Chess History


An Illustrated History of Chess

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Chess has been with us for centuries, through countless cultures and historic moments. A look at the game’s development throughout history opens a fascinating window on cultural evolution, transporting our minds to distant lands and eras.


the many forms of chess, ancient and modern, throughout the worldThe exact origin of chess is a great mystery. There are few ancient texts referring to the very beginning of chess, and fewer chess pieces left as physical evidence of the game’s early existence. But myths, theories and opinions abound! Most historians believe it started in India, Persia, or China.



the ancient chess of Arabia, known as shatranj

But there is much that we do know. The form of chess which finally arrived in Europe was already being played in Persia some 1,350 years ago, when that area of the world was conquered by Muslim armies in the mid 7th century. The game became very popular in the Muslim world, and it was carried back, throughout Islam, across North Africa and eventually into Europe.


the oldest known chess pieces of the abstract shatranj style, from Nishapur, Iran (Persia), mid-9th centuryThough different from the chess we play today, the ancient game has striking similarities to the modern game.htptg
It is easy to learn the ancient rules of play, and to get a feeling for chess as it was experienced by Persians and Arabs long ago.

 earliest known abstract chess set, Persia, 9th c.


A reproduction of the early Persian chess set, all set up and ready to play.
Let’s look at the old game, known throughout ancient Islam as shatranj,starting with features that are familiar to a modern chess player. The game was played on a board of 8 by 8 squares, just as our game is, but the board was not checkered. The pieces were arranged like ours are, but some of their identities were a little different.

reproduction of the early Persian chess set


the chess king and rook, from ancient shatranj and modern chessThe king of the old game was a king, like our king, and had the same move. No change there in over 13 centuries. The rook was called “rukh” which meant “chariot.” It’s interesting that we maintain essentially the same word in English, although the meaning of “rook” or “rukh” has long been lost to us. The ancient rook also had exactly the same move as our modern rook.

ancient and modern kings, ancient and modern rooks


the knight and pawn, from ancient shatranj and modern chessThe modern knight also retains its ancient move and is still depicted, as it has been for centuries, as a horse. And the ancient pawn, although it could move only one space forward (never two spaces like our modern pawn), was always considered to be a foot soldier. His forward move and forward-diagonal capture were the same then as they are today.

ancient and modern knights, ancient and modern pawns


_makruk (Thai chess) Compare these pieces to the ones we were just examining. The board is the same, and you can still recognize the horse…but the other pieces have been replaced by neatly lathed abstractions. Throughout the history of chess, this desire to make lathed pieces has been at work, changing the shape of chessmen. The pieces here are so similar to each other that you might at first have trouble thtptgelling them apart.



makruk (Thai chess) all set up and ready to playThis is makruk, the national chess of Thailand, still played avidly throughout that country. All pieces, except one, retain the same moves they had in ancient chess, but the former chariot is considered to be a boat, the elephant is now a nobleman, the king’s assistant is a seed and the foot soldier is acowry shell. An interesting mix of changes that fits the local           makruk, ready for a first move            realities of transportation and politics, and the shapes and                                                                          materials  of the playing pieces.



Note also that the pathe move of the makruk (Thai chess) nobleman, the traditional move of the elephant in south-east Asian chess variantswns are placed on the third row, something this form of chess shares with Japanese chess — as we shall see later. The one piece that moves differently from its ancient counterpart is the elephant/nobleman. Here we have an interesting story: It is said that the elephant’s move which caught on in Southeast Asia represented the “five appendages” of the elephant. He moved to the four diagonal directions for each of his legs, plus straight forward for the trunk. The Thai “elephant” retains this centuries old interpretation, but the specific image of the move is                                                                         lost, as the piece has now become a nobleman.

move of the nobleman, the                                                                                                                                                               typical “elephant’s” move                                                                                                                                                                     in Southeast Asia



