A game of kings: Where did chess come from?

Chess has come a long way from being a game exclusively played by Indian nobility to one played by the everyday person. (Rawpixel pic)

The attacking infantry presses on forward, step by step. Their war elephants ride on forward, trampling on any who dare stand in their way.

The king, realising the danger, tries to flee but enemy cavalrymen rush to block his escape. Defeat is inevitable.

This may seem like lines detailing a real-life battle, but it’s not. It’s more than a game too though.

For much of its existence, chess has retained its reputation as a game of military strategy, a political allegory and a yardstick for genius.

Indian records of chess are dated back to the 7th century, but a legend suggests that it was invented a century earlier.

According to the legend, during a war waged by the Gupta Empire, the youngest prince was killed in battle.

Seeking a way to explain to their grieving mother how the loss came about, his brother used a chequered ashtapada board, used for other games, to recreate the battlefield.

The game emerged from there, with rules on how to move specific pieces and most importantly, the king whose survival decided whether the game was lost or won.

In Malay, chess is called “catur”, a word derived from the Sanskrit name for the game, “chaturanga”, which means four divisions.

From India, chess travelled to Persia where it would be called “shah”, meaning king and the term checkmate would be derived from the word, “shah mat”, meaning “the king is helpless.”

“Shah” would eventually be the origin word of the name “chess”.

Chinese chess, or xiangi, is different from its Western counterpart due to the design of the board and how its pieces move. (Rawpixel pic)

The game would spread throughout the Muslim world, with poets writing pieces about chess and the nobility using the game as a political allegory.

The ruling caliphs became chess masters in their own right and some scholars suggested that chess was a game superior to games of chance as it was affected entirely by the player’s decisions.

But while the game travelled westward, it also made its way into East Asia. In China, a local version of chess called xiangqi was born.

Instead of placing pieces onto the squares on the board, they were placed on and moved through intersections.

The board itself is different, with a “river” running through the centre, limiting the movement of certain pieces. In addition, there was no all-powerful piece like the queen in Western chess.

The Japanese developed their own version, called “shogi”, which has rules that allows captured pieces to be turned against their previous owner.

Western or international chess would find its roots when chess first reached European shores by 1000 AD.

Nobles were provided an education in chess, with the game serving to instil the idea that every member of society has their own role to play, just like in chess.

The Church in the meantime took a less rosy view of chess as it feared that people would choose to play rather than pray. At one point, chess was even temporarily banned in France.

King Louis IX imposed a fine on anybody who was found playing chess, a game he called “useless and boring”.

Japanese chess, or shogi, allows players to capture their opponent’s pieces to be used against them. (AFP pic)

But elsewhere, chess flourished, and pieces changed to reflect local sensibilities.

The advisor, an originally weak piece, was swapped with the queen, a powerful piece reflective of the strong female monarchs of the time.

The addition of the queen made chess move a lot faster, and people started writing strategies of starting, playing and winning the game.

And thus began chess theory.

In the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century, chess became mainstream and available to the public as it was no longer a game exclusive for the nobility.

Chess was regarded as a symbol of the freedom to be creative, and strategies that involved high-risk, high-reward moves became increasingly popular.

An example of this can be seen in an 1851 game called the “Immortal Game” which had a player named Adolf Anderssen beating his opponent even with both his rooks and his queen gone.

Chess began to grow as a competitive sport in the modern era, with international competitions being organised and chess masters clashing on the board.

The game took on a new meaning during the Cold War, with the Soviets keeping an eye out for talented children with potential to become chess masters.

But even the greatest of chess masters are not invincible to the genius of technology, and in 1997, an IBM computer called Deep Blue soundly defeated chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov.

This was the first time ever that a machine had beaten a reigning champion of this high a calibre.

Fast forward more than two decades later, computers are consistently beating human players.

But to humanity’s credit, computers are the result of human geniuses putting their minds together.

Maybe one day, this ingenuity will make sure humanity is always one move away to victory over its own creation.