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The History of Chess

The game of chess is old by anyone's measure. Archaeologists suggest that several artifacts found in ancient tombs may actually be parts of early chess sets, or at least pieces to a remarkably similar game.

Most historians agree that chess originated in India, grew in popularity, and migrated to Persia around the middle of the sixth century. Shortly after that, the game spread to Arabia and beyond. Games very similar to chess were known to exist in Indian, Arabic, Islamic, and Chinese cultures in the late seventh century, and though a common ancestry can't be confirmed, it's certainly a possibility.

Chess was invented as a game of war simulation. Its pieces have always mimicked military figures. Some of the oldest sets include foot soldiers, cavalry, chariots, war elephants, a vizier (counselor or minister), and kings, all representing various forces of armies from their particular historical location. The queen and bishop, for example, were not added to the entourage until later, replacing the vizier and elephants from previous versions. More contemporary sets celebrate this rich history, displaying Roman legionnaires, Mongol hordes, European and Oriental armies, and even characters from the Star Wars movies.

According to historian H. J. R. Murray, chess is first mentioned in literature in The Karnamak, a Persian romance written in the early seventh century about events taking place nearly 400 years before. The interesting thing about the story, from a chess enthusiast's perspective, is the matter-of-fact way it mentions chatrang, the Persian word taken from the Indian chaturanga (Sanskrit name for army), translated into English as "chess." Because there was no need to explain the game, one can infer that it was fairly common within the seventh-century Persian culture. Another Persian text, the Chatrang-namak, written around the ninth century, gives credit to the Indians for inventing the game.

When the Arabian Caliph Omar conquered Persia in 651 A.D., the game of chess soon countered with an invasion of its own and spread throughout the Islamic world. The religion of Islam, like many other religions of the world, disapproves of gambling and graven images, yet historians agree that by the ninth century, many wealthy Muslim households had a chess player in residence. Why chess managed to circumvent the restrictions is anybody's guess. The greatest player in the Muslim world was as-Suli, who came to the fore in the 10th century. He was considered the greatest player who ever lived until the European Renaissance, nearly 400 years later.

Chess comes to Europe:
The introduction of chess to the European continent actually began with the Moorish (Islamic) conquest of Spain in the eighth century. By the 10th century, eager students from all over Europe were traveling to the Moorish centers of learning in Spain to investigate the highly advanced intellectual and scientific culture of Islamic civilization. Through this constant flow of students, chess found its way across the continent. When the students returned to their homes, their new love of chess traveled with them, becoming a fixture in European leisure culture.

By the middle of the 10th century, chess had become a bit of a problem for certain members of the Roman Catholic clergy. At the time, chess was often played with dice (to determine which piece would be moved), a feature that commonly was associated with the "sinful" practice of gambling. Eventually, objections calmed down, and chess continued its spread throughout Europe -- once dice were removed from the game.

By the 14th century the checkered board had become commonplace. (Muslim players had generally played on mats with crossed lines.) As time progressed, the play of the game and the moves of the pieces solidified into what we recognize as the modern game of chess.

Until the late 15th century, the queen and bishop (and the two original pieces that preceded them in the early development of the game) were restricted to one- and two-square diagonal moves (respectively). But in Europe between 1475 and 1495, the pieces were given greater mobility, better matching the movements of the castle and knight, their cohorts in the first rank. The bishop was granted the means to sweep diagonally across the entire board. The queen was given the ability to move pretty much wherever she pleased, making her the most powerful piece on the board. (Lesson 2 discusses all of the pieces and their moves.)

This was also the time when the first European books about chess were being written. One of the earliest, Repeticion de Amores e Arte de Axedrez, was written in 1497 by the Spaniard Luis de Lucena. It offered advice on numerous topics, from keeping women in their "place" to keeping a chess opponent at a disadvantage by filling him with food and wine just before a match (a meal no doubt prepared and served by the woman being "kept in her place"!).

Most school children studying world history learn that Queen Isabella of Spain played an important role in convincing her husband Ferdinand to finance and equip Christopher Columbus for his historic voyage. What most people don't know, however, is that six months before eventually setting sail, Columbus, frustrated and fed up with Ferdinand's refusal to pay for the journey, was ready to leave Spain in search of other financing.

When word of his intention to depart reached Isabella, she knew she had to act quickly, but her husband was in the middle of a chess game and she knew better than to interfere. If she interrupted the game, Ferdinand would become too upset and be disinclined to prevent Columbus's departure. (Ferdinand was reputed to be one of the best chess players among the royal class, and took his game seriously.) Isabella, knowing her husband's habits well, decided to wait and watch.

Ferdinand's opponent, Fonseca, the king's favorite rival and a very capable player, had lured the King into a bad position. The King felt certain that the game was lost. Another spectator, Hernando del Pulgar, (author of the Chronicles of Ferdinand and Isabella), discovered a move that would not only salvage Ferdinand's immediate position, but would win the King's game in four more moves. He whispered his discovery to Isabella. When Ferdinand moved his hand to make his final move, the queen interrupted, "Do you not win, my Lord?" The King stopped, and before touching any piece, reviewed the board once again. A smile slowly spread across his face, and in a few moves the game was his.

The rest is history!

Modern Chess:
As we have seen, chess has developed constantly from its beginning. Since the early 16th century, however, the fundamental aspects of the game have been fairly solid, and for the most part, remain almost completely unchanged. That's not to say that new ideas and moves weren't tried; some were. They just didn't stand the test of time.

What has changed is the strategy of the play, which has come about primarily because of chess notation (either descriptive or algebraic) and the recording and publishing of matches. Grandmasters of today build their immense knowledge of the game by studying the games of past grandmasters. As play progresses, so too does the library of strategies, where new ideas are built upon the old ideas.

Amusingly, every once in a while some respected player (or players) will comment that the world of chess has seen every possible move, combination, formula, or strategy. Soon after such declarations, along comes someone like Bobby Fischer who shakes the game to its foundation. (Bobby Fischer is considered by most grandmasters to be the greatest chess player alive today.)

In July 1924, the World Chess Federation (Federation Internationale des Echecs, or FIDE) was founded in Paris, France, with the motto Gens Una Sumus (We are One Family). FIDE is the international umbrella under which all other national chess entities unite. It is the recognized authority on issues and regulates the rules of modern chess. FIDE also awards the international titles of Grandmaster, International Master, FIDE Master, and others. Their Web site can be found at www.fide.com

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