02 November 2008


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The enigma of the origins of chess has puzzled historians for decades. Some claim that the chess game elements branched from different sources, which evolved and transformed into modern chess.

chess info senet egyptEgyptians playing an ancient board game Senet

Senet is one of the oldest board games. It was played in ancient Egypt, reportedly before 3000 BC. Senet (means “passing”) is a race game, which has five to seven pieces per player. The board is made up of 3x10 squares. There is also a version with 8 linear squares followed by 4x3, the "twenty-game". In senet, players advanced according to the results of throws of little sticks or knuckle bones (the predecessors of dice). Some historians believe that the game of senet evolved to depict divinities and events in the afterlife. Both, senet and chess are board games, which are played by two players, on the board divided into squares with pawns as pieces.

Liubo is a mysterious ancient Chinese board game. Reportedly, the earliest surviving remnant of liubo dates from the Shang Dynasty circa 1500 BC. The name liubo comes from Chinese (liu = six, bo = sticks). Most historians believe that liubo was a battle game. The board is argued to be a cosmological, a calendar and a divination instrument. The rules of Liubo are still unknown.

chess info ancient liubo gameThe Ancient Liubo Game

Liubo may be the predecessor of Xiàngqí, also known as Chinese Chess. Some may point out how the board design of liubo lends itself to a Xiàngqí-like grid of squares. XiangQi is played on the intersections of a 9x10 board. Opposite sides are separated by a central "river". Each camp has a "palace" which is constituted by 3x3 intersections at the center of South and North sides. The armies are formed by 16 men each. Red plays at South and (generally) starts the game.

chess info xiangqi board

XiangQi Board

AshtaPada is an ancient Indian race board game played on an 8x8 board with dice. It possibly dates back to the 5th century BC. There were no light and dark squares on the board. There were crosses marked on certain cells. The name has a Sanskrit reference to “spider” - a legendary being with eight legs.

chess info ashtapada board 1
Ashtapada Board 

Chaturanga (a Sanskrit name for “four members of an army”) was played in India on an 8x8 uncheckered board. According to ancient Indian mysticism, this setup represents the universe. The four sides being the four elements: fire, air, earth and water. The board was called Ashtapada, and had special markers. The pieces were raja (king), gajah (elephant), chariot, one boat and four pedati (foot soldiers or pawns). This game was originally played with a dice.

chess info chaturangaChaturanga- Ancient Board Game

It is an assumption that chess emerged as a variant of Chaturanga for two players. The suppression of dice due to antigambling policy in the 6th century, might have forced the transformation of a race game into a strategic game between two players, which then possibly evolved and transformed into chess.

As we discussed in the Chess Queen article, in India, Persia and the Arabic lands, where the game was originally played, all the chess pieces were male: the king, his general called a vizier, and a line of foot soldiers. The game was played with chariots, horses, and elephants, which looked like a miniature army. The words for chess in Old Persian and Arabic are chatrang and shatranjrespectively. The Persian word “shah” means king, is thought to be the origin of the English name “chess”. The phrase “shah mat” (means “the king is ambushed”), is the origin for the word "checkmate". 

chess info map 500 bce

Map, 500 BCE- 4-army Chaturanga (some call it Chaturaji) was played

In the Arab world, chess pieces were transformed into abstract, due to religious considerations which prohibit the portrayal of living creatures. Some of the chess pieces took on Arabic names: al-phil for elephant, baidaq for pawn, and ferz for the vizier, while other retained Persian names shah for king, rokh for rook and asb for horse.

chess info arabic chess set
The Arabic Chess Set

 When the game arrived in Europe, the queen replaced the vizier, the horse was transformed into a knight, the chariot into a tower (today’s rook), and the elephant into bishop (in France it became a jester, and in Italy, a standard bearer). Only the king and the pawns remained the same. It is believed that the checkered board with its light and dark squares was a European invention. Chess sets were made out of ivory, stone, wood, or even amber.

chess info french chess setThe European Chess Set

The transformation from the male figure of the vizier to the queen in Russia took place six hundred years after the chess queen had appeared in Germany, Italy, Spain, France, and England. In Russia, the bishop was represented by an elephant, and the rook by a boat. The king was calledtsar, and instead of the queen, “ferz” was used, which remained masculine well into the 18thcentury.

chess info ussian chess setThe Russian Chess Set

 A chess-playing family embraces all nations from the time of the Egyptian Kings to the present day. The origin of chess is not agreed to by all historians, as are so many things in human history. Perhaps new discoveries will provide irrefutable evidence.

chess info english chess setThe modern chess set is based on the English chess design

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