The Origin of Chess

Western Chess Chronicle Vol. 1 July, 1936 No. 9

   Chess, as the world knows it today, has an ancestry clearly definable and easily established. The student of the game's history, indeed, can find a wealth of corroborative evidence to further his efforts in tracing its ancestry, in philology.

   "A Number of the mediaeval European chess terms," writes H.J.R. Murray in his voluminous work, A History of Chess, "can be traced back by way of Arabic to Middle Persian." For his authority Mr. Murray has utilized an elaborate compilation of data from chess literature both in printed and manuscript forms dating as far back as the Egyptian Dynasties.

   He continues: "The name of the game in most of the European languages (e.g. English, 'chess'; French, 'echecs'; Italian, 'scacchi') can be traced back, through the Latin plural 'scaci' ('scachi', scacci', meaning 'chessmen'), to the Arabic and Persian name of the chess King, 'shah'."

   We may find confirmation of this evidence in the fact that the name, "chess", in modern Spanish or Castilian is "ajedrez", and in Portuguese it is "xadrez". Further, we find these two forms in more ancient Castilian as "acedrix", which is nothing more than the Arabic "ash-shatranj", or the "shatranj" in European costume. To proceed one step further back we find "shatranj" to be an "Arabicized form of the Middle Persian 'shatrang'," which in turn is an adaptation of the Sanskrit "chaturanga". "All these terms are in their respective languages the ordinary names for the game of chess."

   To substantiate this process of derivations Mr. Murray makes a most interesting assertion: "This philological evidence derives some support from the documentary evidence. The earliest works which make mention of chess date from about the beginning of the 7th century A. D., and are associated with the northwest India, Persia, and Islam. It is difficult to assign exact dates, but the oldest of a number of nearly contemporary references is generally assumed to be a mention of chess in a Middle Persian romance --the 'Karnamak'-- which is ascribed with some hesitation to the reign of Khusraw II Parwiz, the Sasanian king of Persia, 590-628 A. D. The others belong to northwest India."

   Our game today, as the western world plays it, is one of the two main branches in which it may historically be divided. Our game is known as European chess, or Occidental chess. The second branch is known as Asiatic chess and includes those forms familiar to China and Japan. "Shon-gi" is the Japanese form of chess; "I-go, Wei-Ki" is the ancient Chinese game of chess. In 1904 a Japanese philosopher, Cho-Yo, wrote regarding these games:

   "The Chinese have been for many centuries acquainted with chess under a form not very unlike the Occidental branch of the Chessological game. Yet the rules for playing are very different from those of the Hindostanese and its descendants' modified offsprings, so that it gives us a strong suggestion to let it be a quite, though only apparently, independent origin on account of the peculiar feature of a central space or strip called 'The Sacred Barrier or River'.

   "The origin of the Chinese Chessological game is also of very great antiquity, and the reputation of the inventor of the game for the sake of getting clear riddance of brutal, bloodthirsty struggle….is generally yet fabulously attributed to the great sage Wei Wang, in 1120 B.C.

   "Japanese chess, or 'Shon-gi', is of a very great antiquity, and is a descendant of that which originated at least 5000 years ago."

   Referring again to Mr. Murray's writings, we read:

   "It is interesting to note that early Persian and Arabic tradition is unanimous in ascribing the game of chess to India. The details naturally vary in different works and the names in the tradition are manifestly apocryphal.

   "Chess is usually associated with the decimal numerals as an Indian invention, and its introduction into Persia is persistently connected with the introduction of the book 'Kalila wa Dimna' (the Fables of Pilpay), in the reign of the Sasanian monarch, Khusraw I Nushirwan, 531 A.D., and European scholars of Sanskrit and Persian generally accept the traditional date of the introduction of this book as established. The so-called Arabic numerals are well-known to be really Indian.

   "Finally, a comparison of the arrangement and method of the European game of the 11th and 13th centuries A.D. with the Indian game as existing today and as described in the earlier records supports the same conclusion….

   "We must accordingly conclude that our European chess is a direct descendant of an Indian game played in the 7th century with substantially the same arrangement and method as in Europe five centuries later, the game having been adopted first by the Persians, then handed on by the Persians to the Muslim world, and finally borrowed from Islam by Christian Europe."

