Chess originated in India around 7th century AD (around 1400 years ago). The game was then called Chaturanga – chatur meaning four and anga meaning parts. The game comprised the four parts of the army: elephants, horses, chariots and foot soldiers besides the king and his mantri (minister).
The game was in fact a battle-plan drawn on a smaller scale, to find out ways and means of outsmarting the enemy.
How was it played? In the game, one side of the army had to knock out or capture the opponent’s pieces from the board until the king was captured or ‘checked’, that is, made immobile. The player who ‘checked’ the opponent king’s movements won the game.
It is still played in the same way.
From India, soldiers and merchants took the game to Persia (present day Iran) around 600 A.D. where it came to be called Shatranj. At the same time travellers took the game to China where it was played in a modified form called Xianqui. The Japanese, when they came to know of it, called it Shogi.
The Crusaders from Europe who came to fight the Holy Wars in Palestine against the Muslim Saladdin in the 12-13th century took the game to Europe. They called it ‘chess’ from the Old French word ‘echec’ meaning ‘check’.
The pieces were made of ivory and consisted of a King, Rook or Castle (the elephants of Chaturanga times); knights (horses and cavalry) and Pawn (foot soldiers). To be in the good books of the powerful Catholic influence of the time, a piece called the ‘Bishop’ was also added. The most important piece, the minister, was replaced by the only female piece, the Queen.
Chess became very popular in no time. Landlords during the Renaissance period of the 12th and 13th centuries even played with live people who were beheaded instead of simply being captured!
In time players discovered that the first few movements called ‘openings’ could decide the outcome of the game. Experts then kept notes on the games of their opponents, how they played earlier and came up with strategies to preempt these moves.
It was only in the 20th century that chess began to be played as a professional game. Seeing how popular these were, newspapers began to publish each game move by move. Then in 1924 the Federation Internationale des Echecs (FIDE) was set up to formulate rules to supervise the game. Players also began to be rated for their performance. They were called International Masters. If they were the best of the best they became known as Grandmaster.
FIDE also laid the rule that every player must say ‘echec’ or ‘check’ when the king is in a position of being captured. The king is therefore checkmated ending the game. The word ‘checkmate’ literally means ‘the King is dead’ from the word ‘echec mat’ which in turn came from the Persian word ‘shah mat’.
Computers too made the game easier to learn and play. While the average computer can beat an amateur, most experts can beat the computer.
Today chess is a popular international sport made famous by India’s own Grandmaster Vishwanathan Anand. Other chess greats include the American Bobby Fisher, Russians Gary Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, players with huge fan followings. There’s even a separate Olympics for chess, held every two years! Once a pastime of the old, today it is common to see children at six or seven years in international games.
The same board is also used to play the game of Draughts or Checkers. Its origin? That’s another story!