History of Chess

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Chess has a long and storied history. It was a widely different game when it was said to come out of India in 500 A.D. Spreading to the Middle East and Europe throughout the centuries, it underwent drastic changes to its rules and pieces until it became the game we know today.

Let’s learn more about chess and take a closer look into its history.


Chess is one of the oldest games that has fascinated mankind. It emerged in India around 1500 years ago and was then known as chaturanga. War was a constant reality of the ancient world, and the game was a simulation of warfare. Chaturanga means “the four divisions,” a reference to what was then the standard components of the Indian army, namely the infantry (pawn), cavalry (knight), elephantry (bishop), and the chariotry (rook).

Around 600 A.D.,Chaturanga reached Persia (modern day Iran), where it became known as shatranj. Persia was later conquered by the Muslims, who then brought shatranj to Europe through Spain and Italy.

Chess EuropeShatranj spread widely in Europe, and by 1000 A.D. it had shed its Indo-Arabic characteristics. A few pieces were replaced with new ones, and some of the old ones were given new moves. It also came to be called ajedrez in Spain, zatrikion in Greece, scacchi in Italy, échecs in France, schaken in Netherlands, and schach in Germany. Sometime in the 15th century, chess took its modern form.

All the while, chess was spreading in the east, too. Buddhist pilgrims and Silk Road traders carried it to the Far East. By 750 A.D., chess had reached China, and by the 11th century, Korea and Japan. In China and Japan, chess has altogether evolved into a different game where uniform pieces are played on the intersection lines of the board rather than within the squares. Chines and Japanese chess are now known as Xiangqi and Shogi respectively.

Chess also reached Russia through Mongolia, where it has been known as shakmaty.

From the standardization of its rules and emergence of the modern game in the 15th century, chess gained widespread interest until it became a formal competitive sport with the first international match between Louis-Charles de la Bourdonnais of France and Alexander McDonnell of Great Britain in 1834, and the first world championship match between Wilhelm Steinitz of Austria and Johannes Zukertort of Poland in 1886.

2. Evolution of the Game and Pieces

Chaturanga, the earliest predecessor of chess, was also played on an 8×8 board. The Persians adopted almost exactly the same game, although they slightly modified the rules that made shatranj closer to modern chess. They also gave the pieces their corresponding names in the Persian language. When shatranj entered Europe, so did the pieces acquire names in the language of regions where it laid roots. Below is a chart for the names of the chessmen from Sanskrit to the various European languages:

Chess in History
Chess Painting

The game underwent its most revolutionary changes in the five hundred years following its introduction to Europe, and this period is considered the most crucial to the transformation of the ancient game.

In shatranj, the pieces had limited movement; bishops could only move by jumping exactly two spaces diagonally, the queen could move only one space diagonally, pawns could not move two spaces on their first move, and there was no castling.

By the end of the 15th century, the modern rules for the basic moves had been adopted from Italy: pawns gained the option of moving two squares on their first move, which also gave way to the en passant capture; bishops acquired their modern move, and the queen was made the most powerful piece, for which reason modern chess was first called “Queen’s Chess” or “Mad Queen Chess.” Except for the rules and conditions for a draw, the European game from 1475 has been almost the same as that played today.

3. Chess Ancient Theory & Rules

Chess World ChampionThere had been enormous changes in the rule since the time of Chaturanga, which was played on a 8 x 8 board. When Arabs adapted Chaturanga they made many variations in the game, however, they adapted the basic 16-piece structure. Many other derivatives were introduced like 10×14 board game introduced in the 14th century also known as Tamerlane chess.

