The history of chess is full of relevant and unfortunate events that allowed the activity to proliferate the way it is now.
Here I’m going to provide the timeline (from early to modern chess) that best explains the origin of this beloved game.
The first trace of a militaristic-type board game (such as chess) dates back no later than the middle of the 1st millennium BCE in the form of liubo, a starting root game that also popularized Xianqi and Backgammon.
During the 6th century, a more standardized form of chess is seen in the Gupta Empire called Chatarunga (eventually evolved to Shatranj), where it gets spread by the Arab’s conquest of Persia, and subsequently to Southern Europe that developed its current form in the 15th century.
Conundrum with Chess History
Chess and other similar variants have no certain starting roots dictated by our historical understanding since after all, there’s no confirmation of any transitional event from one board game to the other.
Similar board games exist throughout the course of history, yet not exactly settled if such is a precursor to chess.
But we’re doing the best we can! Let’s start.
Liubo (202 BCE – 220 CE)
Liubo is an ancient board game discovered in China with striking similarity to the rules of chess, and is one of the oldest (board game) on the planet.
It is played in a set of unique symmetrical pattern where six pieces of different forms are moved around the intersections; sticks are thrown to determine the moves (just like dice).
It becomes the basis to the creation of another chinese game xiangqi.
Chatarunga (6th Century)
Now this one takes the cake from what most people express as the origin of chess largely due to the nature of its pieces.
It has the exact amount as the one played in chess (8 per player) that serves as a less superior version of the modern one, with only the elephant piece having no current counterparts.
The rules of this game is fuzzy and less agreed by those researching it, but the affinity to contemporary chess is hard not to notice.
It has been said to originate from the empire of Gupta (India) with a storybook-like background.
Youngest Prince of the Gupta Empire
Legends has it that the derivation of chaturanga started from the death of the empire’s (Gupta) youngest prince.
His brother devised a game for their grieving mother that represented the scene of the battle, which became a popular pastime in the kingdom.
It is played in an 8×8 Ashtapada board with the name Chatarunga, Sanskrit for “Four Divisions” with a dissection on the board that cuts the position of pieces:
It eventually get developed into a more advanced set of play, in the name of Shatranj.
Shatranj or chatrang (after 600 c.e)
As chatarunga got popularized in northern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and southern parts of Central Asia (especially Persia), it evolved into Shatranj.
The starting set of the board game is essentially exactly like in chess, with only the position of king (shah) and queen (ferz) being questionable.
Either the position of king and queen is the same in chess, or actually the opposite.
Then, it got to the east.
Travel at the East (7th-11th Century )
As it got traveled by Buddhist pilgrims, Silk Road traders, and the others further down the east, it got transformed into a game with engraved disks.
The pieces are placed on the crossing of the squares rather than inside it.
Other variations started to emerge, including:
Chinese Chess / Xiangqi (750 C.E.)
Derived from liubo (ancient board game) that has no definitive date of creation, yet definitely has characteristics found in the modern game such as capturing the enemy’s general (King).
Other resemblance include a piece that has the ability to jump (Pao), and a rule that prohibits both generals from facing each other (just like the chess’ kings).
Some distinctions however exist like the area of rivers and palace, which restrict the movement of some pieces (but enhance that of others); as well as the placement within the intersections rather than inside the squares.
Meanwhile, something interesting occur in Persia:
Persia (10th century)
The game of Shatranj eventually got the name of chess from the word “Shah” meaning King, and Checkmate from “Shahmat” or the King is defenseless.
Due to the Islamic conquest of Persia it got introduced to:
Byzantine and Arabian Empire (10th century)
The Byzantine empire paved way for the early influence among small parts of Europe, but the larger contributor are the Arabians.
The invading Arabs brought chess to North Africa, Sicily, and Spain by the 10th century; there was even a 10th century manuscript played between Baghdad historians proving the Arab’s love to the game.
This started chess’ introduction to the Europeans.
European expansion (10th-11th century)
As the Arabs started to raid some minor parts of Europe, Eastern Slavs spread chess to Kievan Rus about the same time.
The Vikings on the other hand delivered the game to a lot of major settlements as far as Iceland.
That’s cool and all (except the raiding part), but England in particular is really fond of the game.
England Culturation (11th century)
England is conceived to be a huge player in cultivation of chess sets, particularly the one discovered on the Isle of Lewis in Outer Hebrides (1831).
A total of 78 glamorous chess sets ranging from all sorts of lucrative materials like from the ivory tusk of a walrus have been found, which is dated around the 11th or 12th century.