In Burmese chess, sittuyin, that piece moving in those five directions still is an elephant. And you can be sure because the centuries-old figures of chessmen is Burma are literal representations of their battlefield characters. Take a look at the pieces shown here: they are sculpted interpretations of the armed warriors well known from the ancient Persian, Indian and Islamic game.Only the rook is a little odd. The piece is called a chariot or carriage (in Burmese, of course), but it is usually depicted as a small ceremonial htptghut. Strangely similar to our modern rook shaped like a castle turret, here again we have a stationary building running around on the battlefield.


typical Burmese style sittuyin chessmen


But the Burmese game certainly has a twist of its own one of the biggest changes in the history of the game. For starters, the Burmese pawns are set up far advanced, some on the 3rd and some on the 4th rows. So far forward that the first move of the game could be one pawn capturing another.But the big twist is that once the pawns are set up, the players place their pieces wherever they like behind the pawn rows (some restrictions apply). It is as if the whole opening series of moves is done at once and play commences in the middle of the game.  The Picture to the left shows the Burmese chessmen set up: the pawns are advanced to the 3rd and 4th rank and the pieces are strategically laid out by the players before play begins


the bishop of ancient shatranj and modern chess

But, let’s look at some of the differences.
The piece which we now call the bishop was originally an elephant, and it had the most peculiar move: two spaces diagonally, with the ability to leap over a piece in its way. If you place this piece on the chess board and begin moving it around in this fashion, you’ll soon find that there are only eight squares on the entire board that the piece can possibly move to! A strange move, not a very powerful piece…and interestingly, unlike the manner of movement that would characterize an actual elephant on movement that would characterize          the battlefield. We’ll discuss more elephant moves as we   an actual elephant on ancient and             go along.                                                                                                     modern elephant/bishop


the queen of ancient shatranj and modern chessFinally, consider the queen. There were no women on this ancient battlefield, so it’s not too surprising that the companion of the king here was the king’s advisor. This advisor’s move was also very weak: He moved only one square diagonally at a time. Not a powerful move, but often useful in guarding the king from attack.



ancient and modern advisor/queen

shatranj, the ancient form of chess, all ready to playAll together, the ancient game was very similar to the game we play today in terms of strategy and objective, but did not have the powerful and quickly developing moves of the pawn’s double push, the bishop’s long angle, and especially, the all-powerful queen.


the ancient array, ready for battle


From its mysterious beginning, somewhere in the heart of Asia, chess spread east, west, north and south.

the many forms of chess around the world and throughout history

chess pieces, as they have come to exist throughout the world

In every area chess reached, it developed local variations in rules and in forms of chessmen. Let’s take a look at one branch of development, as chess spread down into Southeast Asia…


So, we’ve seen that the ancient Persian chess moved westward, where it became the Arabian game, and eventually evolved into our modern western “international” chess. And it moved east and south, where it became the Burmese sittuyin and the Thai game of makruk … but wait!

There is another lineage of chess which may pre-date these games altogether!
Let’s take a look at chess in China…


Is this really chess?



Taka typical xiangqi (Chinese chess) set, ready to playe a look at this game.>

Xiangqi (“shyang-chee”) is the chess of China. A pretty strange sight if you’re used to playing western chess. Little wooden pucks inscribed with Chinese characters, sitting not on the squares, but on the intersections of lines, like go stones…

xaingqi, ready to play


how the xiangqi (Chinese chess) pieces are laid out on the board

…The board is divided by a big open space in the middle; there are strange X’s on each side of the board. If you look carefully, you’ll see that some of the weird Chinese characters on one side don’t even match their mirrored counterparts on the other side…






the initial array of xiangqi


Let’s look at the pieces. The one in the corner moves exactly like the rook in ancient and modern chess. It’s character indicates a wheeled vehicle (in war, a chariot), just like the rook (rukh) from the ancient Persian game.The mere foreign appearance of this game has turned western players — and sometimes scholars — away from learning the nature of this game…for centuries! But a htptgsmall introduction to this game clearly shows that it is as much a member of the original family of chess games as the one we know and love.

