A brief history of chess
The attacking infantry advances steadily, their elephants already having broken the defensive line. The king tries to retreat, but enemy cavalry flanks him from the rear. Escape is impossible.
But this isn’t a real war nor is this just a game. Over the roughly one-and-a-half millennia of its existence, chess has been known as a tool of military strategy, a metaphor for human affairs, and a benchmark of genius.
While our earliest records of chess are in the 7th century, legend tells that the game origins lie a century earlier.
Supposedly, when the youngest prince of the Gupta Empire was killed in battle, his brother devised a way of representing the scene to their grieving mother. Set on the 8*8 Ashtapada Board used for other popular pastimes, a new game emerged with two key features: Different rules for moving different types of pieces, and a single king piece whose fate determined the outcome. The game was originally known as chaturanga– a Sanskrit word for “four divisions”.
But with its spread to Sassanid Persia, it acquired its current name and terminology-“chess” derived from “shah” meaning “king” and “checkmate” from “shah mat” or the “the king is helpless”. After the 7th century Islamic conquest of Persia, chess was introduced to the Arab world. Transcending its role as a tactical simulation, it eventually became a rich source of poetic imagery. Diplomats and courtiers used chess terms to describe power.
Ruling caliphs became avid players themselves. And historian Al-Mas’udi considered the game a testament to human free will compared to games of chance. Medieval trade along the silk-road carried the game to East and South-East Asia, where many local variants developed. In China, chess pieces were placed at intersections of board squares rather than inside them, as in the native strategy game Go.
The reign of Mongol leader Tamerlane saw an 11*10 board with safe squares called citadels. And in Japanese Shogi, captured pieces could be used by the opposing player.
But it was in Europe that the chess began to take on its modern form. By 1000 A.D. the game had become part of courtly education. Chess was used as an allegory for different social classes performing their proper roles and the pieces were re-interpreted in their new context. At the same time, the church remained suspicious of the game. Moralists cautioned against devoting too much time to them, with chess even being briefly banned in France.
Yet the game proliferated and the 15th century saw it cohering into the form we know today. The relatively weak piece of adviser was recast as the most powerful queen- perhaps inspired by the recent surge of strong female leaders. This change accelerated the game’s pace, and as other rules were popularized, treatises analyzing common openings and endgames appeared. Chess theory was born.
With the Enlightenment Era, the game moved from the royals courts to coffeehouses. Chess was now seen as an expression of creativity, encouraging bold moves and dramatic plays.
This “Romantic” style reached its peak in the Immortal game of 1851, where Adolf Anderssen managed a checkmate after sacrificing his queen and both rooks. But the emergence of formal competitive play in the late 19th century meant that strategic calculation would eventually trump dramatic flair and with the rise of international competition, chess took on a new geopolitical importance.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union devoted great resources to cultivating chess talent, dominating championships for the rest of the century. But the player who would truly upset Russian dominance was not a citizen of another country but an IBM computer called Deep Blue.
Chess playing computers have been developed for decades, but Deep Blue’s triumph over Garry Kasparov in 1997 was the first time a machine has defeated a sitting champion.
Today, chess software is capable of consistently defeating the best human players but just like the game they’ve mastered, these machines are the product of human ingenuity. And perhaps this same ingenuity will guide us out of this apparent checkmate.