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

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 coloseum, 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 (page 3).

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?...

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