The line-up of pieces, though foreign in appearance,
is similar to that of other forms of chess.

the chariot (rook) of xiangqi (Chinese chess) chariot

the horse (knight) of xiangqi (Chinese chess) horse

the elephant (bishop) of xiangqi (Chinese chess) elephant, the minister (bishop) of xiangqi (Chinese chess) minister

the advisor, or guard (queen)  of xiangqi (Chinese chess) advisor

the general (king) of xiangqi (Chinese chess) general, the governor (king) of xiangqi (Chinese chess) governor.

the foot soldier (pawn) of xiangqi (Chinese chess) foot soldiers the foot soldier (pawn) of xiangqi (Chinese chess)


The piece next to it is, of course, a horse. The four little dots in this character indicate the horse’s four feet. It also moves just like the ancient Persian piece, and like the modern western piece. One small difference: it can be blocked by a piece in its way.
The next piece is an elephant (as in the Persian game) on one side, and a minister on the other. It moves like the elephant in the Persian game (but this piece too can be blocked).Next is the familiar advisor, with the familiar move of one space (or one point) diagonally.In the center is a general or governor (it is said that the king or emperor does not belong on the battle field — or, symbolically, on a board game).In the front row, we have two types of foot soldiers, slight variations from the pawns we know so well.Oh, and one more piece: a cannon. This is an oddity. A sort of a rook which leaps to capture. It’s a more recent innovation…just a few centuries old.


So…what’s the long space in the middle of the board? That’s the river. It’s ignored by most of the pieces, but impassable by the elephant (or minister), and the pawn gains in power when it crosses into enemy territory. And what’s the X on each side? A fortress to which the general or governor (the “king”) is confined, with his advisors. (It makes him easier to get!)

You can see that, cultural oddities aside, this game is a very slight deviation from the forms of chess we’ve already looked at.

Now here’s the big news: Chinese Chess is probably played by more human beings than any other board game in the world — including go (weiqi, “way-chee” in Chinese), and including our beloved western “international” chess. There are just so many Chinese people — and the game is so popular among them!

But here’s the big question: How are these games related, in the misty depths of antiquity?

Murray's A History Of Chess

The long-standing authority on chess history is H. J. R. Murray’s A History of Chess, published in 1913. According to Murray, chess began in Northern India, traveled from there to Persia, and later, from Persia back eastward to China, and on to Korea and Japan.

Murray’s work was so intimidatingly huge — some 900 pages of text with passages in obscure languages and elaborate footnotes in small print — that few have dared to reassess his assumptions or conclusions — nearly 100 years later.

But gradually, advances in research, archeology and world communication are giving us tools to look at these questions anew. Without being too quick to evaluate the evidence one way or the other, let us take a brief look at a view of chess history that comes from Chinese texts…

Consider This:

The original chess was invented in China, right around 200 B.C., by a military commander named Hán Xin (“Hahn Sheen”). The game was designed to represent a particular battle, anticipated by Hán Xin’s troops as they waited out the winter holding their ground. This first chess was called The game to capture Xiang Qi, Xiang Qi being the name of the commander of the opposing army. (This battle is well established in Chinese history.)

A few years after his victory in this battle, Hán Xin fell out of favor with the emperor, and his game became less popular, or even forbidden, but was resurrected in the Tang Dyanasty (7th through 10th centuries A.D.). At that time several new rules came into effect…and variations of the game spread throughout the world.

In subsequent years, the name of the game was shortened to Xiang Qi, hence xiangqi.The Chinese characters, xiang and qi, also mean “elephant game,” and this became the most common interpretation, losing the original reference to that ancient battle.