The setup of Shatranj was essentially the same as in modern chess; however, the position of the king or Shah was not fixed. The game was played by the following pieces

  1. Shah(King) – It moves one step just like the King in chess.
  2. Wazir (Queen) – moves exactly one square diagonally in any direction which makes it rather venerable.
  3. Pil(Bishop) – moves two square diagonally in any direction. It can, however, jump any piece in its way.
  4. Asp(Knight) – moves like the modern day knight in chess
  5. Ruk (Rook) – moves like the modern day rook in chess
  6. Piadeh(Pawn) – moves and captures like the pawn in chess

It should be noted that castling during those times were not allowed in the chess. Stalemating the opponent king resulted in the win for the player delivering stalemate.

4. Chess Set Design

Not until the 19th century did chess sets take a standard form, which means that from the game’s emergence in India up to the modern period, cultural considerations and individual creativity were the most influential factors in chess-piece design.

In the days of chaturanga and shatranj, chessmen were depicted as animals, warriors and noblemen. Muslims, however, forbade images of living creatures, and made chessmen of simple clay or carved stones when they adopted shatranj.

Sets became stylized, often adorned with precious stones, when chess spread in Europe and Russia. By 1000 A.D., the playing boards with their monochromatic squares in the Muslim world became the checkered ones of the present day.

Set design took a giant leap when an Englishman named Nathaniel Cook patented a set of pieces in 1849, the manufacturing rights of which was then given to Jaques of London. It was superbly designed but, unlike most sets of the age, was very stable and could be easily manufactured.

Elegant and not prone to be knocked accidentally, the set won the approval and endorsement of Howard Staunton, then considered the strongest player in the world. It gained wide public acceptance and came to be known as the Staunton set, which thereafter became the official set of formal competitions, with small allowance given to design and creativity.

5. Chess From the 19th to the 21st Century

Chess has always been recognized as a game for the intellect, and the historic moment that it became a mental combat and a battle of national pride between the two best players in the world was when Louis-Charles de la Bourdonnais of France met Alexander McDonnell of Great Britain in London in 1834. In 1851, the first ever international tournament was held in London with Adolf Anderssen victorious. In 1886 the first world championship match between Wilhelm Steinitz of Austria and Johannes Zukertort of Poland was held in New York.

Check our article on the chess sets used in the World Championships.

From Steinitz up to the fourth World Champion, Alexander Alekhine, the title of World Champion was much the property of the champion himself, who had the sole discretion to accept challenges of worthy contenders. Very often, champion and contender could not come to terms over the prize money and other conditions of the match.

In 1948, the Federation Internationale des Echecs (FIDE) became the official governing body of chess and directed all international chess events activities, including the 1948 World Championship in The Hague, Netherlands.

Thereafter and up to the present, FIDE has been organizing World Championship matches, adopting different contender selection processes and World Championship match formats. Their authority and direction has lent more credence and luster to the title of World Champion.

The 1990’s saw the emergence of chess-playing programs. In a short period they became very powerful that by 1997 then World Champion Gary Kasparov lost a six-game game match to the program Deep Blue. Today, it is settled that chess programs are too powerful even for the best human grandmasters, and they are best utilized only as analysis tools. Consequently, they have raised chess to unprecedented levels, and thorough computer-assisted opening preparation and highly accurate over-the-board analysis is now required to be fairly successful at the elite level.

In all, the 1800’s up to the present has been a colorful era in which chess exploded in popularity, theory grew exponentially, and great and charismatic players in Paul Morphy, Jose Raoul Capablanca, Robert James Fischer, Gary Kasparov, and Magnus Carlsen conquered the imagination and left their indelible mark.  

 Eugene Manlapao

Eugene Manlapao

Hi, I'm from the Philippines and I hold a degree in Bachelor of Arts, Major in English, Creative Writing. I'm a corporate fellow by profession and a certified lover of chess and literature. When free from work, I scramble dividing my time among my wife and two lovely daughters, devouring literary classics and chess books, participating in over-the-board tournaments, playing casual blitz and rapid games online, and writing chess as well as non-chess articles. My love for chess has had me bitten by the chess set-collection bug. I'll be very happy to receive comments to my articles and reviews for Chess Equipments.