It is arguably the world’s oldest game, yet it is one of the most popular cybersports.
It has been called the game of kings, and yet it can be mastered by children.
Its origins are truly global having passed through several of the world’s greatest civilizations, and it can and is played almost everywhere on Earth.
I am of course talking about chess.
Learn more about chess, where the game came from, and how it is played today, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
This episode is sponsored by Audible.com
Today’s audiobook recommendation is The Immortal Game: A History of Chess by: David Shenk
Why has one game, alone among the thousands of games invented and played throughout human history, not only survived but thrived within every culture it has touched? What is it about its 32 figurative pieces, moving about its 64 black and white squares according to very simple rules, that has captivated people for nearly 1,500 years? Why has it driven some of its greatest players into paranoia and madness, and yet is hailed as a remarkably powerful educational tool?
Nearly everyone has played chess at some point in their lives. Its rules and pieces have served as a metaphor for society including military strategy, mathematics, artificial intelligence, literature, and the arts. It has been condemned as the devil’s game by popes, rabbis, and imams, and lauded as a guide to proper living by different popes, rabbis, and imams.
You can get a free one-month trial to Audible and 2 free audiobooks by going to audibletrial.com/EverythingEverywhere or clicking on the link in the show notes.
The origins of chess go way back, and the place where the game originated often surprises most people.
Chess is often thought of as being a European game, and while there are elements that were developed in Europe, more on that in a bit, the game that we know as chess actually originated in India.
The original game in India was known as Chaturanga, and it is believed to have been developed in northwest India about 1500 years ago.
If you look at a Chaturanga board, you will probably mistake it for a chessboard at first glance. The board itself is an 8 square by 8 square grid, just like a chessboard.
Each side had 16 pieces. The front row pieces are all the same, just like pawns. The back row has different pieces which all correspond to pieces in chess.
The fundamental difference between Chaturanga and chess is that the piece which is the equivalent of the kings are not in a direct line from each other, and some of the pieces have different movements.
Chaturanga comes from the Sanskrit word meaning “four-limbed” which is a reference to the four types of military units used in ancient India: infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots. The infantry is the equivalent of pawns, the chariots are the equivalent of rooks, calvary is the equivalents of knights, and elephants are equivalent to bishops.
While we know the game at least dates to the Gupta Empire, some people believe the game might date back to the first several centuries BC.
From its origin in India, Chaturanga spread both east and west. In each direction, the game evolved differently.
In Japan, it became the game of shogi, which is played on a 9 by 9 board.
In China, it became the game Xiangqi, or as it is often known in the west, Chinese Chess. Xiangqi is very similar to chess, except the pieces are all flat like checkers with Chinese characters indicating the type of piece, and the pieces all move on the lines and vertices of the board, not in the middle of the squares.
Likewise, there are chess variants in Thailand called Makruk, and in Korea, there is a game called Janggi which is derived from the Chinese game Xiangqi.
The modern game we know today came from the variant of the game which spread to the west.
The first place west of India to adopt the game was in Persia. The Persians called it “chatrang”, which clearly is derived from the Indian Sanskrit “chaturanga”.
There are records of 10th-century games that were played and an 11th-century book written on the subject. As Persia was Muslim at the time, the pieces changed to more abstract images because of the Islamic prohibition of depicting humans or animals in art.
From Persia, the game was picked up by Arab traders and spread throughout Arabia. The game became known as Shatranj.
This iteration of the game, again, looked very similar to modern chess. The Arabs introduced the concept of check, which was a warning when the king was in danger. The name of the king was called the sh?h, which means king in Persian. It moved exactly the same as a king does today.
By the way, the English word “check” comes from the Persian “shah” and “checkmate” comes from “sh?h m?t which means “the king is dead”.
Next to the king was the Ferz, which means councilor. It moved just like a king and wasn’t very powerful. The other piece which was different was the pil, which meant elephant in Persian, which could move two spaces diagonally. It is the equivalent of a bishop.
Chess entered Europe through several different channels. Arabs spread the game to the Byzantine Empire, who may have then introduced it to Eastern Europe and probably Russia.
Arab traders also brought the game to Italy, and it was then brought to what is today Spain via the Moorish conquests.
By the 13th century, chess was all over Europe. Modifications to the game which turned it into the game we recognize began to appear. The board developed alternating colored squared, instead of each square is the same color as in the Arab version of the game.
Likewise, the queen replaced the vizier, and a bishop replaced the elephant.
Chess became extremely popular in Europe in the middle ages. In fact, it became so popular that it drew the ire of the Catholic Church. Church authorities condemned chess as gambling and also because it often led to violence.
Louis IX of France issued an edict banning playing chess for money, a rule which was almost totally ignored by the populace and was totally unenforceable.
By the year 1500, chess as we now know it had been codified. The movement of queens and bishops was established in Spain and soon spread. The default colors of the pieces were set as black and white, whereas they used to be red and black. Castling was also established as a rule.
If you went back to the year 1500, you could probably play chess with almost anyone in Europe if you knew the current rules of the game. There were only minor differences with the game of today.