Meanwhile, this is the time where Japan and Korea have picked up progress by making their own chess variants.
Shogi Japan (11th century)
Shogi (Game of generals) in Japan is one of the variants evolved from Chatarunga, one of the earliest types where captured pieces can be used by the player.
If you go to wikipedia you might’ve led to believe that this was only invented in the 15th century, which is wrong since it is popular even at the early Heian Period (794 – 1185).
Janggi Korea (11th century)
Janggi oftentimes referred to as korean chess, is actually a version of xingqi (Chinese Chess) which is also a child of Chatarunga.
It is actually complementary to xiangqi in the sense of being played in a 9×10 board (with identical piece’s position as of xiangqi), only lacking the river that dissects the board at the center.
Seems like the love and adoration for the game is growing, but there are definitely individuals against of that.
Banning of Chess (11th century)
King Louis IX (1214-1270) of France in particular has decided to impose a ban on chess in December 1254, calling it a “useless and boring” game.
Similarly, several religious leaders have averted people’s attention from chess, saying that it takes people away from God due to too much devotion on the game.
Fortunately, there are other powerful figures that helped its spread on the other parts of the globe.
Chess is often associated with the stigma of war mastery, knowledge, and dominance, making it a favorite among various social classes where it becomes popular.
Such supporters include: King Henry I, Henry II, John, and Richard I of England, of Philip II and Alfonso X (the Wise) of Spain, and of Ivan IV (the Terrible) of Russia the list can go on, the point being it is favored even in people of nobility, which promotes it further.
One royalty far at Mongolia even created their own version of the game.
Mongol Leader Tamerlane (1336 – 1405)
Tamerlane chess or Timur’s chess invented by Mongol leader Timur Tamerlane is a variation of Shatranj, which is also a form derived from Chatarunga.
It is played in a 11×10 board with safe squares called citadels (Shatar), having a total of 11 pieces with the objective of capturing the opponent’s King (Shah).
There are other weird rules, including the pawn having to promote in different ways, and the existence of multiple Kings.
On the general sight of things, a pattern (on rules) by which the modern chess has come from is slowly evolving on a regional scale.
Improvements (14th-15th century)
The pawn has earned its initial two move advance unlike ever only moving in one tile as in Shatranj (1300), but hasn’t amassed acknowledgment all across Europe for another 300 years.
The counselor (initially being able to move one tile diagonally) underwent a major change as being the most powerful piece on the board, the Queen (1475).
It made the game lively since the added ability and range of the queen allows it to be a very huge candidate for checkmates.
Similarly, a counselor is required to be the material of conversion for a pawn that has reached the last rank on the opponent’s side of the field, making it a less decisive factor on the result due to its limited capabilities.
With the addition of the queen, pawn promotion has become more relevant that usually determines the winner if performed.
The elephant piece from chaturanga that has a two-square diagonal jump in Shatranj eventually become what’s known as the modern Bishop, essential making it a more powerful and reliable asset.
Again, before the major changes in the potency of the pieces, early checkmates are rarely witnessed over the board and even somewhat impossible.
After such changes were in effect, a player is now able to checkmate an opponent king even from move two!
Castling and En passant
Castling (switching of Rook and King), the rule frequently performed today for keeping the King safe took longer to be official.
Along with en passant, the ability to capture an opposing pawn that has initially moved two squares, has been familiarized as far as the 15th century, but only get to be accepted in the 18th (century).
There are other less popularized rules that did not stand the test of time that got wiped out from the record, such as the inability to promote a queen when the original one still exist
While all of this is happening, women are starting to participate in the community usually predominated by males.
Women’s entrance (16th-20th century)
Chess is often perceived as a masculine game, and women are prohibited from entering taverns and coffee houses where it is generally played.
However there is a bump of female players starting to engage as the game has started to be more available in various places.
The first international event between two of the world-class chess players at the time is a testament to the game’s rising popularity.
First major international event (1834)
Two very strong players symbol of chess finesse Louis-Charles de la Bourdonnais (French) and Alexander McDonnell (British), entered a match of six which Bourdonnais eventually become the victor in the end.
It is the first international chess event featured heavily on newspapers and books, collecting a lot of traction all over the world.
Bourdonnais is considered the unofficial world champion until his death (1840), which recalls for a new chess figure that would take the role.
Enter Staunton (1843)
Two really highly valued chess players Staunton (England) and Pierre-Charles Fournier de Saint-Amant (France) pit their heads for the desired status.
