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Chess Origins

Life Size Chess A great deal has been written about the origin of Chess and there is still a lot of debate on the subject. Most sources for this information are derived in some part from the monumental book by HJR Murray - The History of Chess published in 1917. While this is a great work, it has its flaws and, of course, much new evidence has surfaced since.

In the middle ages, Chess was sometimes played by monarchs with living chessmen in a court paved to represent a chessboard.

There are three main theories as to the genesis of Chess:

  • Chess appeared first, fully-formed, in North Western India
  • Some people say that the earliest ancestor is 4-player Chaturanga played with dice which metamorphosed into the 2 player strategy game
  • Backed up by 2 or 3 Chinese legends, the other primary theory is that Chess came to India from China.

So which is it? There is no irrefutable evidence for the 4-player form of Chaturanga until 1000AD. For arguments espousing a Chinese origin, one can read a long and forceful treatise called The Origin of Chess written by Sam Sloan but currently there is insufficient evidence to convince most critics that Chess does have a Chinese source. So the hypothesis currently holding the consensus view is that 2 player Chaturanga was invented independently in North Western India probably in the 5th or 6th century

Indian Chess is known as Chaturanga and there were probably multiple variations of the ancient game (as there are to this day) developed by ancient Indians - primarily to confuse twenty-first century historians. Some say Chaturanga was invented by a 6th century Indian philosopher but the earliest definite reference to Chess in India, or anywhere, was written about and during the reign of King Sriharsha c.625.

Chaturanga means "Four Parts" or "Four Divisions" which most historians believe refers to the 4 types of force employed - Infantry, Cavalry, Elephantry and the Navy under the control of a Rajah (king). The board of 64 squares used for Chaturanga, was stolen from an earlier game called Ashtapada, an ancient Indian race game.

Chaturaji - Four Player Chaturanga

One of the early forms of Chaturanga was a four-player game played with dice, sometimes known as Chaturaji. 4 player chaturanga It is believe that two players were loosely allied against the other two with moves as follows:

  • Infantry - 4 Pawns which moved as pawns do in Chess
  • Boatmen - A ship which could only move 2 squares diagonally but could jump over intervening pieces
  • Cavalry - A horse which could move like a Knight in Chess
  • Elephant - An elephant which could move like a Rook in Chess
  • Rajah - A human figure which could move like a King in Chess

The game started with the four armies in each of the four corners, in a double row, like Chess, the four main pieces behind the four pawns. Those who believe that this is the original form of Chess interpret the name "Chaturanga" as referring to "Four Armies" rather than the Four Divisions of an army. Gambling became forbidden early on in the Hindu civilisation and, under this theory, to avoid the new gambling laws, Chaturanga players dispensed with the dice. Other changes happened at the same time - the merging of the allied armies into a single army and the movements of the Elephants and Boats reversing. In moving to two armies there can't be two Rajahs so two of them were demoted to Prime Ministers.

Shatranj - Ancient Persian Chess

Shatranj Shatranj is the oldest known form of Chess that became established across the Middle East and Europe and which lasted for almost 1000 years. The first reference to Shatranj occurs in a Persian book written around 600 AD which says that a Hind ambassador came to Persia from India during the reign of Naushirawan (Chosroes I, 531 - 579 AD) and presented the game to him as one of several gifts with a challenge to learn its secrets. By 650 AD, the game had reached the Arab kingdoms and had also reached the Byzantine Court by virtue of the fact that the grandson of Chosroes I married the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Maurice. Its also reached Greece, Mecca and Medina around the same time.

There are three versions of the story of arrival of Shatranj in Europe.

One says that the Saracens brought it into Spain when they settled in Analusia following their conquest of North Africa in the seventh century. From there the game may have travelled eventually to France and the court of Charlemagne around 760 AD.

A second claims that Charlemagne and the Empress Irene of the Byzantine court at one point were contemplating marriage. During their meetings one of the presents exchanged was a Shatranj set given to Charlemagne. Unfortunately, instead of two Prime Ministers, the set contained two Queens with enhanced powers, making them the most powerful pieces on the board. Charlemagne thought this was not a promising sign and decided that the marriage wasn't such a good idea after all!

