History of chess

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12th century Islamic-style chess set from Iran. New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
12th century chessmen from the Isle of Lewis in the National Museum of Scotland
A leaf from the Libro de los juegos, Alfonso X of Castile, c. 1283

The history of chess goes back almost 1500 years. The game originated in northern India in the 6th century AD and spread to Persia. When the Arabs conquered Persia, chess was taken up by the Muslim world and subsequently, through the Moorish conquest of Spain, spread to Southern Europe.[1][2]

In Europe, the moves of the pieces changed in the 15th century. The modern game starts with these changes. In the second half of the 19th century, modern tournament play began. Chess clocks were first used in 1883, and the first world chess championship was held in 1886. The 20th century saw advances in chess theory, and the establishment of the World Chess Federation (FIDE).[3] Chess engines (programs that play chess), and chess data bases became important.

Milestones of the game

  • 600AD: First clear reference to chess, in a Persian manuscript.
  • ~700AD: Date of first undoubted chess pieces.
  • 800AD: Moors bring chess to Spain and Sicily.
  • 900AD: Early Muslim chess masters, as-Suli and al-Lajlaj write works on the technique of chess.
  • 1000AD: Chess widespread in Europe, including Russia.
  • 1300AD: First European comments on chess in sermons and stories.
  • 1475–1500AD: Birth of the modern game: especially, new moves for queen and bishop.
  • 1495: First printed chess book.
  • 1497: First printed chess book to survive to the present day.
  • 1600: First professional player-writers.
  • 1780s: First master games to be recorded as they were played.
  • 1836: First chess magazine.
  • 1849: First US chess tournament.
  • 1851: First international chess tournament.
  • 1866: First match to be timed by clock.
  • 1883: First tournament to use specially designed chess clocks.
  • 1886: First acknowledged world championship match.

The origin of the game

Also Libro de los juegos, Alfonso X of Castile, showing Christian vs Muslim

The precursors of chess originated in northern India during the Gupta empire,[1] where its early form in the 6th century was known as Chaturanga. This translates as 'the four divisions', meaning infantry, cavalry, elephantry, and chariotry, represented by the pieces that would evolve into the modern pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, respectively.[4]p173; p74

Persian and Arabic chess

In Sassanid Persia around 600 the name became Chatrang and the rules were developed further, and players started calling Shāh! (Persian for 'King') when threatening the opponent's king, and Shāh māt! (Persian for 'the king is finished') when the king could not escape from attack. These exclamations persisted in chess as it traveled to other lands.

The game was taken up by the Muslim world after the Islamic conquest of Persia, with the pieces largely retaining their Persian names; in Arabic "māt" or "māta" مَاتَ means "died", "is dead". In Arabic, the game became Shatranj. In all other languages, the name of the game is derived either from shatranj or from shah.

Changes in names of pieces

The following table provides a glimpse of the changes in the names and character of chess pieces, as they passed from one culture to another, from India through Persia to Europe:[1]p221

Changes in the Arabic names of pieces happened over several centuries after the game arrived in Europe. Most changed were the pieces which had no equivalent in Europe, such as the elephant (eh-l-fh-ant), the visier (an advisor: the firzan or wazir), and the chariot (rukhkh). The greatest variety of names was for the elephant,[1]p424 which was not seen in Europe, and so not used in war. In Spain names derived from Arabic lasted for centuries (alfil, aufin, orfil...). Eventually, all but France used a word for "bishop". In a similar manner, vizir eventually became "queen", and the chariot became a word for "castle". Except, that is, in English, where "rook" is obviously a version of "rukh". The following table does not capture all these complicated changes.

Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic and some modern European names for chessmen
Sanskrit Persian Arabic English Spanish French Italian
Raja (King) Shah Shah King Rey Roi Re
Mantri (Minister) Vazir/Vizir Wazir/Firzān Queen Reina Reine Regina
Hasty/Gajah (elephant) Pil Al-Fil Bishop Alfil Fou Alfiere
Ashva (horse) Asp Fars/Hisan Knight Caballo Cavalier Cavallo
Ratha (chariot) Rukh Rukh Rook Torre Tour Torre
Padati (footsoldier) Piadeh Baidaq Pawn Peón Pion Pedone

Europe and the East

The game reached Western Europe and Russia by at least three routes, the earliest being in the 9th century. By the year 1000 it had spread throughout Europe.[4] Introduced into the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors in the 10th century, it was described in a famous 13th century manuscript covering shatranj, backgammon and dice named the Libro de los juegos.