Staunton won, earning an extra £100 staked by their respective supporters along with the honor, which also introduced the idea of wage during matches.
Women only chess club (1847)
As I briefly talked about before, women in chess are not generally accepted at this moment in time, the women-only chess club from Netherlands helped in changing that.
This also inspired similar organizations to set up settings to further promote the inclusion of such minority (women).
Back at Staunton, he used his status to standardized the chess set use internationally.
Staunton Set (1849)
During this time in chess history there wasn’t any definitive chess set, pieces, and orderly set of rules followed by participants of the game.
Staunton eliminated all of the mini variations by introducing the set (Staunton set), in order to establish a more consistent environment shared by the players.
Eventually he organizes the first major international tournament (not just between two players) to glorify chess pursuits.
Adolf Anderssen and London (1851)
Karl Ernst Adolf Anderssen is a regular German school teacher that loves to compose chess problems, but switched to playing after being motivated by Staunton’s unofficial world champion match.
He entered the London chess tournament (produced by Staunton) and won it, which in turn make him succeed Staunton’s status as the unofficial world champion.
First American Chess Congress (1857)
Such a large and reputable event has inspired Americans to hold their own championship, the American Chess Congress in New York(1857).
This development has led to an uproar in the western hemisphere, and when its champion Paul Morphy defeated Adolf Anderssen, he becomes the new unofficial world champion.
Champion Paul Morphy (1858)
Probably the most talented individual to ever pursue a career in chess, he is considered a strong player even by today’s standard.
He abandoned competitive chess after realizing that there is no longer any serious competition, which makes Anderssen be the default unofficial champion once more.
The ABC of Chess (1860)
The ABC of Chess by “A Lady” (H.I. Cooke) is a book containing chess related content, which is importantly authored by a woman.
It signals the dawn of women’s rising relationship with the game as becoming more deeper than just regular play (they are being authors now).
Steinitz’s authority (1866)
The world championship title becomes more official and regulated with Anderssen’s defeat from the hands of Wilhelm Steinitz of Prague.
He claims the title of being the world chess champion; he formulated a set of standards and financial conditions that would qualify someone to challenge his status.
Women only tournament (1884)
It was not long after the first international chess tournament that pushed the birth of women-only variation of the event.
Sponsored by the Sussex Chess Association, it serves as an international identity that later inspired the separation of women from men.
First World Championship (1886)
Steinitz agreed to play with Johann Zukertort of Austria in a set of games that would later be recognized as the first official world championship match.
Rather than having an informal acquisition of the title as the world’s strongest player, the previous one will have the right to select the opponent and the terms for the championship.
He won the match but was eventually succeeded by the next champion, Lasker
Reluctant Lasker (1894)
Lasker is a very strong player that is highly respected by players of his time, but also people of today.
He concocted the idea of chess theories, a predetermined set of moves at the start of the game that would likely bring an advantage.
He however took long periods, from 1897 to 1907 and later from 1910 to 1921 without really defending his title, and with World War 1, it seems that Lasker won’t get dethroned anytime soon.
Vera Menchik (1906-44)
Vera Menchik (Great Britain) is the first woman to seriously tackle a role in competitive chess, playing in a field with very strong male players.
She was invited to some of the strongest tournaments such as the Carlsbad (1929), and Moscow (1935).
Some of the strongest male players she defeated include eventual world champion Max Euwe, Samuel Reshevsky, Sultan Khan, Jacques Mieses, Edgar Colle, and Frederick Yates.
Soviets on women chess (1924-1936)
The Soviets have sponsored the first women-only tournament (Leningrad 1924) organized by the government as an incentive to participate in the game.
It urges the spawn of several women-only tournaments even at West, which the Soviet responded by having 5,000 women take part in their own women’s championship where massive prices are presented.
Jose Raul Capablanca of Cuba (1921)
Lasker’s safekeeping to the title ended at the hands of Cuban Capablanca, which is one of the most idolized icon in chess history famous for his endgames in particular.
He’s been watching Lasker’s back for a long time, with the goal of eventually defeating him in a championship match which he did.
He also served as an overseer at the famous agreement in London.
Agreement of London (1922)
He convinced the world’s most renowned and established chess players at the time to a written set of rules specifically governing world championship matches, which they agreed.
Anyone who can amass a total of $10,000 stake would already be able to propose a title challenge, to avoid the prior Lasker incident (avoiding championship matches).
While the agreement was generally accepted by most relevant chess figures in the world, a separate organization was built nonetheless.