Once the rules were established, more people began thinking and writing about the game. Books were written about chess that discussed openings and end games, most famously by a Spanish bishop by the name of Ruy López de Segura. He wrote a book called the “Book of the liberal invention and art of the game of chess” which was published in 1561.
The last rules to be solidified were in the 19th century and those were rules regarding stalemates, and establishing that white will always go first.
The 19th century also saw more organization of the activity. Chess clubs blossomed and chess tournaments became more formal affairs.
As chess became more formalized, a problem soon developed. Some players would take forever to make a move. At one tournament in London in 1851, a player took 2 hours and 20 minutes to move a single piece.
In this light, time limits were added to chess and new variants with extremely short time limits were created. This lead to the creation of chess clocks where a player would hit a button that would stop their clock and start the clock of their opponent.
The 19th century also saw the rise of the first chess prodigies. The first and greatest of the 19th century was probably the American Paul Morphy. Between 1849 and 1863, in every notable recorded game he played, he only lost twice and had one stalemate.
In 1859, he was declared the world champion and the greatest chess player in history by acclimation. There was no official world champion tournament at this point.
The first official world championship determined via a tournament occurred in 1886. It was won by Wilhelm Steinitz an Austrian who later moved to the United States. He didn’t lose a match from 1862 to 1894.
When he lost in 1894, it was for the world championship and the victor was Emanuel Lasker from Germany who held the title for 27 years.
He eventually lost the title in 1921 to another chess prodigy José Raúl Capablanca of Cuba, who is considered one of the greatest chess players of all time.
Throughout the 20th century, chess became more and more advanced. Chess games could be recorded on paper and the library of past games of grandmasters that could be studied grew and grew. More books and theories of chess were developed and much of what went into becoming a great chess player came down to study and memorization.
The International Chess Federation or FIDE was established in 1924 which became the world governing body for chess. It organizes the world championship as well as other international competitions and events.
One of the biggest innovations to competitive chess in the 20th century was the development of the Elo Rating System. It was developed by a Hungarian-American physicist and chess player named Arpad Elo.
The system was designed to take into consideration all games played against other rated players. Everyone starts with a score of 1000 and then it goes up or down based on if you win or lose.
If a player with a low rating beats a player with a much higher rating, their rating will go up by a significant amount. However, if a good player beats a bad player, their rating will barely go up at all.
In theory, players with similar rankings should be at roughly similar skill levels. Differences in skill level should determine the odds of one player beating another.
The Elo Ranking system was first used in 1960 by the United States Chess Federation, and it was then officially adopted by the FIDE in 1970.
The system today is used for qualifying for tournaments as well as for titles such as “grandmaster”.
The highest Elo score in history was 2882, which was achieved by world champion Magnus Carlsen in May 2014.
The Elo Ranking system has proven so popular that it has been used by many different sports and competitive events.
Almost as soon as programmers were able to, they were writing programs to play chess. For years, people wondered when or if a computer would ever be able to beat a world champion. That happened in 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue beat the world champion, Gary Kasparov.
One of the problems which has developed at the highest ranks of chess is that all of the top players now spend so much time studying, and have powerful chess computers to help them train, that stalemates are becoming the norm.
At the 2018 world chess championship, all 12 games resulted in a stalemate. At the 2016 world championship, 10 of 12 games resulted in a stalemate.
At the 2021 world championship, what shocked most people is that the match didn’t have to go the full 12 games because defending Magnus Carlsen actually won three games.
This problem was identified in the early 1970s by world champion Bobby Fischer.
One of the things which has been done to correct the problem has been a rise in the popularity of different chess variants.
Bobby Fischer created his own variant where the pieces on the back row were randomly placed. This is known as Fischer Random Chess or Chess960, to reflect the 960 possible starting combinations. The pieces are arranged the same for both players.
The appeal of the game is that you can’t study opening moves for 960 different opening positions. It makes the game more about intuition and skill, not about memorizing and training.
There is actually a Fischer Random Chess world championship now which is sponsored by the FIDE.
The other variants which have become very popular are called speed chess. The three primary types of speed chess are rapid chess, blitz chess, and bullet chess.
At the FIDE world championship in rapid chess, each player has 15 minutes total to make their moves.
In FIDE Blitz Chess, each player has a total of three minutes to make all of their moves.
Bullet chess, sometimes called lightning chess, has time limits under three minutes.
Blitz and bullet chess, pieces are being moved almost non-stop.
Not surprisingly, the best players at speed chess and random chess, also tend to be the best players at traditional chess. Magnus Carlsen for example has won world championships at rapid and blitz chess and was a runner-up at the Fischer Random Chess world championship.
There has been a resurgence in chess over the last several years. This has almost been entirely due to the internet. Many top chess players are making themselves more accessible on chess websites and have their own streaming channels on Twitch where people can watch them play as well as hear their commentary.
As chess doesn’t actually require a physical board to play, it has been a natural for the internet.
Chess is an ancient game with a truly global pedigree. However, even though the origins of the game date back at least 1,500 years and the rules of the modern game go back a full 500 years, there is still innovation occurring today in the world of chess.