Origin of Chess


The classical research about the origin of Chess concentrated on investigating written and archaeological evidence resulting in opinions about Indian/Persian 1 or Chinese origin of the game. The available evidence was, however, not sufficient for a convincing theory. So the question about the origin of Chess still has to be considered open. Some speculations assumed military, mathematical, or divinification models as the basis for the game. Most scholars of Chess history do, however, agree that the relationships to these models showed after Chess already existed. Another idea, which was part of some theories, was the assumption that Chess, with all its present complexity, was invented by a single person. But this is extremely unlikely.

A significant step towards the better understanding was the founding of the Initiative Group Königstein (IGK2) in 1991 and its seminars, in which the present Chess historians can present their research and opinions. Its member Gerhard Josten looked for evidence in the structure of Chess. He came up with three basic unique elements:the king, the pawns, and the officers (counters, pieces). His theory is that these elements stem from different sources and are combined into present day Chess. This was supposed to be done by either Silk Road merchants, who were waiting for better weather conditions in one of the major trading places like Kashgar in today's Southwest China, or by game enthusiasts in the Kushan Empire. The Kushans had some experience with merging elements from different cultures. Josten suggests that the king and its behavior is taken from the ancient Chinese game Go, the pawns come from Indian racing games and the officers are taken from divinification or astrological methods. I have added an alternative for the astrological roots of the officer-moves with the possibility that their moves are based on the images occurring within the game of Tic-Tac-Toe.

No matter which theory is valid, the importance of the Silk Road for spreading the game is undisputable. Forerunners and the Chinese Variation Board games are very ancient and can be traced back at least 4, 500 years to the first city of Ur and Egyptian paintings. In the 19th century AD Stewart Culin created the theory that all board games had magical or religious origin. This is not evident, for instance, in the three-dimensional Tic-Tac-Toe (Mill), for which a board was engraved by Roman soldiers on the cobble streets of Old-Jerusalem.

The Egyptian game Senet was clearly a religious game. It was a racing game played on a 10x3 board. There is also a version with 8 linear squares followed by 4x3, the "twenty-game". The exact rules of either are not known, but boards have been found together with half-flat sticks, the forerunners of dice. The names or meanings of the squares had to do with the stations of the way to the empire of the dead. There are numerous references to Senet in inscriptions and papyrus scrolls. The use of Senet as an Egyptian glyph gives an indication of its importance. According to the Nordic poem, The Edda, the Germanic gods spent their free time in their residence Asgard playing board games, but The Edda was not written down until the twelfth century AD.

A possible forerunner of Chess is an Indian game, known as Ashtapada, which means in Sanskrit a square board of 64 squares, 8 rows of 8 squares. It was played with dice and pieces, a race game possibly going back to the fifth century BC. Chinese records mention its introduction from India to China as early as 220 BC to 65 AD, roughly during the early Han Dynasty.

The likelihood of a race-game being a forerunner of Chess is preserved in the promotion of a pawn to a piece when reaching the 8th row. Hinduism prohibits gambling. The revival of Hinduism during the Gupta Dynasty led to an enforcement of this antigambling policy in the 6th century AD. This is used as an argument by some scholars for supporting the idea of an Indian origin of Chess. It is stated that the suppression of dice forced the transformation of a race game into a strategic game. When I discussed this with some Indian historians during a visit to India, I got clarification that the gambling inhibition was local and did not apply to total India.

Chinese Chess today is played on a board with 9x8 squares or 10x9 edges. The pieces, inscribed draughtsmen, are placed on the edges and not on the squares of the 9x8 field. The use of inscribed draughtsmen instead of stand-up figures means an additional level of abstraction and would therefore speak against an origin in China. However, sources suggest that originally Chinese Chess was also played with standing figures. In the middle of the 10-row field is a "river", which was added later, meaning originally that the board was 9x9, considering the edges, or 8x8 considering the squares. The number nine has a special importance in China. Ancient Chinese regarded odd numbers as being masculine and even numbers as being feminine. Nine, the largest single-digit, odd number, was taken to mean the ultimate masculine, and was symbolic for the supreme sovereignty of the emperor. It was sometimes combined with the number five to represent imperial majesty. Tiananmen Hall is 9 bays wide and 5 bays deep. The combination 9x5 also appears on the two halves of the Chinese chessboard (after inclusion of the river). The transfer to a 9x9 board from an 8x8 one, based on the imperial importance of the number 9 seems more likely to have happened than the other way around.

Source: Silkroadfoundation