Buddhist pilgrims, Silk Road traders and others carried it to the Far East, where it was transformed into a game often played on the intersection of the lines of the board rather than within the squares.[5] Chinese chess and Shogi are the most important of the oriental chess variants. However, it was the changes made in medieval Europe which led to our modern game.[3]p71

Rule changes

The game of chess is really two games. There is the original Indo-Arabic game, and there is the modern game, usually called 'international chess'. The transition between the two happened during the change from the medieval world to the modern world, in the Europe of the later 15th century. In fact, the new game of chess was one of the early topics chosen for the new technology of printing.

The Indo-Arabic game

Krishna and Radha playing chaturanga on an 8x8 Ashtāpada
Page from the 14th century Persian manuscript A treatise on chess
Mediaeval Icelandic set. The pieces are simplified and abstract, perhaps influenced by Arabic sets, or simply by ease of manufacture.
At the other extreme, a mediaeval chess bishop. Italy, 12th–15th century.
Dilaram Problem,
c. 10th century
Start of chess board.
a8 black king b8 black rook c8 black king d8 black king e8 black king f8 black king g8 black king h8 black king
a7 black king b7 black king c7 black king d7 black king e7 black king f7 black king g7 black king h7 black king
a6 black king b6 black king c6 black king d6 black king e6 black king f6 white pawn g6 white pawn h6 black king
a5 black king b5 black king c5 black king d5 black king e5 black king f5 black king g5 black king h5 black king
a4 white king b4 black king c4 black knight d4 black king e4 black king f4 black king g4 white knight h4 white rook
a3 black king b3 black king c3 black king d3 black king e3 black king f3 black king g3 black king h3 white bishop
a2 black king b2 black rook c2 black king d2 black king e2 black king f2 black king g2 black king h2 black king
a1 black king b1 black king c1 black king d1 black king e1 black king f1 black king g1 black king h1 white rook
End of chess board.
White to move and win. This is a typical example of a shatranj problem or Mansuba. Black threatens mate with either rook; but because the al-fil can jump to the third square on the diagonal, white wins by 1.Rh8+ Kxh8 2.Af5+ Kg8 3.Rh8+ Kxh8 4.g7+ Kg8 5.Nh6#

In early chess the moves of the pieces were:[1]p224 et seq

  • Shāh: as King now.
  • Firzān: one square diagonally at a time (contrast modern Q).
  • Fīl: two squares diagonally (no more or less), but could jump over a piece in between (contrast modern B). This move meant that an individual fīl could move to only eight squares on the board, and no fīl could ever attack another fīl.[1]p226
  • (Horseman): as Knight now.
  • Rukh: as Rook now.
  • Pawn: one square forwards (not two), capturing one square diagonally forward; promoted to firzān only.

The game could be won by 1. Mating the king; 2. By giving stalemate; 3. By capturing all the opponent's pieces. This kept down the number of draws.

Changes in Europe

In Europe some of the pieces got new names:

  • Mantri/Firzan/Vizir > Queen, perhaps because it starts beside the King.
  • Fīl > Aufin > Bishop, because its two points looked like a bishop's mitre; In French fou; and others. Its Latin name alfinus was reinterpreted various ways.

About 500 years after chess first reached Europe, after some smaller experiments, there were big changes in the way the pieces moved. The effect was to make the start of the game run faster, and get the opposing pieces in contact sooner. The changes were:

  • Pawn moving two squares in its first move. This led to the en passant rule: a pawn placed so that it could have captured the enemy pawn if it had moved one square forward was allowed to capture it on the passed square.
  • King jumping once, to make it quicker to put the king safe in a corner. This eventually led to castling.
  • The queen. This had been a piece called the firzān, from the Persian word for a counsellor. Its movement was more limited than the king, for it could move one square only on the diagonals.[1]p225
    • An early addition to her movement: an initial move of two squares with jump, diagonally. This right was sometimes extended to a new queen made by promoting a pawn. The piece was then called the fers.
    • Full-ranging movement of the queen, along diagonals and ranks & files, is the real mark of modern chess. It is such a huge change that one French commentator called the new game eschés de la dame enragée (~ the mad queen's game), and the Italians called the game schacci alla rabioso (~furious chess).[4]p328 Indeed, the change from a limited counsellor to an unlimited queen cannot be understood as part of the original war-game. It can only be understood as an attempt to improve the game as a sport.

These changes made most of the older chess culture obsolete. The slow development in the openings was replaced by gambits and rapid attacks. The relative values of the pieces are changed.[1]p228 The game can now only be won by mate or resignation by one of the players. Originally, this was not seen as a problem, but as technique improved, so did the number of draws. This became a matter for discussion in the early 20th century. The limited number of ways to win changed what players needed to win in the endgame; many endgames which could be won with the old rules now were drawn.

