With the recent re-emergence of interest in chess following the success of The Queen’s Gambit, we figured it was about time to address the history of the legendary board game. Chess is one of the most complicated games around; the current version we know and love first emerged in Europe in the second half of the 15th century, but there were similar, influential games for centuries prior. We’ll dive into all of that below:
The early form of chess was called Chataranga and is believed to have originated in Northwest India around the 7th century. For those keeping score at home, that’s about 1,400 years ago. Chaturanga is Sanskrit for “Four Divisions,” referring to the infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariotry, which would eventually evolve into modern chess’ pawn, knight, rook and bishop. The game went from India to Persia, and then the Arabs conquered Persia, spreading the game to the Muslim world and, eventually, Southern Europe.
Fun fact about the origin of the term “Checkmate.” During the period when the game was developing in Persia, players would shout “Shah!” when attacking the king, which is Persian for “King!” They eventually started saying “Shāh Māt!,” which translates to: “the king is helpless!” As the game continued to spread geographically, those phrases went with it, eventually becoming today’s “Checkmate.”
Simultaneously, similar variants of the game were coming into shape in China, also influenced by India’s Chaturanga. The Chinese game, xiangqi, relies on similar objectives, although the board positioning is different. Xiangqi was also inspired by a separate Chinese game dating back to the 6th century, Go, which is still played competitively today.
Chess reached Western Europe and Russia by the 9th century. There’s a Medieval Latin poem, which dates back to around 1,000 AD, titled “Versus de scachis.” It’s often considered the first European reference to chess. The contemporary form of the game wouldn’t arise until a few centuries later, however. By the 15th century, Christian prohibitions and other regulations had fortified the game into something very much resembling modern day chess.
The short answer? Chess and many of the variants that contributed to the modern game were based on the Indian game Chaturanga, which dates back to the 6th century.
Now we have to fast forward a bit. From the 15th century to the late 19th century, Romantic Chess prevailed, emphasizing fast-paced, tactical maneuvers rather than long-term strategic playing (from David Shenk’s, The Immortal Game: A History of Chess). The second half of the 19th century is considered to be the beginning of the modern era of chess; 1886 saw the first official World Chess Championship, which is the premier chess tournament to this day.
Austrian (later American) Wilhelm Steinitz was the first official World Chess Champion from 1886 to 1894. Steinitz’s game evolved considerably throughout his career; early on, he was a deeply aggressive player, but ultimately developed into a much more positional player, which was controversial at the time. 1886 set off a frenzy of development in chess theory, continuing to evolve the game into something more similar to what we see in the contemporary era. Steinitz lost his crown in 1894 to German Emanuel Lasker, who was the champion for a whopping 27 years, from 1894 to 1921. He is still the longest-reigning champ in history.
The FIDE (World Chess Federation) was founded in Paris in 1924 and initiated the practice of awarding titles like Grandmaster to elite players. Some trace the genesis of Grandmasters to earlier in the 20th century, but those claims are disputed.
After World War II, the Soviet Union reigned supreme in the chess world for decades. The only non-Soviet chess champion during the time of the USSR was American Bobby Fischer, who was champ from 1972 to 1975 and is widely considered to be one of the greatest players of all time. 1985 saw the rise of the man who is potentially the most well-known and highly regarded chess player in history, Russian Garry Kasparov.
The latter half of the 20th century saw the burgeoning of chess computers and analysis. A computer finally beat a world chess champion in 1997 in the legendary matchup between IBM’s Deep Blue and Garry Kasparov. This watershed moment ushered in an era of computer domination in the world of chess, and capabilities in improving chess theory and analysis have exploded since the beginning of the 21st century.
The current world champion and most dominant player of the 21st century is indisputably the Norweigan Magnus Carlsen. A grandmaster by the age of 13 and World Champion by 22, Carlsen is easily considered one of the greatest players in history. He holds the highest peak Elo rating in history with 2882 and has been the Champion since 2013.
Aside from Carlsen, the 2010s have seen a reemergence of chess culture on the global scale. Players like Garry Kasparov are internationally-known celebrities and shows like The Queen’s Gambit, films like Pawn Sacrifice and the growing esports community have launched chess back into the public spotlight. Chess.com has a whopping 62 million users and is still constantly growing. Carlsen has even managed to convert his chess prowess into some modeling gigs.
Take a look at this graph to get an idea of how interest in chess has absolutely exploded in the past year or so. The Queen’s Gambit is obviously one impetus, but also the explosion in popularity of chess Twitch streamers, such as Grandmaster Hikaru, has further emphasized the popularity of the game in contemporary popular culture. Beloved Grandmasters like Maurice Ashley are becoming full-on cultural icons, with merchandise lines, catchphrases and more monetization opportunities than you could shake a stick at.
As we continue to watch the esports scene increase in popularity, it only makes sense that chess and chess viewership will increase commensurately. Check out GM Hikaru’s channel and all the incredible chess streamers on the platform if you’re looking to get into the game.