Where did Chess Come From?

Where did Chess Come From?

Like the game itself, the origins of chess remain shrouded in mystery. There is no credible evidence that the predecessors of chess and its modern avatar existed before the 6th century CE.

Although distantly related board games involving dice and sometimes playing boards of 100 or more squares existed over 4000 years ago ( the East Asian game “Go,” for example), there are various theories about the origin of chess. One thing is for sure that no specific person invented this well-known game of the kings.

Chess has evolved over the centuries and will probably continue to keep changing with the times. The several theories about where chess came from zero in on three regions, India, Persia, and China.

So there is no doubt that chess is an Asian game:)

All three regions had versions of the game, which reached the pinnacle of their popularity and then traveled with their aficionados to other parts of the world. We can explore all these three locations and their connection to the legendary game.

Theory #1- Chess came from India

Let’s check some facts for India’s claim as the place where chess originated.

Chess was invented by the Queen of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), besieged by God Rama. While this sounds a bit mythical, chess’s more credible historical origins in India can be traced back to much later.

Early forms of chess originated in India around the 6th century AD in the Gupta Empire. Its ancestor, “Chaturanga,” a Sanskrit name for a type of battle formation, found its mention in Mahabharatha.

Chaturanga was a popular four-player war game that had several critical aspects of modern chess.

There are several similarities between this old game and modern-day chess. Like there are different pieces in both games, and they have different powers. Also, victory was based on only one piece, aka the king in modern chess.

By 7th century, Chaturanga (the word is based on the four commanding wings of an army), the earliest known precursor of modern chess, was flourishing in northwestern India. Travelers, saints, artists, and kings took some version of Chaturanga to Persia on the Silk Road, where the name of the “King” in Sanskrit, “Rajah,” changed to Persian “Shah”.

All the European names of the game have roots in the Persian language. French “Echec,” English Checkmate all originated thanks to their Persian roots. At the same time, Buddhist pilgrims are known to carry it towards the East. Where several versions of the games (inscribed discs placed on the intersection of the lines of the board rather than within the squares.

By the 11th century, it reached Japan and Korea, the popular version of the Eastern Game known as Chinese Chess with 9 files and 10 ranks and a river acting as a boundary between the 5th and 6th ranks-limiting access the enemy camp and also makes the game slower than its Western cousin.

In conclusion, Chaturanga played with dice on a 64-square board gradually transformed into shatranj (or chatrang). This two-player game became popular in northern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and southern parts of Central Asia after 600 CE.

Theory #2 Chess came from Persia

The chess that we play today originated in Persia, and it got its modifications after it became popular in Europe. Chess sprang in Persia around 600 AD Persian version also had two opposing armies of 16 pieces each.

The Karnamak-i Ardeshir-i Papakan, a Pahlavi epical treatise about the founder of the Sassanid Persian Empire, mentions the game of chatrang as one of the accomplishments of the legendary hero, Ardashir I, founder of the Empire. Chess was associated with nobility, wealth, knowledge, and power in the Persian kingdom.

The oldest recorded game in chess history is a 10th-century game between a historian from Baghdad and a pupil. The Persian “Shatranj” resembled the Indian “Chaturanga) but had a firzān (counselor). A player could win the game of shatranj either by eliminating all the opponent pieces except the king or capturing the king.

The word “Shah” is Persian for King, and “Mat” means “defeat. So the Persian word “ShahMat” is actually translated as “King is Defeated,” which is the origin of the term “CheckMate”!

By the 10th Century AD, Islamic travelers brought chess to North Africa, Sicily, and Span. In comparison, the Eastern Slavs spread it to Russia. The Vikings brought the game to Iceland and England. The famous 78 walrus-ivory pieces of multiple chess sets found in Iceland and England date from the 11th or 12th century. King Louis IX of France banned chess in 1254. 

Theory #3 Chess came from China

Legend has it that chess was invented around 200 B. C. by a commander, Hán Xin, who invented the game as a battle simulator. Soon after winning the battle, the game was forgotten, but it resurfaced in the 7th century. For the Chinese, Chess was invented by the mythical Emperor Shennong or by his successor, Huangdi.

This is because there is evidence of chess or a similar game being played in China around 750 CE, not very far from the original claims of the other two civilizations. The popular game in China was called “XiangQi,” which translates to “Elephant Game.” But this game was very different from the chess we play today.

By the 11th century, chess reached Japan and Korea from China. Chinese chess, the more popular version of the Eastern game, has 9 files and 10 ranks and a boundary- the river, between the 5th and 6th ranks, that restricts access to the opponent’s camp and makes the game slower than its Western version of chess. 

Even though the earliest origins of chess as we play today are uncertain, one thing is obvious. The game was a reformed version of several other ancient games. Indeed, it evolved from the influences of various civilizations over the last 1500 years.

No one single region or group of people can stake their claim as the game’s inventors. It originated as something else and became a game of kings before it became a game with universal appeal and following.


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