Evidence in print and manuscripts

The first printed work on chess to survive to the present day is Luis de Lucena's Arte de axedres, printed in Salamanca, Spain. It can be dated to 1496 or 1497.[3]p73 It presents a number of chess problems, some of which are in the old rules (del viejo), some in the new rules (dela dama). This suggests that the transition is not quite complete, and some readers might not know about the new rules. By 1512, when Damiano published his Questo libro e da imparare giocare a scachi in Rome, it only included problems with the new rules, and does not mention the medieval game. The same applies to the Gottingen manuscript, probably written in Spain or Portugal. Though it has been claimed to be earlier, its content suggests it was not written before 1500.[3]p74 England and Germany received the reformed game by 1530. After that, the old game was effectively dead—in Europe, at any rate. A version of the old game survived in India until recently.

Theory of the game

Modern chess theory was slow in developing. After the new moves of the pieces, players spent their time playing gambits, and trying to mate each other. The games of Gioacchino Greco (1600– ~1634) clearly show this. The first ideas as to how to win indirectly, 'positionally', started with Philidor. Modern chess has a lot of indirect manoeuvering of a kind the old Arabic players would have understood. They could not attack directly, because their Alfil and Firzān (our bishop and queen) had such limited moves.

One interesting fact is that the Arabs divided their game into the same three stages which we do today: opening, middlegame and endgame.[1]p234


At the start of a game, the Arabic masters took a number of moves before the pieces were in contact with the other side.

"The result of this was that... the final position of the opening was the important one to memorise. Hence in almost all older Muslim chess-works we find... a collection of type-positions, each with its own distinctive name. [These] are recommended to the player as models for his imitation. Diagrams of these type-positions were a regular feature of Arabic chess-works down to the 17th century. These positions were called ta'biya (plural: ta'biyat or ta'abi)... which may be translated as battle-array".[1]p234-5

Changes in values of the pieces

Relative values of the pieces
Shatranj value Modern value
Baidaq 1 Pawn 1
Faras 4 Knight 3
Fīl 1.5 Bishop 3
Rūkh 6 Rook 5
Firz 2 Queen 9

The table, based roughly on square control, suggests the modern game deploys about 20% more force on the board than the older game.[6] However, this understates the case, since the table does not allow for castling, nor the initial optional double move of the pawn. Also, the pawn promotion to the new queen is hugely significant when it takes place. No exact value can be placed on these elements, but perhaps the modern game makes use of up to a third more force than in the original game. Also, the fast development of the pieces makes the opening far more important in the modern game.

Evidence from archaeology

Single pieces found in archaeology are seldom taken as chessmen; they are much more likely to be general art objects. Groups of small objects are more likely chessmen if there are of more than two types. Many board games have used two kinds of pieces, but only chess uses six different kinds. A dig might not turn up all six forms, but more than two is indicative of chess. If the forms have characteristic chess figures (foot soldiers, kings, man on horse) this is even more convincing.

The evidence from archaeology comes mostly from the discovery of early chess sets, and also from rock art: carvings (petroglyphs) and paintings on rock.


The earliest chessmen found are the Afrasiab collection. In 1977 the Uzbekistan Academy of Archaeology conducted a dig at Afrasiab, near Samarkand.[7]p15[8]p58 Samarkand is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, and at times it has been one of the greatest cities of Central Asia. Samarkand is on the trade route between China and the Mediterranean (the Silk Road), and so it is a logical place for a trader to store some of his precious goods.

The Afrasiab finds include seven chess pieces. They are heavily worn, but they include: two foot soldiers with shields and short swords (= our pawns); a war elephant with chain armour and a rider in full battle-dress (= our bishop); a visier (= our queen) with two horses with armed rider; two mounted riders with sword and shield (= knights); and the Shah, on a three-horse chariot, holding a mace-like symbol of power (= our king).[7] That is five out of the six types of piece, and completely convincing as a chess set. The rukh (rook) is also known: it features a three-horse chariot with two men, one driving, and the other armed with sword and shield.[8]p61–62

This group is dated to the 7th–8th centuries, and probably come from the end of the Sassanid Empire just before the Arabic conquest. They are representational, meaning they are small carvings (though somewhat crude) of war men and equipment. Later Arabic sets became abstract shapes, in accordance with their religious teaching.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Murray H.J.R. 1913. The history of chess. Oxford. reprint ISBN 0-936317-01-9
  2. von der Lasa, T. 1897. Zur Geschichte und Literatur des Schachspiels.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Eales, Richard. 1983. Chess: the history of a game. Batsford, London.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Hooper, David and Whyld, Kenneth 1992. The Oxford Companion to Chess 2nd ed, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-866164-9
  5. Chess: Ancient precursors and related games. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2002.
  6. On the older game, comments by Aṣ-Ṣūlī (transl. Murray p227) and on the modern game, standard text-book values.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Williams, Gareth 2000. Master pieces: the story of chess: the pieces, players and passion of 1000 years. Apple, London.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Lindner I.M. 1994. The art of chess pieces. Moscow.