A Brief History of Chess: An Animated Introduction to the 1,500-Year-Old Game

I have come to the per­son­al con­clu­sion that while all artists are not chess play­ers, all chess play­ers are artists.

 –Mar­cel Duchamp

“Over the rough­ly one and half mil­len­nia of its exis­tence, chess has been known as a tool of mil­i­tary strat­e­gy, a metaphor for human affairs, and a bench­mark of genius,” points out the TED-Ed ani­mat­ed his­to­ry of the game by Alex Gendler, above. The first records of chess date to the 7th cen­tu­ry, but it may have orig­i­nat­ed even a cen­tu­ry ear­li­er, in India, where we find men­tion of the first game to have dif­fer­ent moves for dif­fer­ent pieces, and “a sin­gle king piece, whose fate deter­mined the out­come.”

It was orig­i­nal­ly called “chat­u­ran­ga,” a word that Yoga prac­ti­tion­ers will rec­og­nize as the “four-limbed staff pose,” but which sim­ply meant “four divi­sions” in this con­text. Once it spread to Per­sia, it became “chess,” mean­ing “Shah,” or king. It took root in the Arab world, and trav­eled the Silk Road to East and South­east Asia, where it acquired dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics but used sim­i­lar rules and strate­gies. The Euro­pean form we play today became the stan­dard, but it might have been a very dif­fer­ent game had the Japan­ese version—which allowed play­ers to put cap­tured pieces into play—dominated.

Chess found ready accep­tance every­where it went because its under­ly­ing prin­ci­ples seemed to tap into com­mon mod­els of con­test and con­quest among polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary elites. Though writ­ten over a thou­sand years before “chat­u­ran­ga” arrived in China—where the game was called xiangqi, or “ele­phant game”—Sun Tzu’s Art of War may as well have been dis­cussing the crit­i­cal impor­tance of pawns in declar­ing, “When the offi­cers are valiant and the troops inef­fec­tive the army is in dis­tress.”

Chess also speaks to the hier­ar­chies ancient civ­i­liza­tions sought to nat­u­ral­ize, and by 1000 AD, it had become a tool for teach­ing Euro­pean noble­men the neces­si­ty of social class­es per­form­ing their prop­er roles. This alle­gor­i­cal func­tion gave to the pieces the roles we know today, with the piece called “the advi­sor” being replaced by the queen in the 15th cen­tu­ry, “per­haps inspired by the recent surge of strong female lead­ers.”

Ear­ly Mod­ern chess, freed from the con­fines of the court and played in cof­fee­hous­es, also became a favorite pas­time for philoso­phers, writ­ers, and artists. Trea­tis­es were writ­ten by the hun­dreds. Chess became a tool for sum­mon­ing inspi­ra­tion, and per­form­ing the­atri­cal, often Punic games for audiences—a trend that ebbed dur­ing the Cold War, when chess­boards became proxy bat­tle­grounds between world super­pow­ers, and intense cal­cu­la­tion ruled the day.

The arrival of IBM’s Deep Blue com­put­er, which defeat­ed reign­ing cham­pi­on Gar­ry Kas­parov in 1996, sig­naled a new evo­lu­tion for the game, a chess sin­gu­lar­i­ty, as it were, after which com­put­ers rou­tine­ly defeat­ed the best play­ers. Does this mean, accord­ing to Mar­cel Duchamp’s obser­va­tion, that chess-play­ing com­put­ers should be con­sid­ered artists? Chess’s ear­li­est adopters could nev­er have con­ceived of such a ques­tion. But the game they passed down through the cen­turies may have antic­i­pat­ed all of the pos­si­ble out­comes of human ver­sus machine.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Gar­ry Kas­parov Now Teach­ing an Online Course on Chess

A Free 700-Page Chess Man­u­al Explains 1,000 Chess Tac­tics in Plain Eng­lish

Vladimir Nabokov’s Hand-Drawn Sketch­es of Mind-Bend­ing Chess Prob­lems

Chess Grand­mas­ter Gar­ry Kas­parov Relives His Four Most Mem­o­rable Games

When John Cage & Mar­cel Duchamp Played Chess on a Chess­board That Turned Chess Moves Into Elec­tron­ic Music (1968)

Mar­cel Duchamp, Chess Enthu­si­ast, Cre­at­ed an Art Deco Chess Set That’s Now Avail­able via 3D Print­er

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Abbas says:

    Inter­est­ing piece how­ev­er there are a cou­ple of things you should cor­rect.
    In Per­sian, we called the game ” sha­tranj” ( “set rang” in old per­sian) which is close to the Indi­an name. It has been men­tioned in this for­mat in Per­sian lit­er­a­ture for more than 1000 years.
    “Shah” on the oth­er hand is an old per­sian word which means “king”. How­ev­er it is much old­er than Sha­tranj and can’t be the bridg­ing word between the sha­tranj and chess.
    Sha­tranj in Ara­bic pro­nounced as “chetranj” which could be a more plus­able root.

  • Richard Mattern says:

    A His­to­ry of Chess by HJR Mur­ray was writ­ten from 1899–1911 and pub­lished 1912 … Very detailed and beau­ti­ful book I’m sure you can read parts of the over 1000 page book that is so very detailed . Just down­load and enjoy NM Richard Mat­tern

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