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Young Reader's World

The Game of Kings - Written by Stewart Gordon

Above: A Muslim and a Christian think over a chess problem in a painting from the 13th-century Book of Games of King Alfonso x, a Spanish patron of Arab learning.

In 1509,the commander of the first Portuguese expedition to Malacca, on the Malaysian Peninsula in the East Indies, was playing chess aboard his ship when a native from the mainland came aboard. He immediately recognized the game and the two men discussed the pieces each used to play. They no doubt communicated through interpreters, but the fact that two people whose homes were thousands of kilometers apart had chess in common is remarkable. So, too, is the fact that they could have found other players familiar with the game at any stopping point in Asia, the Middle East or Europe.

What was this game that crossed boundaries of language, religion, culture, geography and class? The rules governing chess moves are, after all, simple. Yet, new players quickly learn that knowing how to move a particular chess piece does not lead to winning. Rather, every move results in a different pattern of possible future moves. In essence, chess is warfare. To win, one must understand how one’s opponent thinks.

Archeological evidence suggests that chess has ancient roots in Persia and Central Asia. Excavations at a seventh-century site in the city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, uncovered seven small, carved figures that closely resemble later Persian descriptions of chess pieces. They included a king, counselor, elephant, horse, chariot and pawn. The earliest literary reference to chess is in a Persian romance of the same period. Not only did the hero excel in hunting and riding, he was also a skilled chess player.

Chess was not invented in Persia, however. Early Persian references to chess use the term chatrang, from the Sanskrit chaturanga (“in four parts”), which describes the four components of an early Indian army: infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariots. The use of a word derived from Sanskrit for chess in an early Persian romance suggests an Indian origin for the game.

A story of the seventh-century Persian king Nushirvan also supports an Indian origin of chess. It says that an envoy came from India with a chessboard, chessmen and a challenge: If Nushirvan’s courtiers could figure out the basic rules of the game, which was unknown in Persia at the time, the Indian king would gladly pay tribute to the Persian monarch. If they failed, Nushirvan would pay tribute to the Indian king. It was Nushirvan’s vizier, or chief advisor, who finally deciphered and described the game.

The shah, seated center, watches as his advisor (to the right of the chessboard) shows his mastery of the game to a disappointed envoy from the court of India.
Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource (detail)
The shah, seated center, watches as his advisor (to the right of the chessboard) shows his mastery of the game to a disappointed envoy from the court of India.

Arab writers on chess acknowledge that the game spread west from Persia, probably soon after the Islamic conquest in the mid-seventh century. The Arabic term for the game was and is shatranj, which closely resembles the Persian chatrang. All the names of the chess pieces, with the exception of the horse, are Arabic versions of their Persian names. As the game spread, however, it was not always welcomed. The Eastern Church at Constantinople condemned chess as a form of gambling in 680. The Egyptian ruler al-Hakim banned it in 1005 and ordered all chess sets burned.

The first reference to chess in China comes in the Yu Kuai Lu (“Book of Marvels”), which dates to about 800. It recounts the story, set in 762, of a man who dreamed of a battle in which the moves of the horses, commanders, wagons and armored men resembled those in Chinese chess and then awoke to find a set of chessmen buried nearby in a well.

Regardless of whether the tale is true, there is overwhelming evidence for strong trade and cultural ties between India and China. It would be surprising if a game as intriguing as chess, already played in India and Central Asia for a century or more, had not moved along the caravan routes to China or the sea routes to Southeast Asia.

In the eighth century, chess masters from Persia and Central Asia flocked to Baghdad, which was founded in 750 as the capital of the Abbasid dynasty and soon ranked as one of the largest and most sophisticated cities on the globe, to challenge the best players in the Islamic world. At the Baghdad court, chess was not the largely silent affair it is today. Players were expected to maintain a witty, scholarly banter with each other and with spectators.

In the 10th and 11th centuries, chess spread northward to Russia and Scandinavia on the Volga River trade route. Slightly later, chess moved into Italy, at the time a scene of much contact and conflict among Muslims, Byzantines and Norman invaders from France. As chess gained popularity in new locations, the overall rules remained much the same, but the shapes of the pieces varied. In parts of Central Asia, the camel sometimes replaced the elephant. Among Tibetans, the lion replaced the king and the tiger replaced the vizier. In Europe, the queen replaced the vizier in one of several shifts to more powerful pieces that sped up the game. At about the same time, the bishop replaced the elephant and acquired its diagonal move.

In the Middle Ages in Europe, chess was played more widely than at any time before or since. Among the upper classes, every cultured man and woman was expected to know the rules. In addition, chess entered the artwork of the period in mosaic floors, stained-glass windows and illuminated manuscripts. Nothing illustrates the variety of settings and players better than a remarkable manuscript dating to 1283: the Book of Games from the court of Alfonso x. Each illustration shows a board with two players attempting to work out the problem posed.

By the early 15th century, chess was played everywhere in Europe and Asia. In the 16th century, India’s ruler Akbar the Great built a life-sized chessboard in a courtyard and played from the apartments above. The pieces were dancing girls and courtiers.

Shah, the Persian term for the king chess piece, drifted into various languages as the name of the game itself. In Italian, it became scacchi; in German, Schachspiel; and in the Old French, éches, from which comes the English chess.

Today, at any hour of the day or night, one can play against hundreds of opponents on the Internet, none of whom will know their rival’s name, religion, age, gender, occupation or location on the globe. Yet, the thrill of the battle and the struggle to understand the opponent’s thinking remain as vibrant and satisfying as it was when traders and soldiers first carried the game far and wide from its birthplace in India or South Asia some 14 centuries ago.


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Stewart Gordon Stewart Gordon is a senior research scholar at the University of Michigan’s Center for South Asian Studies. His 2008 book, When Asia Was the World (Da Capo), looked at family, trade and intellectual networks across Asia between 500 and 1500 of our era.



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