So, that’s the short story of Chess originating in China. Probably largely mythical. But let’s take a microscopic look, and see how a Chinese origin of chess answers one of the mysteries of the pieces. I speak of the mystery of The Elephant.
xiang  “elephant”…
move of the early advisor or guard in xiangqi (Chinese chess)When chess began, as we were saying, in China, there was no elephant. The commander (our “king”) had an advisor (later two of these) who could simply block him from attack by stepping diagonally in front of him. Like the President’s number one Secret Service man, if you’ll excuse the American allusion.
The advisor naturally blocks an attack
from the enemy chariot
Later, dumove of the early advisor or guard, and elepahnt or minister, in xiangqi (Chinese chess)ring the innovations of the Tang Dynasty, another guarding piece was added. Fitting with the Chinese tradition, it had slightly different names on the two opposing sides: the Minister on one side (a high official), and the official Translator (or foreign minister) on the other side. This piece had the logical move of the piece which stands next to the Advisor. Since he stands one more space away from the Commander, he moves two spaces diagonally, once again, able to jump in line as a blocker, in front of the Commander.
The minister/elephant is also neatly positioned to block an attack.
neat symmetry of the advisors and elephants in xiangqi (Chinese chess)Later, there were two of these, and the Commander and his blockers enjoyed a neat symmetry.A logical, geometrically perfect, arrangement.
all blockers, perfectly aligned
Then thing got messy. The word for foreign minister, “xiang,” (say this word, “shyahng”) can historically be translated into some 200 meanings, the most common of which was elephant. And since the piece stood next to another animal — a horse — the elephant identity began to stick, htptgeven though the same piece in the opposing camp was obviously a person, a minister (also, incidentally, pronounced “xiang”).

xiang, the elephant or foreign minister in xiangqi (Chinese chess) “xiang” the foreign minister
or the elephant

xiang, the minister in xiangqi (Chinese chess) “xiang” the minister


Then, when chess was taken from China to Persia and India, it was adapted to India’s popular game board, the ashtapada, a board of 8 x 8 squares. The Commander’s (King’s) central position was lost, as was the symmetry of his flanking army. The Ministers lost their neat symmetrical coverage of the Commander, and they lost the original meaning of their name, as the name “elephant” was the translation that stuck.So throughout Persia, northern India, across the Muslim world, and into medieval Europe came a game of chess with a piece called “elephant” (Arabic al fil), with a most un-elephant-like move.

the broken symmetry of the advisor and elephants in shatranj (ancient Persian chess)
The symmetry has been broken.

the peculiar move of the elephant (bishop) in ancient chess
the move of the elephant in
Persian/Arabic/Medieval chess


A true story? Chess history buffs the world over wish that a comprehensive cross-cultural, multi-lingual modern archeological investigation would give us some solid answers. In the meantime, this view of chess history holds a certain charm, a clear logic…and a long tradition. But when we look back to the earliest chess writings, we have to admit it’s hard to tell legacy from legend.

One thing we know for certain is that the Chinese branch of chess has spread to large sections of the eastern world, and we can see its influences in nearby lands. So let’s look at something a little different…


the initial array of pieces in janggi (Korean chess)Ooops did I say something a little different?This diagram looks terribly similar to the Chinese chess we were just discussing.But look more closely!
There is no river in the middle of the board;
the pieces are octagonal, not round;
the characters on the red side are similar to the Chinese pieces, but totally different on the green side;
the board is stretched a little left to right;
some pieces are larger than others; and
the commander (king) starts out on the second row.

the initial array of janggi


a janggi (Korean chess) set, all ready to playWhat we have here is Korean chess — janggi.It has also been htptgwritten changgi, jangki, and even (as per Murray)tjyang keui… because it’s taken so long to agree on how to transcribe Korean into English!


