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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