The history of chess is as checkered as its board. Some historians are confident that it was born in India. They suggest it existed before 600 AD in the sub-continent. The assumption is based on the fact that a game called “chaturanga” was indeed played during the reign of Gupta dynasty, which ruled the region around that time. This ancient game had four divisions of military, i.e., infantry, chariotry, elephantry, and cavalry, which were represented on the board using chiseled identifiable pieces. Corresponding pieces in contemporary chess are pawns, knights, rooks, and bishops. Archaeologists have also found a few pieces resembling chess pieces in Harappa and Mohan Jo Daro ruins, which were a part of Indus valley civilization that existed between 2600 BC and 1500 BC. Based on these pieces, archaeologists presume that the original chess board may have had 100 squares, unlike the 64 squares that contemporary chess board has.
The game traveled to Persia, though when is not very clear. Whether the game traveled to Persia in 600 AD or after needs to be confirmed because there is a 14th century manuscript that mentions chess being brought into Persia by an Ambassador from Indian sub-continent. It can, however, be interpreted that the manuscript was referring to the ambassador who traveled to Persia in 600 AD or so.
An Arabian scholar, Abu al-Hasan Ali al-Masudi has described chess being used for various purposes such as gambling, strategy development for military forces, and improvement of mathematical skills in Indian sub-continent. He described the pieces as being made from ivory, which obviously could only have been afforded by the rich and royal people in the kingdom. This scholar lived between 896 AD and 956 AD. Based on this work, existence of chess in India prior to his lifetime is confirmed. It is also this scholar’s work which suggested that the game came into Persia when emperor Nushirwan reigned.
Chess or chaturanga soon became integral part of education in Persia. It was mandatory part of education for Persian nobility. The name “chaturanga” was possibly truncated sometime and the game became famous as “chaturang”. This new game evolved further in that period, with new rules being incorporated. Even the exclamation following defeat of the king, “Shah mat”, probably came around that period, because the Persian king was known as Shah, and “mat” in the language means defeat.
There is conflict in history here because Ardashir I, the founder of Sassanid Persia lived around 180-242 AD. He is supposed to have been an expert in chaturang as per a Pahlavi treatise. Therefore, it is difficult to decide which of the scholars and historians are accurate. Obviously, Ardashir I could not have emerged again in Nushirwan’s reign to receive chess and other gifts from the Indian ambassador.
Arabs, more specifically Abu Bakr, who was the Prophet Mohammed’s father in law, defeated Sassanid Persia around 633 AD, and learned the game. Based on the period of Persian defeat, it does seem that chess reached Persia around 600 AD or so or at least before 633AD, though it could have reached the region much before.
Arabs soon learned the game, and spread it across Europe and Northern Africa. In Northern Africa, the game got a new name “shatranj”. The resemblance to original name continued in some way. However, this game was known differently in different parts of Europe. For example, the game is known as “sacchi” in Latin, Acedrex in Spanish, Xadrez in Portuguese, etc. The Latin name possibly is responsible for the game to be known as “sakk” in Hungarian, “schach” in German, and “scacchi” in Italian. The word “checkmate” may, therefore, have originated from the Latin name of chess.
How chess came to be known by these names that sound different phonetically in European region is yet to be deciphered by historians. However, closer to Northern Africa, i.e., in Ethiopia, it was known as “senterej”, which has uncanny resemblance to “shatranj”. Mongols took the game home and truncated its Persian name to “Shatar”. A manuscript from 13th century has described the “shatranj”, along with other games proving that the game existed around that period.
Chess’ journey to China and other regions in far- east is attributed to Silk traders as well as Buddhist monks, though there are a few historians who claim that this is not true, and that Chess actually originated in China. But the fact that there are other similar board games with more squares such as dasapada (10 x 10) and Saturankam (9 x 9) that were played in India, since ancient times, suggests that the game has most likely surfaced in India. In fact, India had its own version of backgammon, and there is reference to a board game in one of the epics, i.e., Mahabharata. The oldest surviving version of this epic is from 400 BC. This proves that board games did exist in this part of the world as far back as 400 BC, and chess, which may have existed even during Indus valley civilization, could have evolved from other board games with similar features. Unlike these, Chinese checker board is different.
The rules of the games have varied across the kingdoms and cultures. For example, there was a version in which the bishops could jump over other pieces that were on its way. Similarly, queen’s movements were confined to diagonal movements in some versions of the game. Some versions prevented moves under certain situations. Based on such versions, it is safe to presume that when chess began, it may have been used to learn and develop military strategies as per the existing terrain conditions, weaponry, and rules of wars. Effectively, chess in ancient format possibly may not have been a game, but a sophisticated tool for the wealthy, kings and armed force personnel for simulating attacks and ways to defend. However, there may have been a version of this game that was played with dice as well. The dice version died natural death because of gambling angle, which did not meet the approval of the religion in the sub continent, and the more complex version survived.
The Western European region first saw this game around 9th century, but soon, there were others who brought more versions of it in this region. The game even spread to Russia. However, the actual growth in popularity of this game began towards the later-half of the 15th century. Around that period, chess lovers in Europe decided to standardize rules for playing chess. Therefore, uniformity was brought in the rules and regulations applicable to the game. In addition, relevant literature and records on moves and strategies were started. Competitive tournaments in the game began, as did time bound moves. Rest is history.