If you compare the rules of xiangqi (Chinese chess) with janggi (Korean chess), you’ll find some rather peculiar differences.In fact, the moves of the commander, advisors, elephants/ministers, cannons and pawns are all significantly different from the corresponding pieces in the Chinese game.

 the chessmen of xiangqi (Chinese chess)

the Chinese (xiangqi) pieces, compared to…

the chessmen of janggi (Korean chess)

…the Korean (janggi) pieces.
Note the similarities and differences.

 the strange and unusual move of the elephant in janggi (Korean chess)
the elephant’s move in janggi

It’s not nice to pick on elephants, but here, once again, one of the most peculiar aspects of the game is raising it’s tusk- bearing head to be scrutinized. It’s true: this is perhaps the most peculiar move to be found in any long-standing chess tradition.

The fact is the Korean elephant moves one space (or one point) front, back or sideways, plus two spaces diagonally.
Just as the Chinese elephant is a logical extension of the advisor’s move, the Korean elephant is an extended horse’s move.

Here is another rather special thing about Korean chess. Remember that “X” in the middle of the board which indicates the general’s fortress, both in Chinese and Korean chess? Well, in the Korean game, the lines which form the “X” affect the moves of the pieces.According to the Korean sensibility, pieces which move along the horizontal and vertical lines of the board (i.e., the rooks, pawns, canons advisors and generals) should also be allowed to move along any line which is printed on the board — including the diagonal lines within the fortress. You can imagine how this wild expansion of moves heightens the drama of attack when enemy pieces enter the general’s private chamber!
 the special power of pieces in the fortress, in janggi (Korean chess)
The rook moves not only horizontally and vertically — as it does in other forms of chess — but also along the diagonal lines within the fortress.

If you are intrigued by the peculiarities you see here, I recommend that you take a look at the rules of janggi. Some of the conventions of this game are actually older than the modern Chinese game, such as the starting position of the general (king), and the 9 x 10 point board, without the Chinese river. Other rules, like the ones shown above, are newer — rather quirky — innovations.

You may find that, as we take our survey toward the East, the forms of chess we find are ever more foreign and strange to our western eyes. But we have just one more eastward step to take…to the most complex chess form of them all! Let us complete our journey at the Land of the Rising Sun with shogi, the chess of Japan!…

It has been said that Japan takes in ideas from all over the world, and reinvents them in a style which is uniquely Japanese. As you will see, the game of shogi illustrates this idea beautifully.Looking at the shogi board, at right, what similarities to other forms of chess are already apparent?Like the Chinese game:
T he pieces are flat, caligraphed figures, nine across, with the commanding general (king) in the center, and there are two special pieces on their own row.
Like the Persian game:
The pieces are placed on the spaces (not lines), and there is a pawn in each column.
Like the Thai game:
T he pawns start out on the third row…And yet, the neat wooden board, divided into rectangles, with wooden tiles seems to have a very Japanese character.
shogi, ready to play
the initial array of shogi
 the chessmen of xiangqi (Chinese chess)You may be able to detect a few similarities between the Chinese pieces (above) and the Japanese pieces (below).the chessmen of shogi (Japenese chess)
In fact, the Japanese pieces are written in Chinese characters htptg(one of Japan’s three official alphabets!). The Japanese pieces, however, are composed of two characters — the first is an adjective. For instance, look at the fourth and fifth pieces in the Chinese and Japanese line-up at the left. The Chinese pieces are “horse” and “chariot.” The corresponding Japanese pieces are “laurel horse” and “fragrant chariot.”Notice the two pieces which stand alone on the second row. Strangely enough, one has the move of a western bishop (called, “angle-goer”) and one has the move of the western rook (called “flying chariot” — did you recognize the character for chariot?). It is said that the historic line-up of shogi pieces did not have anything in the second row, and that these pieces were simply borrowed, several centuries ago, from European chess.
Most of the moves found in shogi are already already familiar to us, and some are slight variations on familiar themes. The chariot and horse, for instance, move like our rook and knight…but only in the forward directions. The pawn moves and captures with a forward movement, like the Chinese pawn.Now, let’s talk about elephants. Well, there is no elephant in the Japanese chess…but that piece two spaces to the king’s right and left, the silver general — has the characteristic elephant move found in Southeast Asia — just like the nobleman of Thai chess.

