundred years and illustrates the curious power a simple game can have: four generations of chess players weren’t quite sure that they were in good standing with their religion because of a pastime. After the official decision that there was no harm in chess, the Moslems created a greatly detailed literature about it.
Chess may have arrived in Russia as early as the Eighth century, about a hundred years before it reached Western Europe. That Eighth century Russians traded with the Arabs is not in dispute, and people who traded with the Arabs around that time tended to learn chess. By 1000 A. D., Christianity was established in Russia, and the church there immediately made a concerted and unsuccessful effort to stamp out chess playing. 16th century travelers to Russia reported that people of all classes played chess there. In the rest of Europe, chess playing was confined to the nobility until the 18th century. When the Mongols invaded Russia, they brought their own form of chess with them. The Mongols hat gotten chess via the Eastern route, so they had a number of their own variations. As a result, in certain parts of Russia, the modern rules did not take hold until the 20th century.
It is through the Moslems that Europeans learned chess and most chess nomenclature. The Persian chatrang was rendered by the Moslems as shatranj. The Spanish names axedrez or ajedrez (ah-hey-dres), and Portuguese xadrez (sha-dres), obviously derive from shatranj. “Chess” in English conform to the pattern throughout the rest of Europe: it is the vernacular corruption of scac, the ninth century Latin rendering of the Persian shah, or King. The King itself is always a direct translation of shah, and the pawn is invariably the equivalent of the Arabic baidaq, or foot soldier. “Rook” is a direct of rukh, or chariot. Interestingly enough rukh was misinterpreted by the Bengalis as the Sanskrit roca, or boat. As a result, in certain parts of the East and Russia, this piece is in the shape of a boat. Our castle-shaped pieces come from the Farsi Indian pieces which represented the tower carried by an elephant. The Knight was originally faras in Arabic, meaning horse, the usual shape of the piece. In Europe, the name of the horse evolved to the name of its rider, Knight in English.
The Bishop evolved from the Arabic alfil, or elephant. The Spanish still call the piece alfil, and the Italians are close with alfiere, standard-bearer. In England, the split at the top of the piece, intended to represent the elephant’s tusks, was probably mistaken for a Bishop’s miter. The French took the same split as a fool’s hat, so in France, the piece is fou, or jester.
The present-day Queen, so called throughout the West, started as the counselor, or farz or fiz. The Spanish rendered this as firz or alfferza, and the Italians as farzia or fercia. The French made that into fierce, fierge and vierge (virgin), which may be how the gender change got started.
Europe’s introduction to chess probably came in the Ninth century, first in Italy and Spain. From Italy it spread to southern Germany and Switzerland. From Spain it went to France. The English may or may not have known chess before the Norman Conquest. Early references are confusing due to the tendency of chroniclers of the period to refer to any and all games as “chess”.
By the late Middle Ages, Europeans and Moslems had started tinkering with the rules. In the 13th century, we find the first known instance of the chessboard with its now-familiar light and dark squares. 15th century Mohammedan documents note that the Great Mogul Timor played “Great Chess”, a version which required a board measuring ten by eleven squares.
Meanwhile, Europeans were frustrated by the amount of time it took to complete a game, and typically made some rule changes designed to speed things up. In shatranj, the Bishop could originally move only two squares diagonally, but he could leap over a piece blocking his path. The Queen, or counselor at the time, was easily the weakest piece on the board, moving only one diagonal square per turn. When a pawn reached the eighth rank, it could only be promoted to counselor, the lowest promotion possible and the only way the former pawn could remain in the game.
When the counselor became today’s Queen, an upsetting dilemma arose in the mind of the 15th century nobles: aside from the mental gymnastics required by the pawn’s sex-change, what if the player’s original Queen were still on the board? Would the King be a bigamist? When people took their royalty seriously this was a real problem. So for a while, a pawn could be promoted to a Queen only if the original had been captured. Later, of course, this solicitude on behalf of the royal marital status was abandoned; the Queen was too powerful a piece to be lost through fastidiousness. The players, however, did retain the option of promoting a pawn to any piece except a King.
Given the offensive might of the newly strengthened Bishops and Queens, something had to be done to help the defense. The King had become too easy to capture. The answer was castling. At first, the move allowed some flexibility. A King could jump two or three spaces, to g2 if he chose. This somewhat unsettled state of affairs finally became them modern castling move.
At about this time, pawns were first given the option of a two-square advance for their initial move. So that this new move could not be used to evade an obvious loss, the en passant capture was devised. With these rule changes, the modern game of chess emerged, and there have been no other alterations since the 16th century.
Interestingly, in the 20th century, when José Capablanca was world champion, he proposed the addition of two new pieces. The chancellor would move like a Rook or a Knight at the player’s option, and the archbishop would move like a Bishop or Knight. These pieces would require two more pawns and a larger board, but oddly enough had the effect of cutting playing time in half. Capablanca’s suggestions were never acted upon
Excerpt taken from THE CHESSMASTER 2000 Manual.