History of Chess (Part 2)

So, after reading about the basic rules and layout of Western, Chinese and Japanese chess in the first part of this article (if you did read them at all), did you realize any striking similarities between them?

Doesn’t it seem too much of a coincidence that the three different types of chess have so much in common? Isn’t it weird that in all the three types of chess,

1.    the king or general always starts off at the middle of the first row?
2.    the king or general is clamped on both sides of the first row by identical pairs of pieces?
3.    a game is won by checkmating the king or general i.e. the “chief” piece of the game?
4.    a rook (castle) or chariot always lies at the furthest ends of the first row?
5.    the rook (castle) or chariot can only move in a vertical or horizontal direction?
6.    a knight or horse always lies in the second furthest column at both ends of the first row?
7.    the knight or horse always moves in an “L-shape”?
8.    there exists the bishop or bishop-equivalent (e.g. elephant, angle mover), whereby such pieces move in a diagonal fashion only?
9.    there exists pawns or soldiers arranged in the most numbers in the front-most row at the start of the game?
10.  the pawns or soldiers cannot move backwards?

Isn’t it too much of a coincidence that the Europeans have been playing their own version of chess for many centuries even without realizing that their counterparts in the Far East (i.e. China, Korea and Japan) were also doing the same all along? Isn’t it strange that for many centuries, the Chinese, Koreans and Japanese have been moving their chess pieces in a manner largely similar to that of their European counterparts even without realizing it? Don’t all these seem too much to be merely a coincidence?

All these similarities can only point towards one direction – the three different types of chess aren’t altogether that different after all. They have a common origin and a common mode of spread. They came from the same country of origin many centuries ago.

And that country is none other than INDIA. With that, I have answered the question that I put forward to you in the first part of this article.

 An Indian-style modern Western chess set

Was that a surprise for some of you? Maybe not, if you are an avid chess player who is familiar with the history of this largely popular board game. Regardless, let me now give you a walkthrough of its history, origins and development, keeping in mind that this whole article will mainly concentrate on the history and development of Western chess.

The true origins of chess are somewhat obscure and defined with uncertainty. The exact date when this game was first played in history cannot be determined, and neither can its inventors be named. It is a game that emerged out of a murky era, under ambiguous circumstances that puzzle historians up to this very day. Most historians today concur that no one knows the exact answer to solve the mystery behind this game’s vague past, but they also concur on another point – that the game most probably emerged from the Land of the Maharajas, India.

It is generally agreed that the earliest form of chess resembling modern chess began being played around the 6th century, during the reign of the Gupta Empire (Sanskrit: गुप्त राजवंश, Gupta Rājavamsa) (~320 – 550 AD) in India. Known as the chaturanga (Sanskrit: चतुरङ्ग), it involved pieces which are closely identical to today’s Western chess, namely:

1.    King (Raja): Moves like the king in Western chess i.e. one square in any direction
2.    Minister (Mantri): Moves like the advisor in Chinese chess i.e. one square diagonally, except that it is not limited to a palace only
3.    Elephant (Gaja): Its moves are uncertain, but it most probably either moved like the elephant in Chinese chess i.e. two squares diagonally, or like the silver general in Japanese chess i.e. one square vertically forwards or one square in any diagonal direction
4.    Horse (Ashva): Moves like the knight in Western chess i.e. in an “L-shape”
5.    Chariot (Ratha): Moves like the rook (castle) in Western chess i.e. any direction horizontally or vertically
6.    Foot soldier (Padati/Bhata): Moves like the pawn in Western chess

Chaturanga was played on an 8x8 uncheckered board called the ashtapada. Some of its rules remain obscure even up to now, and there are several variations as to how a player wins the game. Some sources state that the game is won by checkmating or stalemating the opponent’s king, while others describe the “bare king” rule, in which the player who first captures all the opponent’s pieces except the king wins.

Arrangement of pieces at the start of the game in chaturanga

And what inspired this ancient Indian game? The game was, for all intents and purposes, a simulation of ancient Indian war strategy described in the Hindu epic Mahabharata (Sanskrit: महाभारत, Mahābhārata). In fact, the name chaturanga itself literally means “having four limbs or parts”, a poetic reference to the four divisions of ancient Indian armies, namely the elephants, chariots, cavalry and infantry. On the other hand, the ashtapada, the board used in chaturanga, was formerly used in a backgammon-type racing game before being adapted for use in chaturanga.