   To substantiate the assertions as to the origin of the Asiatic branch of chess, as quoted above from Cho-Yo, Mr. Murray has this to say:

   "Games of a similar nature exist today in other parts of Asia than India, The Burmese 'sittuyin', the Siamese 'makruk', the Annamese 'chhoen trang', the Malay 'chator', the Tibetan 'chandaraki', the Mongol 'shatara', the Chinese 'siang k'i', the Corean 'tjyang keui', and the Japanese 'sho-gi', are all war games exhibiting the same great diversity of pieces which is the most distinctive feature of chess.

   "There is naturally far less direct evidence respecting the ancestry of these games than in the case of European chess, but there can be no doubt that all these games are descended from the sam original Indian game. The names 'sittuyin'' (Burmese), 'chhoen trang' (Annamese), and 'chandaraki' (Tibetan) certainly, and the names 'chator' (Malay) and 'shatara' (Mongol) probably, reproduce the Sanskrit 'chaturanga'…."

   In respect to the arrangement of pieces and board in the Malay, Tibetan and Mongol games Mr. Murray points out that they are identified very closely with the Indian game, but he further comments that the relation of the Chinese, Corean, and Japanese games are "not so obvious." He leaves no doubt, however, that both the Corean and Japanese games are derivatives of the older form of the Chinese game. Mention is made of Chinese writings which refer to the introduction of modifications in their game about 1279 B.C. Such coincidental features as the Chariot with the move of the Rook occupying the corner squares, and the Horse with the characteristic move of the Knight occupying adjoining squares indicate, and not accidentally, that the Chinese games are of Indian origin.

   In summarizing, we find this salient and self-evident fact. To again use Mr. Murray's words: "The broad lines of the diffusion of chess from India are fairly clear. Its earliest advance was probably westwards to Persia; the eastward advance appears to have been rather later, and at least three lines of advance may be traced." The first group, we are able to clearly trace, carried the game by Kashmir to the far east via China, Korea, and Japan. The second line, and most probably the same by which Buddhism traveled, carried the game to Further India (where it took on dissimilar features to that of Indian chess). Somewhat later the game spread from the southeast coast of India to the Malay Peninsula. How the game may have reached Tibet and the northern tribes of Asia is yet in doubt. Very ancient Persian manuscripts have revealed that the Zoroastrians had meanwhile passed on chess to the Eastern Roman Empire, and, further documents also disclose that, resulting from the Mohammedan conquest of Persia, Islam acquainted herself with the game. Following this period the Muslims became the most prolific pioneers of chess, thus bringing into being the first concepts of the Occidental branch, and carrying their game as far west as Spain and as far east as India where they ascribed the Arabic nomenclature on the Northern and Central provinces of the peninsula. There is in existence pronounced evidence of the fact that Christian Europe took up the study of chess from the Moors as early as 1000 A.D. Upon gaining a foothold on the Mediterranean shores, it gradually spread northward over France and Germany to Great Britain, to Scandinavia, and to Iceland.

   Archeological discoveries have brought to light chess pieces and boards found in tombs as old as the pre-dynastic period which dates back to about 4000 B.C. At King's College, London, in July, 1909, there was on display at the annual exhibition of the Egypt Exploration Fund a clay gaming board, measuring 7 inches by 2 1/2 inches, with three rows of six squares and eleven conical pieces varying in height from one-half inch to one inch, taken from a pre-dynastic tomb at El-Mahasna, which lies eight miles north of Abydos. The tomb is presumed to have been the burial-place of a medicine man or magician.

   There have also been found in tombs of the Fifth Dynasty, about 3600-3400 B.C., paintings on which were depicted early inhabitants of Egypt playing at chess. Chess games are mentioned in the earliest Buddhist literature of India, which manuscripts date back to about 500 B.C.

   A wealth of archeological discoveries, and a vast collection of Sanskrit, Indian, and especially Persian literature conclusively prove that the origin of chess dates back to the beginning of civilization itself.


Transcriber's note: for now, I'll credit The Origin of Chess to Alfred L. Paul, the editor and publisher of Western Chess Chronicle, as the author of this article; it is not clearly established in the magazine.

Western Chess Chronicle
Vol. 1 July, 1936 No. 9

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