Birth of Fide (1924)
Representatives from 24 leading countries met at Paris to establish the largest chess organization they named FIDE, it’s a French acronym for Fédération Internationale des Échecs.
Such is supposed to govern official chess participation, but was ignored at the time due to the popular London agreement.
Alekhine the dictator (1927)
Alekhine manages to convince the Argentinian Federation (big supporter of Capablanca) to fund the $10,000 ($137,000 today) which Capablanca unexpectedly lost (Alekhine never won to Capablanca prior), making Alekhine the champion.
Negotiations were immediate for a rematch, but due to Capablanca’s inability to raise the $10,000 following the London agreement which he made, the rematch never happened.
Max Euwe at the top of the world (1935)
Being a mathematics teacher, Max Euwe has taken an interest in chess winning the world amateur title (1928), making him a significant figure to the game.
Professional competitors however considered Euwe an amateur chess player as he is primarily a teacher, and during the world championship match such stigma exists with Alekhine underestimating Euwe, making him lose the title.
Euwe almost immediately granted Alekhine a rematch without seeking weaker opponents.
Alekhine’s return (1937)
The rematch was held with Alekhine having a dominating score of 15.5-9.5 although the games were actually closer than that (Euwe was forced to take more risk to catch up).
Once again Alekhine continued his legacy as the quote on quote “best player at the time” having to defeat most of the challenges he faced.
Menchik’s Death (1944)
After the leading woman player Vera Menchik died, there was a disarray in the ranks of the best female players calling for a successor.
Fide, a rising organization then decided to sponsor a women-only tournament five years later on Moscow (1949) to fill the vacancy.
Alekhine’s death and rise of Fide (1946)
Alekhine died, Fide with the lack of Capablanca’s authority, has become the association responsible for raising fund prizes and format for title matches.
A need for a more formal community has been seen throughout the ages, Fide is the opportunity to have a fairer playing environment.
Fide takeover (1948)
Fide officially made huge changes, which includes:
Regional and International cycles that occur every three years to determine a challenger (for a world championship match), and the champion having no power to decline the challenge.
The creation of Elo points, which determines a player’s status and experience necessary to qualify in specific tournaments.
Formal Chess titles (Grandmaster and such) which can be acquired with sufficient Elo points and tournament participation.
Then comes a looong (very long) era of the Soviets.
Soviets of Cold War (1951-1961)
During cold war (1947-1991), the communist Soviet had taken interest in Chess to prove their superiority; reflected on the fact that all world champions and challengers for 10 years are Soviet citizens.
Now if we’re only counting champions only, the Soviets actually reigned until 1972 which you can see below:
Origin of Polgar Sisters (1969-1976)
The birth of the legendary Polgar sisters (Susan, Zsófia, and Judith) from one of the largest experiments of their father László Polgar (Psychologist) seeking to prove that greatness can be acquired and not inherent “Nurture vs. Nature”.
The psychologist turned to chess as the field of study that the sisters were supposed to be the best in, seeking to turn ordinary children to be of world-class qualities.
Bobby Fischer against the world (1972)
The American Robert J. Fischer is the one to break the Soviet cycle, winning over $250,000 (larger than all previous world matches combined) in prize value due to his bold demands and supporters from the match.
After his title endowment, he set to negotiate on more controversial regulations of Fide, where after a long exchange, Fisher in the end refused to defend his throne.
Anatoly Karpov’s Challenge (1975)
After Fischer declined the world championship match, Anatoly Karpov, the winner of the regular cycle was declared champion by default without actually defeating Fischer.
This means long years of proving himself as someone worthy of the title, which he did, and become the reigning figure for 10 years straight until the rise of his nemesis Garry Kasparov.
Beast from Baku Kasparov (1985)
Arguably the best player of all time, a young man that clashed head to head with the world champion (Karpov), where they have several titled battles so extensive that Fide have to postpone their matches.
The Kasparov-Karpov rivalry is one of the most memorable competitions in chess history, a definitive example of what it means to be the best.
Kasparov vs. Fide (1986-1990)
Kasparov over the course of his rule has demanded changes on the world championship regulations just like Fischer, which the organization promptly refused.
Everything falls into place when Kasparov’s challenger Nigel Short (1993) agreed to play separately (from Fide) under the hands of a new body, PCA.
Separate body PCA (1993)
The Professional Chess Association meant to serve the lapses within Fide’s system that hopes to better provide the right environment for the players.
Kasparov prevailed against Short in London (1993) as the PCA’s first official championship match, which Fide didn’t take by heart imposing a disqualification for Kasparov’s title.