Krishna and Radha playing chaturanga on an ashtapada

An ashtapada board

As to the exact person who came up with this brilliant war-strategy game, his/her true identity remains a total mystery up to now. Indian legends attribute chaturanga to a wise noble by the name of Sissa, who was said to have greatly amazed his country’s ruler through his invention of the game. The ruler was so pleased with the new game that he promised to grant anything Sissa might ask for. Sissa, being the wise man he was, decided to present his wish in the form of a complex mathematical problem. He asked for no lavish endowments, and said that he would be satisfied with a single request – that for the first square of the chessboard, he would receive one grain of rice, followed by two in the second square, four in the third square, eight in the fourth square, and so on, doubling the amount with each subsequent square up to the very last one. The ruler immediately agreed to grant Sissa his wish, even getting offended because the wise man was asking for “a very low price that the ruler could easily grant.” Not knowing the actual gravity of the mathematical problem, the ruler ordered his treasurer to count the amount of rice needed to fulfill Sissa’s request. But when it took the treasurer more than a week to calculate the actual amount of rice needed, the ruler was surprised and demanded an explanation from him. The treasurer replied by saying that it was impossible to fill the entire chessboard with rice because it would need more rice than the whole world could ever produce at any one time in order to do so. The ruler was astonished at his answer, and acknowledged that Sissa was truly a wise man whose wisdom was an asset to the country. The ruler thus summoned Sissa and appointed him as the chief minister of his country.

No doubt, this legend has no historical evidence to prove its validity, but it is a somewhat frequently told fable when it comes to the origins of chess. This legend also forms the basis for the renowned “rice and chessboard problem” (sometimes known as “wheat and chessboard problem”), which is a mathematical problem demonstrating the rapid growth of exponential sequences. The problem can be summarized as such:

If a chessboard were to have rice placed upon each square such that one grain were placed on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, and so on (doubling the number of grains on each subsequent square), how many grains of rice would be on the chessboard at the finish?

With a total of 64 squares on the entire chessboard, a whopping sum of 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 (18.4 quintillion) grains of rice will be required to fulfil Sissa’s request as presented in the story above. This amount is about 1000 times the global production of rice in 2010, and would thus be a big impossibility for the ruler to grant. The “rice and chessboard problem” is a frequently applied principle in business strategies and management.

The wise noble Sissa inventing chaturanga, as told in Indian legends

Alright, leaving the mathematical aspect of chess aside, let us now get back on track. From its vaguely defined origins in India, chaturanga eventually found its way eastwards and westwards, although the exact timings of these are still shrouded in mystery. As the game spread eastwards in the hands of Buddhist pilgrims, merchants and travellers traversing the Silk Road, it gradually found its way into the Chinese heartland, thereafter spreading even further to both the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese Archipelago. Chaturanga grew in popularity, so much so that it became assimilated into other pre-existing board games in China.

Its rules and game structure were, however, modified to suit local tastes and influences. For instance, the board used in the Chinese version of chaturanga was adapted from the ancient Chinese game of go (围棋, wéiqí), thus its chess pieces were played on the intersections of the lines on the board instead of within squares; the appearance of the “Chu River” and “Han Border” on the Chinese chaturanga was a reference to the historical Chu-Han War of 206 – 202 BC. Additionally, the “king” in chaturanga was changed to “general” in its Chinese version due to the fact that the Chinese emperors objected the frivolous idea of having their imperial title used on chess pieces. All these gave rise to what we now know today as Chinese chess or xiangqi, its Chinese name itself having been derived from an earlier game of the same name that existed since the Warring States Period (战国时代, Zhànguó Shídài) (453 – 221 BC).

Weiqi (围棋), the ancient Chinese game of go that is played on the intersections of the lines on the board instead of within the squares

In spite of all these changes, Chinese chess maintains many of the original moves found in chaturanga. In terms of their manner of movement, the king in chaturanga roughly corresponds with the general in xiangqi; the minister with the advisor, the elephant with the elephant, the horse with the horse, the chariot with the chariot and the foot soldier with the soldier. Several specific differences, however, still exist between how these pieces move in their respective types of chess. The cannon in xiangqi is an additional feature not found in chaturanga, and its addition may be a result of influences from pre-existing Chinese board games or ancient Chinese war strategies.

With the spread of chaturanga to Japan as well, Japanese chess or shogi started to take form. Comparing the modern shogi and chaturanga, although larger differences exist in terms of the types and movement of pieces and the unique “drop” rule, basic similarities can still be identified between these two types of chess. The shogi board appears similar to the ashtapada used in chaturanga, with the exception of an additional row and column in the former. Regarding the movement of the chess pieces, with the exception of several specific rules of movement, the king in chaturanga roughly corresponds with the king in shogi; the elephant with the bishop (angle mover), the chariot with the rook (flying chariot), the horse with the knight (cassia horse) and the foot soldier with the pawn (foot soldier). The addition of all the other pieces in shogi came about as a result of gradual evolution and variation of the game, as well as local influences over the past centuries. The unique “drop” rule in shogi is attributable to the common practice in the 16th century whereby samurais and warriors frequently switched loyalties when captured by their enemies in order to avoid execution.

