An Illustrated History of Chess

  1 Origins
  2 Early Chess

  3 Thailand, Burma
  4 China

  5 From China?
  6 Korea
  7 Japan
  8 Evolution
  9 Europe
  10 Variants

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An Illustrated History of Chess

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 world
The 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.

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 ancient chess of Arabia, known as shatranj
the oldest known chess pieces of the abstract shatranj style, from Nishapur, Iran (Persia), mid-9th century
earliest known abstract chess set, Persia, 9th c.

Though different from the chess we play today, the ancient game has striking similarities to the modern game. 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.

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.
A reproduction of the early Persian chess set, all set up and ready to play
reproduction of the early Persian chess set

the chess king and rook, from ancient shatranj and modern chess
ancient and modern kings, ancient and modern rooks

The 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.

The 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.

the knight and pawn, from ancient shatranj and modern chess
ancient and modern knights, ancient and modern pawns