the move of the silver general in shogi (Japenese chess), a familiar move in south-east Asian chess variants
the move of the silver general
 the move of the gold general in shogi (Japenaese chess), a unique move among major chess variants
the move of the gold general

What’s new in shogi is the move of the gold general, who stands next to the king (or jaded general). The gold general moves one space forward, backward of sideways or forward-diagonal. This is an interesting complement to our silver general, who moves in the four diagonal directions or to the one forward direction. You can see that there is a preference in shogi for the pieces to move forward — on the attack.

Now, here’s where things start to get complicated. Notice that the pieces are all flat tiles. This shape serves a special function: Each player starts with twenty pieces, and all but three of these pieces (the king and two gold generals) can flip over, to show a promotional value.
Promotion occurs when a piece enters the enemy’s third row (as it does in Thai chess). Upon entering the promotional zone, the piece may flip over (as the pawn does in Thai chess) to show a new character. The newly promoted piece has a new, more powerful move, becoming at once a greater threat in the enemy’s territory.
the chessmen of shogi (Japenese chess) showing their original valuesthe chessmen of shogi (Japenese chess) showing their promoted values
All of the shogi pieces, except the king and the gold general, flip over to show a promoted value.

But here’s where things get really complicated. Did you notice that the pieces on opposing sides are all of the same color, only differentiated by the direction they are pointing? There is a reason for that too.

When a piece is captured in shogi, it isn’t dead yet! It waits on the side of the board, to be placed back in the service of its captor, on any vacant square of the board (some restrictions apply). So, unlike all other forms of chess, shogi never winds down into a simplified end game. No, in shogi there are 40 pieces in play, from beginning to end, being promoted, captured, dropped back into play, being promoted and captured again…until, finally, someone declares checkmate!

If you think an intense game loaded with extraordinary possibilities of attack and necesities for tight defense is for you, check out the detailed rules of shogi!

That just about completes our tour of the Far East. It is by no means exhausted! There are varieties of chess still played in India and Myanmar… and myriad variations and predecessors of the games we’ve looked at throughout history.

But let’s finish our world view with a look at the chess we know and love, western chess — just plain “chess,” as we call it. How did it get here, and how long has it been around?...

Taking another step back in time, let’s look at how our modern chess evolved out of the ancient Persian game.You may remember being mystified by the peculiar shapes of the ancient chess pieces. Here’s an explanation of how some of those odd shapes might have come about.At the right is a conventional carving of an ancient Indian king, in his glory, riding on an elephant back rig (that’s called a howdah).His advisor (our modern queen) took the same shape, only smaller.
A traditional carving of a royal figure on an elephant back (on a howda), probably the original form of the shatranj chess king
ancient sculpted king on an elephant
If you abstract that shape — just block out its general form and round off the edges — you come up with something like this. What we have here is a typical ancient chess king, as it was represented all over central Asia, Northern Africa, and as it came into Europe. You can see the bulk of the elephant’s body, the rising ridge of the howdah,and the blip of the king himself up above it all.The one shown here was actually found in Scandinavia, dated to the 8th or 9th century.
an abstracted king on elephant back, the traditional form of chessmen that spread across the  Muslim world and into medieval Europe
ancient abstract king
a strange European adaption of the ancient chess piece, made into a queen enthroned in a coloseum
ancient European queen, from 12th century Spain

The Europeans who inherited these shapes frankly did not know what to make of them. Here is an ancient queen, based on that same shape, squatted down into a coliseum, so that she takes the form of the ancient piece.
 But there was another force at work in the shaping of chessmen.Everywhere that chess went, it met up with craftsmen who wanted to try their lathes on the design the of pieces. The ancient pieces in the Muslim world were eclipsed by various toadstool-like shapes. Pieces in this style are so similar to each other that they are hard to tell apart. You will remember a similar evolution of pieces in the Thai chess set we already looked at .

