In the modern day, we think of chess as one of the most widely played games on the planet, with most households containing at least one chess set of some description. The humble chess board might seem like a relatively unassuming item to some, but to others, it is an object that represents centuries of history and heritage.
Chess pieces have been the playthings of people stretching back some 1,500 years and it’s this rich history that we look at today, starting right back to its origins in 7th century Asia.
So, exactly who invented the game?
There is much debate as to the exact origin of chess boards and chess pieces as we know them today, but the game’s first appearance in recorded history comes around 5th century AD, with mention of the game being found in both India and China. Which of the two countries is responsible for the game’s invention is unsure, but it is known that the game in its earliest form spread from there to Persia - the area now known as Iran.
The earliest examples of chess pieces coming from India were named Shah, meaning King, Rukh meaning Rook and Fil meaning Bishop. They were much larger than standard chess pieces that people use today and were beautifully carved from ivory by hand. The names chess pieces have today in the Western world are the closest approximation possible to these ancient words.
The game remained there for a short time until Persia was conquered by the Arabs, which led to the game being taken up its large Muslim population and spreading across Europe. This was a landmark moment for the game, as chess boards and pieces were now commonplace across the whole of both African and Asia.
Charlemagne Chess Pieces
Another example of an early chess set is the Charlemagne chess pieces which currently reside in Paris in the Bibliotheque Nationale. They were created from elephant ivory, which was a popular material with which to fashion many things around the 8th century - long before elephants had the endangered status they have today.
The Charlemagne chess pieces, named after the King of the Franks at the time Charlemagne a.k.a. Charles the Great, have had many owners since their creation, being held at Saint Denis Abbey near Naples and in the possession of two different French monarchs before arriving at their current location.
Unfortunately only 16 pieces remain from the original 32, which is a shame, but perhaps we should think ourselves lucky that any of the chess pieces survived at all.
Over the next 800-900 years, the game experienced a slow but distinct evolution across Europe, with chess pieces beginning to resemble those we know and love today. This period of the game circa 1600 AD led to it becoming known as Romantic Chess and its primary characteristic was that games were much faster and less strategic than they are today. So, the sight of two chess masters hunched over chess boards for hours on end was not something that you’d see just yet.
The Romantic era lasted for a long time, not finishing until the late 1880s and it was during this time, around 1850 that the Staunton design of chess pieces came into being - a classic design that is familiar to all.
The classic Staunton chess set design was named after 19th-century chess master, Howard Staunton who was widely regarded as the world’s best player of the game at the time. His status led him to create a standardised form of chess piece that is so familiar to many today. It is a design that to this very day is the required style to be used in chess competitions around the world.
Howard Staunton is also noted as being responsible for creating the inaugural 1851 international chess tournament, with the event making England the centre of the chess world at the time.
Evolutions of the Game
It’s not only chess pieces that have gone through an evolution over the centuries, as the rules themselves have been tweaked quite a lot. Early versions of chess only allowed the Bishop and the Queen to move one square at a time and it wasn’t until 1475 that the concept of these chess pieces being able to move as they do in the modern game was to spread across Europe. Around the same time further East towards Russia, the Queen was actually able to move in the same way as a Knight would today.
In many cases, these rule changes were not simply a matter of wanting to modernise the game, rather they were an attempt to make the game quicker and able to be won using fewer moves.
The Modern Day
At last count, the game of chess was played by over 600 million people, which makes it one of the most widely played games in existence. With the advent of smartphones and the internet, people are able to play against each other whatever time it is and wherever they are. In fact, you don’t even need a chess set , as playing online has become so popular that it’s almost as popular as visiting Facebook - and that’s saying something!
However, this digital revolution has done nothing to diminish the popularity of the game in its purest form, with a real chess board , 16 black chess pieces and 16 white. There are literally thousands of international chess tournaments each and every year, illustrating that some millennia and a half since the game was created, it’s still going from strength to strength.
Perhaps the popularity of the game is down to the fact that it’s one of the best ways to test your wits, putting every mental sinew through its paces or maybe it’s just the majesty and magic that the game conveys. One thing is almost certain however and that is that we will likely still be talking about the game in another 1,500 years, such is its appeal.
Long live chess! Long live the Game of Kings!