How Chess Became the Champion of the Gaming World

Chess may not be the oldest game in the world, but it is certainly one of the most famous. Since its invention in the Indo-Persian region, it has fascinated players with an infinite number of possible moves. Here's a history of how the game came to be.

Photo by Randy Fath (detail)
Photo by Randy Fath (detail)

The game of chess probably originated in India between the 3rd and 6th centuries and is said to be based on the popular dice game Ashtapada, which was played on a board with 8x8 fields. Ashtapada evolved into Chaturanga, the "proto-chess", which was initially played with four players and later with two.

Chaturanga reached Persia and was called Chatrang there. The real success story of chess began with the conquest of Persian territories by the Arabs in the 7th century. For the new rulers, chess became the "game of the highest class." It was further spread through trade on the Silk Road. Variants of the early chess game can be found in Mongolia, China, Tibet and Japan. And of course the game also made its way to Europe.

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Knights Templar playing chess, Libro de los juegos, 1283. Public domain image
Knights Templar playing chess, Libro de los juegos, 1283. Public domain image

It was spread in Europe via Constantinople, which was then still the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Scandinavian traders in eastern Europe, known as Varangians, brought the game to Russia in the 8th century. With the Moors and their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, chess came to Spain and from there to Italy and southern France. In the European High Middle Ages, mastery of the game of chess was one of the virtues of knights.

Luigi Mussini, final match of the 1575 tournament in El Escorial. 1871, oil on canvas. Public domain image
Luigi Mussini, final match of the 1575 tournament in El Escorial. 1871, oil on canvas. Public domain image

However, the rules of chess as we know it today only emerged at the end of the Middle Ages. The most crucial change was that the queen now became the most important piece on the board. These modern developments in chess originated in Spain in the late 15th century. The first international chess tournament took place there a century later. The winner was the Sicilian Giovanni Leonardo da Cutro, who was able to beat the best chess player at that time, a Spaniard named Ruy López de Segura.

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Photo by Randy Fath
Photo by Randy Fath

In the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, the game of chess became more widespread. In 1849, the London-based Nathaniel Cooke designed the Staunton chess set, the standard design of chess pieces that is still used today with established styles for the king, queen, rook, bishop, knight and pawn. Chess was not only played at home, but also in cafes and parks. Chess associations were founded and national and international tournaments were held. The first official World Chess Championship took place in 1886 in New York, New Orleans and St. Louis.

Bobby Fischer vs. Mikhail Tal. By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-76052-0335 / Kohls, Ulrich / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,
Bobby Fischer vs. Mikhail Tal. By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-76052-0335 / Kohls, Ulrich / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

Since the Varangians introduced the game of chess to Russia, this intellectual sport has enjoyed enormous popularity there. During the Soviet era, chess schools were state-sponsored to bring Russian players to the top of the game. Baku-born Garry Kasparov was world champion of the World Chess Federation FIDE between 1985 and 1993 and is considered one of the strongest players of all time. Today, the reigning world chess champion is Chinese grand chess master Ding Liren, who took over the role in April 2023 from Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, who had held the title since 2013.

Ding Liren at Tata Steel Chess Tournament (2023). By Frans Peeters - https://www.flickr.com/photos/suspeeters/52638550043/, CC BY-SA 2.0
Ding Liren at Tata Steel Chess Tournament (2023). By Frans Peeters - https://www.flickr.com/photos/suspeeters/52638550043/, CC BY-SA 2.0

Treatises and theoretical writings on the game of chess have existed since the 9th century, but the game has also found its way into literature in other ways. Stefan Zweig's chess novella, which he wrote between 1938 and 1941, is very well known. A younger audience was introduced to the game of chess in the first volume of the Harry Potter series. Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione must compete in a grueling game of chess with life-sized chess pieces to find the Philosopher's Stone.

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The shortest chess game was over after just three moves. The longest game lasted 24 hours and was played in Tel Aviv in 1990 when 193 moves were made. However, this is not a record, which stands at 300 moves in a single game. By the way, a total of 5,899 moves could theoretically be possible in a game.

Postcard used by the US Chess Federation. By LithiumFlash - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Postcard used by the US Chess Federation. By LithiumFlash - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

With the invention of correspondence chess, a game can last much longer, even years. The first game of correspondence chess was played in 1804 between the cities of Breda and The Hague. Back then players used postcards on which they wrote down their move for their opponents. Today, in the computer age, transmission is a little faster or one can compete directly against the computer.
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A cross-section of the Turk from Racknitz, showing how he thought the operator sat inside as he played his opponent. Racknitz was wrong both about the position of the operator and the dimensions of the automaton. Public domain image
A cross-section of the Turk from Racknitz, showing how he thought the operator sat inside as he played his opponent. Racknitz was wrong both about the position of the operator and the dimensions of the automaton. Public domain image

A precursor to the chess computer was the so-called "Mechanical Turk", a chess machine built in 1769 by the Austrian mechanic Wolfgang von Kempelen. The machine seemed to be able to react independently to the moves of its opponents. Kempelen toured Europe with his invention and attracted great attention everywhere. One can imagine the audience's disappointment when it turned out that there was actually a human being in the machine...

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Public chess tables in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris. By © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar, CC BY-SA 3.0
Public chess tables in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris. By © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar, CC BY-SA 3.0

Although chess is a more theoretical brainteaser, it stimulates the imagination. Its general principle also makes it extremely variable. So it's no wonder that the game is now available in countless variations. Fans of Salvador Dalí can play with surrealistic figures, while admirers of Napoleon recreate the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Or, as a Star Wars fan, you give yourself up to new hope and let the Empire strike back.

Related: A Medieval Chess Piece Auctioned for Nearly $1 Million

Today, one can buy unique and vintage chess sets at auction that are offered in a range of materials, styles and themes. Some chess sets can even reach into the millions: an English silver and silver-gilt and enamel mounted ebony and ivory chess table and set from 1866 sold at Christie's London in 2014 for £1.9 million ($3.3 million.) In 2019, a chess figurine made of walrus ivory from the Norwegian medieval Lewis chess set dating to the 12th century sold at Sotheby's for $927,000, after it had been bought in the 1960s by an antique dealer for only five pounds.

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