Chess – the game that spanned millennia

Chess, a brilliant pass time to hone and develop out mental acumen, has been in our lives for more than a millennium. Chess is a two-player strategy board game played on a checkered board with 64 squares arranged in an 8×8 grid. Played by millions of people worldwide. However, it was not always the same kind of game that it is now, it has evolved immensely from the time that it was made. Over roughly one and a half millennia of its existence, chess has become a tool of military strategy, a metaphor for human affairs and a benchmark of genius. While our earliest records of chess are from the 7th century, legend has it that it was actually originated at sometime in the 6th century. So how did it start and evolve to the game enjoyed by so many today.

Photo by George Becker on

Supposedly when the youngest prince of the Gupta empire was killed in battle, his brother devised a way to represent the scene to his grieving mother. Set on an 8×8 ashtapada board used for other popular pastimes, a new game emerged with two new features, different rules for moving different pieces on the board and a single king whose fate decided the outcome of the game. The game originally called chaturanga, a Sanskrit word for four divisions was soon popularised and spread to Sassanid Persia and acquired its current name and terminology – “chess” derived from “shah” meaning “king” and “checkmate” from “shah mat” which means “the king is helpless”. After the 7th century Islamic conquest of Persia, chess got introduced to the Arab world. Thus, transcending its role as a tactical simulation and becoming a rich source of poetic imagery. Diplomats and courtiers used chess terms to describe political power, even ruling caliphs became avid players and historian al-Mas’udi considered the game a testament to human free will compared to the games of chance. Medieval trade along the silk road carried the game to east and south east Asia, where many local variants developed. In china, chess pieces were placed at intersections of board squares rather than inside them as in the native strategy game of Go. In the Mongol times, chess saw an 11×10 board with safe square called citadels while in japan shogi developed where captured pieces could be used by an opposing player. But it was really in Europe that the game acquired its modern form. By 1000 AD, the game had become a part of courtly education with chess becoming an allegory for different classes with different functions. At the same time church remained suspicious of games. Moralists cautioned against devoting too much time to it with chess even briefly being banned in France. Yet the game proliferated and the 15th century saw it cohering into the form we know today. With the enlightenment era, the game moved from royal courts to coffee houses. Chess was now seen as an expression for creativity, encouraging bold moves and dramatic plays. This “romantic” style of play reached its peak in the immortal game of 1851 which is hailed as the most dramatic and game so far.  With the emergence of formal competitive play in the 19th century, it saw the dramatic flair being squashed under the strategic calculation that the era had brought forth. This chess took on a new geopolitical stance with the Soviet Union dominating the rest of the century by devoting great resources to cultivate chess talent. But a player emerged who truly upset the Russian dominance and it wasn’t even human. The IBM computer called Deep blue triumphed over Garry Kasparov in 1997 and hailed the emergence of chess software with AI so advanced as to beat human players with ease.

However, these machines are the products of human ingenuity and the same ingenuity can perhaps help us get out of the apparent checkmate.