traditional Muslim chessmen, all lathed abstractions
a typical Islamic chess set,
at the turn of the 20th century

an ornate Selenus chess set
an ornate example the “Selenus” style of chessmen. This lean, spindly style enjoyed widespread popularity from the 16th, well into the 18th century, especially in central Europe.
The lathe turners of Europe also had their way with the shapes of chessmen. In the western world, it became fashionable to make the pieces as lean as possible, tall and spindly, elegant figures.The layered flowery design known as the Selenus style (after the author who depicted these in his book published in 1616) was popular throughout central Europe for about 300 years.
But at the same time, figurative, representational pieces have been cropping up all over the world, in all cultural settings. These conflicting tendancies, toward abstraction on one hand and literal representation on the other, are largely responsible for the great variety of forms chessmen have taken over the ages.The most enduring tradition of carved representational figures took place in northern Europe, where sculpted forms like the one shown at the right have been found, spanning a broad area, for several centuries.
the famous 'Lewis; chessmen, from the 12th century
The most famous chess find of all: In 1831, nearly four complete sets of Scandinavian style chessmen were found on the Scottish Isle of Lewis, dating back to the 12th century.

Regence (Regency) chessmen
This style of chessmen was named for the
Café de la Régence, a popular chess gathering place
in Paris during the last half of the 18th century.

By the middle of the 18th century, most of central Europe had come to favor the Régence style of chessmen. This style flourished for some 150 years as the most popular style of chessmen, well into the early 20th century.The Régence (or Regency) chessmen have an elegant, yet simple shape. But the figures are a bit too similar to one another for modern taste. The queen, at a glance, can be mistaken for a bishop, and the bishop for a pawn.
The chessmen which are considered standard today were originally copyrighted in 1849, by Nathaniel Cook. Howard Staunton, the famous chess master and chess author of the mid-late 19th century, allowed his name to be used for these pieces, and we still know them as the Staunton style. Seventy-five years later, in 1924, the Staunton style was officially selected as the standard for international tournament play, winning out over the popularity of the Régence style.

Nathaniel Cooke's copyright of the Staunton chessmen
the Staunton chess men, as they appeared in the copyright filed by Nathaniel Cook, in 1849

But…when did chess acquire its modern rules?…

Chess has seen countless variations throughout its evolution. It has been expanded to enormous boards, pieces have been added, new moves have been devised and new identities have been given to the pieces.One great European variant, Courier Chess lasted for some 600 years — longer than modern htptgchess has existed so far. Here is a link to more information about this fascinating variant:
detail of a painting by the Dutch master, van Leyden, showing courier chess in play
Courier chess, a very popular chess variant through north-central Euorpe, was played from the late 12th through early 19th century. It featured a piece — the
courier — which moved like our modern bishop.

the early Afrasiab chess men, from the 7th century
possibly the earliest known chess set, from Afrasiab, Samarqand, said to date from the 7th century.

a typical ancient chess set, which would have been recognized in Persia, Africa, or Scandinavia

These chess sets would have been played by the same rules — the rules of ancient chess.

Yet the chess which came to Europe from Asia, passing from one culture to another, remained virtually unchanged for almost a millennium. Even as pieces changed shape and identity, the rules of the game remained remarkably stable.htptg
But somehow, a new chess took hold. The best evidence places the change in northern Italy and Spain, right at the end of the 15th century. The first known printed occurrence of the new rules is dated 1497 — but that manuscript seems to indicate that the new game was already generally known.
replica of the famous Lewis chessmen
These pieces, of the later Scandinavian design, circa 12th century, would also have been played using the old rules.
a famous, elaborate chess set dating from 15th century Italy
This famous chess set, from mid 15th century Italy, probably began its life playing the ancient chess, but later learned the rules of the new game.
the board of that famous Italian set
The set came with a very elaborate board.

