The history of chess: 'The immortal game'

Chess board | Pixabay |
A version of chess called chaturanga originated in 6th century India

'The public must come to see that chess is a violent sport. Chess is mental torture.'

So said the legendary chess champion Garry Kasparov, and anyone who’s ever hunched over a board pondering their next move is sure to agree. That said, chess has been all things to all people over its long history: a brutal barometer of genius, a metaphor for the human experience, a political weapon, a fun little hobby. The recent success of Netflix drama The Queen’s Gambit has triggered a resurgence of popular interest in the game, but just how long has chess been woven into the fabric of civilisation?

There’s still some uncertainty over its exact origins, though the consensus is that chess evolved from an earlier game called chaturanga. This is known to have existed in 6th Century India, and featured chess-like elements such as pieces which move in different ways to each other, and victory being determined by the capture of one piece in particular. In time, chaturanga migrated to Persia – modern-day Iran – where it evolved into a new game called chatrang, whose rules were closer to modern day chess (it was the Persians who introduced the idea of alerting your opponent to a threat to their king with 'check').

The importance of chatrang to the culture of Persia is clear from its inclusion in the Shahnameh, the epic poem by Ferdowsi, a writer widely regarded as the Iranian equivalent of Shakespeare or Dante. Ferdowsi gives us a kind of origin story for the game, writing of an ambassador arriving from India and presenting a mysterious board and pieces to the Persian court. 'Oh great king,' the ambassador said, 'fetch your wise men and let them solve the mysteries of this game. If they succeed my master the king of Hind will pay tribute as an overlord, but if they fail it will be proof that the Persians are of lower intellect and we shall demand tribute from Iran.'

Fortunately for the Persians, one of their number, a wise man called Bozorgmehr, managed to work out how the game was played – a proud moment that paved the way for the eventual transformation of the Indian game into Persian chatrang. Whether or not there’s any truth to this founding myth of the game, chatrang was certainly a popular pastime and remained so when the Muslim conquest of Persia unfolded. The game then spread throughout the Muslim world and beyond as traders and invaders took it far and wide.

Early variations of chess became popular among aristocrats, knights (including the Templars), and the clergy. There were even some moral panics over the game’s popularity in various regions, a forerunner of modern concerns over television or video games rotting children’s minds. Chess was banned in Egypt in 1005, while in 1061 a cardinal even wrote a letter to the Pope-elect to complain of priests spending too much time playing chess. A few centuries later, chess was banned in France by King Louis IX, who evidently regarded it a dull waste of time.

The game’s popularity did not diminish, however, and by the 15th Century the rules had further shifted to make it into the chess we recognise today. Significantly, the piece once known as the “vizier”, which had limited range on the board, evolved to become the all-powerful queen. Scholars including feminist historian Marilyn Yalom have made the fascinating case that the queen’s ascent to the most formidable piece in chess was influenced by the real-life supremacy of figures like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella I of Castile, the Spanish monarch who supported Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World.

'chess was treated by the Soviet authorities as a very useful ideological tool...'

Garry Kasparov

It would be some time before chess became a formally structured sport, however. Come the 19th Century, books, clubs and organisations were flourishing, and the first-ever international chess tournament took place in London in 1851. It was organised by the pioneering English player Howard Staunton (the standard chess set still used everywhere today is called the Staunton chess set, and was named after him). The winner of that tournament was Adolf Anderssen, a German giant of the game who exemplified the 'Romantic' playing style of the 19th Century, which emphasised daring, swashbuckling, attacking play with lots of gung-ho sacrifices and unlikely twists and turns. It was a far cry from the more tactical, slow-burning approach that would become the norm later. A great example of the Romantic style the 'Immortal Game' of 1851, which is still studied and admired today. With jaw-dropping audacity, Anderssen sacrificed both of his rooks, a bishop and his queen, yet still went on to win the game.

The 20th Century saw chess take on an explicitly political dimension, particularly after the founding of the USSR. In the words of Kasparov, 'chess was treated by the Soviet authorities as a very useful ideological tool to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of the Soviet communist regime over the decadent West.'

The Soviet Union’s obsessive focus on nurturing chess talent led to its domination of the game for decades – a domination which was famously challenged in the 'Match of the Century' between Soviet champion Boris Spassky and the volcanic American genius Bobby Fischer. Their confrontation in 1972 brought the Cold War to the chess board – the match was awash with paranoia about dirty tricks and secret bugging devices. Fischer himself was a moody, fickle, combative personality who threatened not to turn up at all (Henry Kissinger had to put in a special phone call to persuade him).

Fischer went on to defeat Spassky, seeing it as a win for the 'free world' against the 'lying, cheating, hypocritical' Soviet chess machine. It made Fischer the closest thing the world of chess has ever had to a Muhammad Ali-style cultural icon. Of course, there have been legendary figures since his heyday, from Garry Kasparov to the current, long-standing champion Magnus Carlsen, reckoned by many to be the best player of all time. Now more popular than ever thanks to the rise of the Internet, which allows millions of chess fans to talk and play across the globe, the history of chess continues to be written, more than one and a half millennia since it came into being.