The most popular theory, however, is that the Knights of the Cross obtained the game from Arab lands during the Crusades. It is known that Shatranj was held in some esteem at the court of Saladin, who created the Ayubite dynasty in Egypt and Syria and the Christians certainly obtained medical secrets from physicians in this dynasty.

The famous Alfonso manuscript and the Cotton manuscript of the thirteenth century describe Shatranj in its form at the time. The pieces are shown on a non-chequered board in a virtually identical pattern to that of today. The details follow:

  • King (Shah) - moved like a King in Chess
  • Prime Minister (Firz) - moved one square diagonally only.
  • Elephant (Fil) - moved two squares diagonally only but could jump over intervening pieces.
  • War Horse (Faras) - moved like a Knight in Chess
  • Ruhk - moved like a Rook in Chess
  • Pawn - moved like a pawn in Chess and when a pawn reached the far side of the board it was promoted to a Prime Minister

a woodcut from Caxton's Game and Playe of Chesse Over the next four centuries, the game stayed in much the same form as above - the European form of medieval Chess described in Caxton's 'The Game and Playe of Chesse' wasn't much different to the Persian form that the Crusaders probably discovered.

Shown on the left is a woodcut from "Caxton's Game and Playe of Chesse". This book had much less to do with chess than with philosophical and political doctrine.

As time progressed a variety of exotic variations came about in forms such as Circular Chess and The Courier Game which was a kind of extended Chess played on a board of 12 x 8 chequered squares. At about the same time that Shatranj entered Europe, it was also heading Eastwards back through North India into China, Japan and through Burma through to Cambodia. The games Sittuyin (Burmese Chess), Mak-ruk (Siamese Chess), Xiang Qi (Chinese Chess), Changgi (Korean Chess), Sho-gi (Japanese Chess or The General's Game) are the resultant modern forms.

Earliest Chess Pieces

The picture shows the oldest Chess pieces ever found.Earliest Chess Pieces

The earliest known Chess pieces were found at Afrasiab, Uzbekistan in 1977. With them was a coin dated dated 706 AD giving a fairly certain date. There were 7 ivory pieces: King, General, Elephant, Chariot, Horse & Two Soldiers

Lewis Chessmen Picture shows the Lewis Chessmen on display in the British Museum, London.

The Lewis Chessmen are a set of pieces that comprise the oldest complete European chess set ever found. Stumbled upon in 1831 on the Island of Lewis in the Northern Hebrides by a local, a total of seventy eight of these chessmen were unearthed in a stone compartment chamber. They are believed to have been carved between 1150 and 1170 AD - the most complete set of ancient chessmen in existence.

Most of the pieces can be seen at the British Museum in London while the National Museum of Scotland own a smaller subset (somewhat controversially). Replica Lewis chessmen sets have been produced by a number of different manufacturers over the years.

Xiang Qi

a cheap Xiang Qi set from London Chinese Chess or Shiang-Chi or Siang K'i is a considerably modified form of Shatranj, the first reference of which has been found in a book called 'The Book of Marvels' by Nui Seng-ju who died in 847 AD.

The pieces are simple disks with Chinese characters on them to differentiate and are played on the points of the board rather than within the squares. The un-chequered board consists of 10 x 9 points with two notable distinguishing features. Firstly, dividing the players in the middle is the 'River', an open area. Also, each player has an area of 9 points in the middle at the nearest edge called the 'Fortress'.

Shown are two Chinese Chess sets. One is a cheap Xiang Qi set bought in London by the author which is the sort most popularly used in China. Such boards are difficult to play for the average non-Chinese person and so the author also owns the second, rather more appealing set bought in Hong Kong.Xiang Qi

  • The General - moves orthogonally one space but cannot move outside the Fortress or such that the opposing general is on the same file with no men between the two.
  • The Mandarins - move one point diagonally only but must stay within the Fortress
  • The Elephants - move two points diagonally but cannot jump over intervening pieces and cannot cross the River.
  • The Horsemen - move like a knight in Chess but cannot jump over intervening pieces
  • The Chariots - move like a Rook in Chess
  • The Cannons - move any distance orthogonally but can only capture if they have jumped over a single intervening piece (known as the 'Screen')
  • The Soldiers - move one point forwards until they reach the other side of the River whereupon they are allowed to move one point sideways as well. There is no promotion

In Xiang Qi, the concept of Stalemate does not exist. If a player cannot move, that player has lost which serves to remove one of the more tedious aspects found in the European game. It is often quoted that Xiang Qi is the most popular game in the world which is true but this is, of course, largely due to China's great population (European Chess is more ubiquitous but Europeans should not be smug about this either since it has little to do with the qualities of the game and everything to do with European military and political dominance during the latter half of the second millenium AD).


