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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
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Back to The Game of Chess...

Origins and Myth (Or, Why Chess is Elevated to "The Immortal Game")

Our notions of the origins of chess have as much to say about the game as about ourselves.

Common knowledge would suppose that chess is older than our Common Era - at least as old as classical civilization. Age-old theories propose Pythagoras as the father of chess, or that Roman commanders studied it, and even that Moses introduced it along with the alphabet. The truth is that chess is no more than 1500 years old. Chess did not come about at once, but rather as a process of game convergence, the influence of authority, and the creation of a competitive class of chess player. (1)

But first we must address the following: Was there a cultural imperative for chess? Certainly, in today's light, chess plays a role in defining courteous and creative competition. Chess players are considered ferocious mentally while exhibiting a perfectly calm and collected frame. Furthermore, the chess player is attributed for elevating educational values of evaluation and modeling hard-to-grasp mathematics. Shenk points to the story of "The Doubling of the Squares," which communicates the mathematical principle of exponential growth through the parable of chess. In total, the reason for chess may be edification - if not for mathematics, then war. This wiki will constantly confront the "cultural imperative" hypothesis, so let's depart from it for a second.

Very little is actually known about the beginning of chess, but a lot of what we do know reinforces the "cultural imperative" narrative. Chess grew out of "chatrang," an Indian game in the 5th century AD. The game organically evolved from various "highway" games. Although the pieces have too evolved, the game consisted of animal warrior pieces deployed to trap or capture the opponent's king. The war justification is difficult to justify from the data; we can attribute the game to no single king's mobilization of forces. The trade environment along the highways, however, lends credence to the emergence of Persian mathematics. The positions represented wins and losses and bargaining in ways that naive conceptions of the counting numbers (1, 2, 3...) could not. (2)

The Muslim era of chess created a culture around chess, to the point that I would argue that the Golden Age of Chess is long gone. Chess was an innovative game in the sense that it required all skill and no luck. Muslim authorities flatly denounced any games of chance, and chess had to pass through societal scrutiny before reaching acceptance. The result is that the chess we know today is almost devoid of profit motive. It symbolizes - at the most fundamental level - applied skill. The caliph elite soon started employing chess masters - known as aliyat - to compete against and learn from. (3) The historical significance of Islam's holy wars cannot be discounted. Chess was employed especially to train the warrior sense "without bloodshed." Under Muslim influence, chess grew up from a pastime to an occupation.

Chess is like no other game in the Western catalog (I guard against the equally powerful Go) in that it commands reverence for its history. It is very much unlike Tetris, where a player may gently glide from one game to the next. Chess commands an analytical mind that borrows from the past at all times. Those who pursue chess are going to study previous games and analyze them from both tactical and creative points of view. The game centers around primal instincts of overthrow. Chess creates us: the game inspires in the player ferocity and cleverness that was not previously there. Also, we generate the metaphors (Chess: As Metaphor) that are supposed to describe what chess represents. Of course, there will be those (maybe the majority) who never get engrossed in chess.

Before leaving the topic of origins, the Christian game of chess must be addressed. The introduction of Chess to Europe brought about the flair that makes Western chess Romantic. Islam had also forbidden the use of symbolic imagery, so shatranj pieces were awfully abstract pieces of art. But with medieval chess came the ornamentation of the colored chess board with distinctive piece designs. Standing tallest in this version of course was the king and queen, with a caste system of other characters below them. On the side, medieval philosophers even thought of alternative feudal descriptions of the figures - tillers, guards, and merchants. Thus chess evolved from a game into a system of ordering labor in which every piece did its part. The game commanded respect for the king, who even in a loss, is not captured - in fact, this is a significant change from the "Oriental" rule that one could win by taking all of his opponent's pieces. Humorously, despite the increase of power wielded, chess became more and more a tinkering hobby for the elite to play for recreation and even companionship. (4)

Consider that in the Christian world, chess is king. You've seen chess grids everywhere in real life. And if you've ever seen a human chess game, you get it - people are the pieces in chess. So get ready for Chess: We're All Pawns. But first, check out...

Chess: Origins Photographs

  1. Shenk, David. The immortal game. Loc. 330.
  2. Ibid. Loc. 350.
  3. The Arab Role in the Development of Chess
  4. Shenk, David. The immortal game. Loc. 830.