It was called the new chess, the queen’s chess,or chess of the mad queen, and it spread like wildfire throughout Europe. Within one generation the chess which had endured centuries and had covered half of the known world was eclipsed in most of Europe by the new game. The old game became a relic, an anachronism remembered by monks and academics — those who clung to the old chess literature which was suddenly obsolete.

What were the new rules? Most astonishing as that the queen had unprecedented new power, dominating the board with the ability to move any number of spaces forward, backward, left, right or diagonally.The bishop, at the same time, was given the power to move along the complete diagonal, and the pawn was given the power to take two spaces in its first move. Castling and en passant capture followed quickly, and a new chess was born.
Ben Franklin playing with Lady Howe, a famous game which occurred in London 1774
The great American statesman, Ben Franklin, playing chess as we know it, about 280 years after the new rules took effect. He is playing here on pieces of the Régence design.

The new chess, sometimes referred to as western chess, is now over 500 years old. It has spread with colonial Europe, and continues tohtptg spread, like the French and English languages, taking over most of the remaining pockets of unique chess cultures. Only a few chess variants, including those described in this web site, have firmly held their ground, not allowing western chess to re-write their chess traditions.

That could be the end of the story, but does evolution stop here…?

Game lovers will never stop dreaming up new versions of chess. To quote D.B. Pritchard, author of The Encyclopedia of Chess Variants,“Anyone can invent a new chess variant within ten seconds (try it) and unfortunately some people do.”The point is this: it’s easy to think “what if…the board were bigger, smaller, differently shaped; what if there were more players, more pieces, more moves…” but it is not so easy to invent a game, based on chess, which has merit in itself…and which many people might actually enjoy playing. Pritchard’s encyclopedia includes some 160 variants — and claims to have excluded hundreds more, which the author considered less worthy. Let’s glance at just a few interesting chess variants, to stimulate the imagination…

D.B. Pritchard's The Encyclopedia of Chess Variants
from the cover of The Encyclopedia of Chess Variants, by D.B. Pritchard

dou shou qi

Here is a Chinese game, dou shou qi(“doe show chee”), meaning “fighting animal game.” It seems to be a children’s variant of Chinese chess, and has been around for at least a century. htptgThe pieces represent animals: the bigger ones eat the smaller ones, in a quest to enter the opponent’s den (like the Chinese chess fortress).
Interestingly, dou shou qi has many similarities to the popular game Stratego, and it is widely supposed that Stratego evolved from this game.
One of the most popular American chess variants is from the early seventies, Smess … asin the deriding rhyme “chess — smess!” The interesting change here is that the squares of the board — not the identity of the different pieces — define the direction of the pieces’ moves. Easy to learn, and interesting in the unique complexities it offers.



Neo Chess is an obvious enough variant. It is played like western chess, but adds the possibility of placing captured pieces back in play — something borrowed directly from the Japanese chess, shogi.

Shuuro, a new chess variant played on a 12 x 12
board with obstacle blocks

And here’s a new variant with several interesting features. Shuuro is played on a large 12 x 12 board, with randomly placed blocks to alter the landscape. The two armies are various combinations of pieces are set up in an array chosen by the players before the moves commence. Fascinating changes, but easy for the standard chess player to grasp, since the pieces move in the ways that we are used to.

And who says chess has to be played on squares? This is just one of many variants which try spaces of a different shape. Hexes is played on hexagons, and the moves of the pieces are adapted as logically as possible to the game’s altered geometry. Note that three different colors of playing spaces are present, and each side has 3 bishops — one to command each color.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief romp through the world of chess, and that it has stimulated your curiosity. If so, please investigate some of the links found on the links page to take your investigation further. Playing sets for the variants discussed here are available through this web site, as are the rules of play for several variants. It is a pleasure to share this special passion for chess history and evolution. Drop us an email, if you have a moment, with questions, corrections, or enthusiastic exclamations of any kind.

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