Shogi Japanese Chess or Shogi or Sho-gi or "The Generals Game" has a major innovation over other games in the Chess family: Pieces when taken are allowed back onto the board. This has the advantage of making draws quite unusual and thus, some would say, a more interesting contest. The pieces are pointed wooden counters with Japanese symbols on them, both players having identical sets, orientation being the method of determining which piece belongs to which player. The board is unchequered with 9 x 9 squares, 4 small crosses being scribed on the corners of the central nine squares. These indicate the home territories of each player which are the three rows nearest to the player.

The picture shows a modern pocket magnetic Sho-gi set from the author's collection.

Some of the pieces upon entering enemy territory are 'promoted', if the player wishes, to a superior piece of a rank defined by the rules. Those pieces that can be promoted are noted in the follow descriptions.

  • Jewelled King - moves like a King in Chess
  • Gold General - moves one space orthogonally or one space diagonally forwards
  • Silver General - moves one space diagonally or one space forwards. Promotion is to a Gold General.
  • Honourable Horse - two spaces forward and one sideways only. Promotion is to a Gold General.
  • Flying Chariot - like a Rook in Chess. Promotion is to a Dragon King which can move like a Jewelled King OR a Flying Chariot
  • Angle-going - like a bishop in Chess. Promotion is to a Dragon Horse which can move like a Jewelled King OR an Angle-going.
  • Lance - forwards only any distance. Promotion is to a Gold General.
  • Soldiers - one space forwards only. Promotion is to a Gold General.

Sittuyin - Burmese ChessSittuyin - Burmese Chess

Sittuyin or Burmese Chess still bears the original horse and elephant pieces. Both boards and pieces tend to be large and robust. The game is not thought to be played much in Southern Burma anymore - unfortunately, modern European Chess is taking over. However, it can still be found in the tea houses of Upper Burma in the North West of the country. The game itself is unique for a variety of reasons, not least of which the starting position of the pieces which is variable, being at the discretion of the players and consequently providing a whole new element to the game.

Pictured is a set of Burmese Chess pieces very kindly obtained for the author by his friend Maung Maung Thein of Rangoon. And another set bought by the author on a trip to a handicraft shop in Bagan during a monsoon deluge.

Sittuyin pieces Sittuyin pieces Sittuyin pieces

Changgi - Korean Chess

Chianggi Korean Chess Chianggi Korean Chess Chess in Korea, as can be seen from the picture, is similar to Chess in China. The board omits the river of Chinese Chess and some of the moves are slightly different but probably the most significant difference is that players can "pass" their go if they wish. One effect of this is to slightly increase the chances of a draw since when one player is reduced to a lone King, repeated passing forces a drawn game.

Korean Chess Pieces are most commonly octagonal like those in this picture of a set owned by the author.

To the right is a picture of men playing Changgi in a small park in Insa Dong, Seoul. Thanks to Lucy Worrall and Matthew Murphy for this one.

Makruk - Thai Chess (and Cambodian Chess)

Thai Chess Unlike Korean and Burmese Chess, Makruk or Thai Chess is presently thriving well in its home country where proponents outnumber those who play European Chess by a huge proportion and the game is a nationally televised attraction. The game is related to both the Japanese and Burmese versions of Chess and many people believe that Makruk predates both these other games.

The attractive pieces are shaped like the Stupas or Thai temples that are found throughout Siam, as Thailand used to be called. In the past, pawns were often represented by cowrie shells, mouth down until promotion when they were turned upwards.

The picture here shows a cheap plastic set bought from a Thai mail order shop.