Fide launched their own championship match (won by Karpov), though the world still recognized Kasparov as the “true champion”.
Men vs. Women (1995)
All three of the Polgar sisters are starting to get traction in the chess community, and a display of their strength was seen when their team managed to defeat five senior grandmasters (including former world champion Boris Spassky and Vasily Smyslov).
They got a total score of 26 ½ against 23 ½, with Judith Polgar one the women leading the charge, an outstanding accomplishment for the standards at the time.
Kasparov’s torment: Deep Blue (1997)
The IBM supercomputer Deep Blue challenged the reigning world champion in a chess match (1966) which Kasparov won, until the rematch with its improved version held in 1997.
Improved Deep Blue this time managed to slay the Giant Kasparov, creating a very historic moment marking the time an engine for the first time has defeated a world champion in a tournament setting.
Fide’s own champions (1999-2000)
Even though Kasparov is still respected as the official champion, Fide still held its regular cycle of crowning one of their own, such as Alexander Khalifman (1999) and Viswanathan Anand (2000).
Both Khalifman and Anand are technically champions, yet didn’t get the attention they deserve since Kasparov remains undefeated.
Machine Kramnik (2000)
Kasparov was living the prime years of his chess career being a heavy favorite against his title match with Kramnik, which Kramnik unexpectedly won with two wins, 13 draws, and zero losses.
In spite of not being the fide champion (Kasparov), Kramnik was still considered the “true successor” of the world championship title proved by his victories against Kasparov.
Women Champions (2001-2012)
While the world championship title is more universal, the women champion is still a status sought after by female players.
Some of its champions include: Zhu Chen of China (2001), Antoaneta Stefanova of Bulgaria (2004), Xu Yuhua of China (2006), Alexandra Kosteniuk of Russia (2008), and 16 year old Hou Yifan of China (2010).
Hou Yifan successfully retained the title in 2011, only to be stolen by Anna Ushenina of Ukraine (2012), and Hou Yifan again at 2013.
Judith Polgar’s Legacy (2005)
Judith Polgar, youngest of the Polgar sisters has demonstrated her chess finesse by managing to rank number 8 in the world!
This is the highest status a woman has ever achieved in chess, being able to not only compete with the world’s leading male players but actually best them; guess the experiment was a success.
Unification match (2006)
Kramnik undergoes a negotiation with fide for a unification match with its respective champion which they agreed, in hopes of naming the official world title.
Kramnik faced fide champion Vaselin Topalov which he defeated, but still gets to play a tournament due to contract issues of the match.
Tiger Viswanathan Anand (2007)
The plan for Kramnik to reclaim the title was trampled by veteran Viswanathan Anand from India, winning the world title in FIDE’s 2007 World Championship Tournament.
Anand has become a Fide champion before, and is a very strong player that goes toe to toe with other champions like Kasparov.
Anand vs. Kramnik (2008)
Kramnik was immediately granted an opportunity to play with Anand (a match never occurred since Anand just won the tournament), in order to formalize the title.
Anand successfully secures the title scoring 6 ½ against Kramnik’s 4 ½, claiming his position at the top of the world.
Anand’s Prime (2008-2012)
Anand has a very solid career as the world champion, being able to defend the title against former fide champion Topalov (2010) and Boris Gelfand (2012).
Though as might Anand has become, another legend in the making has come to take the throne.
Genius Magnus Carlsen (2013)
Only being a 22 year old at the time, Magnus Carlsen has earned the right to challenge Anand for the title defeating him only after 10 games supposed to be at twelve.
Arguably the best player of all time in contrast to Kasparov, Magnus has been rising through the ranks as a prodigy veering for the title.
Carlsen-Anand Rematch (2014)
Anand, after automatically qualifying in the next candidates as the loser of the previous world chess championship match won the tourney and got another shot.
The battle ended on eleven games supposed to be twelve with Magnus’ victory, having 3 wins, 7 draws, and 1 loss.
After this match Carlsen has been dominating the chess world.
The prodigy’s conquest (2013-onwards)
An overachiever, he successfully managed to defend his title twice since Anand against Sergey Karjakin (2016) and Fabiano Caruana (2018).
He managed to be the champion for all three titles (blitz, rapid, and classical) several times, also holding the highest Elo to record 2881 over Kasparov’s 2851.
The history of chess is full of swing and unexpected turns that makes a deeper study more interesting and entertaining.
One could easily be taken aback to how a simple board game has managed to acquire such a profound story.
I certainly enjoyed researching and writing this! what about you, did you enjoy reading?
Sleep well and play chess