In its westward spread, chaturanga initially found its way into the Persian Empire, or modern-day Iran, during the reign of Emperor Khosrau I (reigned 531 – 579 AD). The highly-revered Persian poet Ferdowsi (940 – 1020), in his poetic masterpiece called the Shahnameh (lit. “The Book of Kings”), narrated the story of how an Indian ambassador first brought the game into the imperial court of Emperor Khosrau I. Ferdowsi narrated:

“One day, an ambassador from the king of Hind (India) arrived at the Persian court of Khosrau, and after an oriental exchange of courtesies, the ambassador produced rich presents from his sovereign and amongst them was an elaborate board with curiously carved pieces of ebony and ivory. He then issued a challenge:

“Oh great king, fetch your wise men and let them solve the mysteries of this game. If they succeed, my master the king of Hind (India) will pay tribute as an overlord, but if they fail, it will be proof that the Persians are of lower intellect and we shall demand tribute from Iran.”

The courtiers were shown the board, and after a day and a night in deep thought one of them, Bozorgmehr, solved the mystery and was richly rewarded by his delighted sovereign.”

(Wikipedia, 2012)

Bust of Bozorgmehr-e Bokhtagan in Isfahan, Iran. Bozorgmehr was the wise Persian advisor who apparently unlocked the secrets behind the game of chaturanga

Chaturanga, which was subsequently known as chatrang in Persian, soon increased in popularity throughout the empire. With the Islamic conquest of Persia and the consequent fall of the empire into Arabian Muslim hands in the 7th century, chatrang thereafter grew in popularity throughout the medieval Muslim world, spreading even as far away as Spain during the era of Muslim rule in Europe. Known as shatranj in Arabic, the pieces in the game underwent significant changes in Muslim hands. As Islam forbids any artistic depiction of animals and human beings, the shatranj pieces, which were formerly carved as such, were soon converted into abstract shapes or were assigned written names instead.

Shatranj, the Islamic-Arabic version of chaturanga. Note that shatranj pieces were carved as abstract shapes to avoid depicting them with animal or human designs, which are forbidden in Islam

From the medieval Muslim world, shatranj also found its way into the deeper parts of Europe via the Frankish Kingdom that ruled much of western and central Europe during the 8th and 9th centuries. It was said that an embassy from the renowned Caliph Harun al-Rashid (763 – 809) of Baghdad once presented various gifts to the Frankish king Charlemagne (742 – 814) in 797 which, amongst others, included a clock and a shatranj set. The game grew in popularity in the court of Charlemagne, henceforth spreading to neighbouring regions such as Italy, Russia, Germany and Scandinavia by means of trade, cultural exchange and military conquests in the succeeding centuries.

Embassy from Caliph Harun al-Rashid presenting tribute to King Charlemagne

With the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, chess then found its way into England, initially being unpopular until pieces with animal and human figures were reintroduced. By the turn of the first millennium, chess had become widespread throughout the European continent and had garnered much popularity as a pastime, especially amongst the elite and the nobility. Royal patronage from prominent monarchs such as Kings Henry I, Henry II and Richard I of England, King Alfonso X of Castile (parts of modern-day Spain) and Tsar Ivan IV of Russia further spurred the popularity and significance of chess. Luxuriously decorated chessboards and exquisitely carved chess sets made of gemstones and jewels became part of the imperial collection of such monarchs and their nobles.

Chess was, however, not without controversy in medieval Europe. With chess swelling in popularity amongst the masses, violence and immoral vices soon followed suit. Violent arguments and incidences, sometimes even ending in murder, occurred not uncommonly as a result of the outcome from playing chess. Gambling and revelry also grew to become part and parcel of chess games, so much so that the Church soon after declared the game immoral and issued prohibitions towards it. Several royal decrees, such as that issued by King Louis IX of France in 1254 also served to impose prohibitions upon it. Despite all these efforts, the prohibitions remained largely ignored, and aristocrats and commoners alike continued to enjoy this popular pastime without fear or interruption.

Up to this point, I have discussed about how chess made its way from the formidable Land of the Maharajas to become part of stately and common life in the various kingdoms of medieval Europe. Feel free to proceed to the subsequent part of this article, where I will be covering on the evolution of chess rules and the different chess pieces to become what it is today.

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