Makruk is played in Cambodia as well as Thailand where it is known as 'Ouk Chatrang' or 'Ok'. Many books also claim that Cambodia has its own form of Chess but the source of this seems to go back to the classic "Encylopdia of Chess Variants" by David Pritchard. It seems that Mr Pritchard obtained this information from a dubious source that has never been verified and has turned out not to be valid. For more information on this subject, please refer to The Cambodian Chess Riddle

Modern European Chess

antique Icelandic Chess sets and pieces displayed in the Skogar Folk Museum, Southern Iceland Chess in roughly the form of today appeared in in Southern Europe around the end of the 15th century and quickly became popular Europe wide. The powers of certain pieces were increased and new rules were added such as castling, two square pawn advance, and en passant. The most important changes turned the Fers into the most powerful piece of all, the Queen and the Alfil into the far-ranging Bishop by unrestricting it's power of diagonal movement.

European Chess In 1749, Francois-Andre Danican Philidor, a composer and leading Chess player at the time, published 'L'analyse du jeu des Echecs' (Analysis of the game of chess). This is one of the greatest Chess works of literature ever written and has been translated into many languages since. Howard Staunton, the top player in the mid 19th century also wrote several important theoretical works and organised the first international chess tournament in London in 1851. This was won by Adolf Anderssen from Germany. In 1858, Paul Charles Morphy came to Europe from the USA and managed to take the mantle of best player in the world at the age of only 21. The book 'The Queen's Gambit', since turned into a Netflix blockbuster, features childhood prodigy Beth Harmon, who some say was based on Morphy.

To the left is a Chess set from the author's parent's collection which is thought to date from the turn of the century. The pieces are stored in a box shown on the right. Above right - antique Icelandic Chess sets and pieces displayed in the Skogar Folk Museum, Southern Iceland. Dated to the 18th or 19th centuries, the pieces are mostly made of whalebone.

chess pieces The history of chess pieces is also a story worth telling. Until the mid 19th century, pieces tended to come as one of two extremes. The rich would display very ornate expensive decorate pieces with delicately crafted representations of kings, queens etc. which were often top-heavy and impractical while everyone else mostly used roughly hewn wooden lumps with only the height of the pieces to distinguish between them.

Middle left - two men play on public boards in a park in the centre of Brashov, Romania.

two men play on public boards In 1847, John Jaques of London created a new design which hit a happy medium between the two and was both practical and elegant. On the one hand, the pieces were easily distinguishable by easily recognisable symbols atop a pedestal - the King with a crown, the Queen with a coronet and the bishop by a mitre. The pawn is supposed to be a representation of the mason symbol for square and compasses while the piece de resistance, the knight, is an copy of the horse cut into the Elgin marble in Italy. On the other hand, by using different heights of pedestal, the useful idea of representation by height was retained. Howard Staunton immediately realised the overall benefit of such a new design and lent his name to the new pieces which were duly launched in 1849. These Staunton pieces were immediately popular and soon became all the rage. At the end of the century, the design had evolved slightly - the protruberances of certain pieces were reduced or made more robust to prevent breakages and enable easier mass production. The newly released 1890 design quickly became the de facto standard for Chess all over the world and it has stayed that way ever since. Jaques of London, uniquely, are still owned and run by the Jaques family.

Left - Giant Chess being played at the Croydon Clock Tower, South London as part of their Board Games Exhibition in 2000. Giant Chess sets can be obtained from Masters Traditional Games.

Giant Chess at the Croydon Clock Tower, South London ,Board Games Exhibition in 2000 Computer programs which can play Chess were first written in the 1960's but these were easily beaten. Since then Chess programs have become increasingly better at the game and can now beat all but the best Grand Masters. In 1997, history was made when Deep Blue 2, a machine running the best Chess program yet written, managed to beat Kasparov, the undisputed best player in the world at the time.

Buying Chess sets

Masters Traditional Games have a wide range of unusual and historical chess sets including Chaturanga and Replica Lewis Chessmen.

There are Chinese Chess and Shogi sets as well as Giant Chess sets> which are great fun.

There is so much on the net for Chess that there isn't much point trying to list links.   None-the-less, here are a few to get you started:

The Chess Page gives a history of chess and some links - not disimilar to this page.
Online Chess Sites - play Chess on-line for free.

The Chess Variants Page is thoroughly recommended.

Yutopian's Chinese Chess Page

Toshi's Shogi and Chess page (Japan)

World Chess Federation (FIDE) / English Chess Federation / US Chess Federation