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Who Invented Chess? The Truth Revealed and a Myth Busted

It’s been around longer than printed books and about 70% of the world’s population has played it at some point. 

Today, chess is played regularly by more than 605 million people from Texas to Timbuktu – but who can we thank for inventing this timeless board game?

It could be argued that this centuries-old game has never been so popular. 

Netflix’s 2020 smash The Queen’s Gambit set the pandemic-hit world into a chess frenzy as viewers blew off the cobwebs of their old chess sets or bought shiny new ones. 

Chess retailers couldn’t keep up with the surprise surge in demand. eBay famously attributed a 215% boom in chess sets and book sales in the six weeks following the show’s debut.   

Of course, we always knew chess was cool.

But with this fresh interest in our favorite game, we thought we’d address a commonly-asked question (and bust a few myths along the way!)

So, who invented chess?

The answer is not, wait for it… black and white.

Because chess is so darn old and has gone through countless changes to become the game we know and love, it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact date it was created or the individual responsible.

That’s not to say we can’t entertain a popular legend.

An Indian fable tells of the mythical brahmin Sissa ibn Dahir and his gift of the first ever chess set given to King Shirham of India. The king, delighted with his new toy, offered Sissa anything he wanted in return. The brahmin’s request, as typical in such stories, was an odd one – one grain of wheat on the first square of a chessboard. Then, two on the second square, four on the next, then eight, and continue doubling the number of grains on each following square until every square on the chessboard is covered.

Surprised by the brahmin’s seemingly small request, the king swiftly agrees only to be blown away when, thanks to compounding, the amount of grains on the final square equals 18,446,744,073,709,551,615.

It might be useful for explaining compound interest, but we can safely assume that this is not the origin story of chess. 

However, one part of the story is true. Chess probably originated in India.

Chess probably came from India

We might not be able to point a finger at an individual inventor, but we might be able to zero in on the country.

Although still a topic for debate, most historians agree that the ancestor of modern chess was a game called chaturaṅga which can be traced back to India and the 7th Century CE.

Chaturaṅga (Sanskrit: चतुरङ्ग) translates to “four divisions of the military” with pieces corresponding to infantry, cavalry, elephantry, and chariotry – which would later become the familiar pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, respectively.  

From India, the chess-like game travelled to Persia where its name morphed into shatranj before spreading throughout the Asian continent. Shatranj was later embraced by the Muslim world and the expansion of the Islamic empire into Spain helped popularize the game throughout Europe.

How we got to the modern game

Through several changes (as well as a series of prohibitions and sanctions by the Christian Church) it took until about 1500 CE for the game to become the chess we play today.

Early changes made by Europeans included changing the pieces, e.g. the Vizir, or minister, became the Queen, and the Pil, or war elephant, became the Bishop; and the way they moved, e.g. the pawn moving two places in its first move, and the king’s leap.

Arguably, the biggest change was with the queen. Until around 1500 CE, the queen was relatively weak (moving one square diagonally) and games could be long and slow. New rules introduced around the turn of the 16th century gave the queen the greatest range of moves in the game, making checkmate easier and games won in fewer moves

Where does the word ‘chess’ come from?

During games, players in Persia would have used the phrases “Shāh!” – the king – and Shāh Māt! – the king is helpless – in place of the modern-day English ‘Check!’ and ‘Checkmate!”

By the time the game made its way to British shores, there’s a good chance that merchants mispronounced ‘Shāh’  until it turned into ‘Chess’. You can see the connection more clearly in other European languages, in German, they call chess ‘Schach’, in Polish, it’s ‘Szachy’ and in Russian, ‘Shakhmaty.’

Endgame

The development of chess serves as a fascinating summary of world history as we trace its journey from 7th-century India to Persia, the Islamic empire, medieval Europe and the Renaissance, to get to the game we know and love today.

Why is chess still popular now, nearly 1500 hundred years after a version of it was first created? 

Simple. It remains a game that anyone can play and enjoy, no matter your skill level… or knowledge of Sanskrit!

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