History of Chess: Where it all began

by Milica Knezevic on January 10, 2022

Discover ways chess has made it into the world in it's current and culturally adapted form!

The King And The Peasant

  • As the story goes, when chess was presented to a great king, the king offered the inventor any reward that he wanted. The inventor asked that a single grain of rice be placed on the first square of the chessboard. Then two grains on the second square, four grains on the third, and so on. Doubling each time.
  • The king, baffled by such a small price for a wonderful game, immediately agreed, and ordered the treasurer to pay the agreed upon sum. A week later, the inventor went before the king and asked why he had not received his reward. The king, outraged that the treasurer had disobeyed him, immediately summoned him and demanded to know why the inventor had not been paid.
  • The treasurer explained that the sum could not be paid - by the time you got even halfway through the chessboard, the amount of grain required was more than the entire kingdom possessed.
  • The king took in this information and thought for a while. Then he did the only rational thing a king could do in those circumstances. He had the inventor killed, as an object lesson in the perils of trying to outwit the king.

Background Of Chess

  • Although the initial creation of chess is not recorded, historians have devoted their best efforts to determine the birthplace of the game.
  • The most widely accepted scenario is that chess was developed in India around 600 AD.
  • It is rumored that the ruler of the Gupta Empire in India at the time called upon his wise men to develop a game that would teach his children to become strategically minded and capable future generals.

  • As per his request, the game Chaturanga, meaning “four divisions” in Sanskrit, was introduced to India.
  • The four divisions represented infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariots; the predecessors to the pawns, knights, bishops and rooks we know today.
Invention of Chess

Chess In Persia

  • A close neighbor to India at the time, Sassanid Persia was first introduced to chess by Raja Hind of India as detailed in the Shahnama, the ‘Book of Kings’. Persia’s culture greatly influenced the development of the game and it’s name changed to Chatrang.

  • Various other name changes and phrases were introduced, most famously ‘Shāh!’ (Persian for ‘King!’), which has developed into ‘check’, and ‘Shāh māt!’ (Persian for ‘the King is finished!’), the ancestor of ‘checkmate’.
  • After the Islamic conquest of Persia, the name became ‘Shatranj’ in Arabic, and was brought to Europe by the Moors in the 10th Century AD.

Chess In Europe

  • By the year 1000, the game of chess had become widespread across Europe. For the next 500 years, chess remained very similar to the original Indo-Arabic game. Apart from translations and name changes in different countries, the rules stayed true to their origins.

  • As the age of curiosity, experimentation, and enlightenment arrived with the Renaissance, the rules of chess began to be developed alongside culture and science. Part of the intention of modernizing the rules was to quicken the pace of the game by bringing the pieces into combat earlier.
History of chess 3

Let's Change It Up

  • The changes within the original game were such that the king could jump once, allowing the chief piece to reach the safety of the corner sooner.
  • This rule later developed into castling. In Indo-Arabic chess, the queen was called the counsellor, and the piece’s movement was even more limited than the king’s! The counsellor could only move one step in the diagonal direction.
  • The European development of the game had the piece renamed to queen, allowed for the promotion of pawns upon reaching the opposite side of the board, and most drastically, changed the movement of the queen to the rules we use today.

  • Another change allowed the pawns to initially move forward two spaces, allowing for the en passant rule to be introduced.
  • These new rules dramatically changed the nature of chess. The game evolved from a slow-paced war simulator to a fast moving sport. The openings of each game were now rapid and filled with gambits and fierce attacks.
  • The new European version of chess could only be won by mating the king or by the resignation of the opposing player. These conditions of victory increased the likelihood of draws as well as the necessity and viability of specific strategies and tactics that could be studied and shared.
Europe Chess

The Silk Road, China and Japan

  • From the middle east to the far east, the rules found their own route, developing into the game Xiangqi in China and Shogi in Japan.
  • With distinct rules such as the placement of pieces on lines instead of inside squares, as well as a limited box for the movement of the general (equivalent of the king).

  • Xiangqi is still considered one of the most popular games to play and will most likely keep it's popularity for many years to come.
  • The chess variant Shogi in Japan also diverged towards interesting rules, as captured pieces could be returned to the board to fight for the opposing side.
Shogi Japan

Chess As We Know It

  • After Chess became one of the most popular games to play, professional tournaments were introduced.
  • The first tournament took place in London in 1851, with the world championship debuting in 1886.
  • In the over half century span between the first world championship and 1940, the title of World Champion was only enjoyed by five different players.
  • For 27 years the title was held by the German mathematician Emanuel Lasker, who still maintains the record for longest period as World Champion.

  • In the 20th century, the style of chess play evolved greatly as strategies and tactics were further modernized.
  • The more aggressive play style of the Cuban player José Raúl Capablanca won the title from Lasker in 1921, and the common objective to control the center of the board developed in the period between the world wars.
  • The first(unofficial) grandmaster titles were awarded by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, but with the establishment of FIDE(the World Chess Federation) in 1924, came the official start of this tradition.

Emanuel Lasker
First Chess World Championship

Learn More!

As we went through this brief chronological path of chess, we have discovered how alive the game really is. The adaptability and force with which it conquered the world, and through the sheer love of its players it has grown into the wonder it is today.

To truly understand modern chess its best you try and understand its most valuable players. For this we recommend you check out Chess Universe articles!

Learn all you can about Garry Kasparov and what his role was in the mysterious world of chess:

Take a step into the Cold War era of chess wiith Bobby Fischer:

Explore the creative master of chess that was Mikhail Tal:


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