The Indian Defense
Illustration for TIME by Scott Menchin
Where did chess begin? For many who play the sport at its highest, most obsessive levels, that's not just a question of history — it's a matter of ownership, of dominion. We're so completely lost in our universe of 64 black and white squares that we like to think every move we make changes the way the world exists. So it's easy for Russians to imagine that chess began when they started to play it. In 1991, at my first international tournament, in Reggio Emilia in northern Italy, a Russian grandmaster condescendingly told me I could at best be a coffee-house player because I had not been tutored in the Soviet school of chess, which then dominated the sport. With the arrogance of youth — I was 21 — I thought to myself, "But didn't we Indians invent chess? Why shouldn't I have my own route to the top of the sport?"
It would take me 17 years to find that route, and along the way I've had hundreds of conversations about the origins of chess — with players, fans, officials, taxi drivers, barbers and who knows how many people who sat next to me on a plane. I've heard the ownership of chess being claimed by Russians, Chinese, Ukrainians, Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Spaniards and Greeks. My own view is that the sport belongs to everybody who plays it, but the question of its origins is easy enough to answer: chess comes from India.
Our claim is based not on dominance — although the Indian school is now producing lots of high-quality players, including (ahem) the world No. 1. Some of the oldest references to the sport are found in ancient Indian texts. In the great epic Ramayana (which, according to some sources, was orally transmitted sometime between 750 B.C. and 500 B.C.), the demon king Ravana invents chess to amuse his wife Mandodari. A brilliant mind, she promptly beats him at it. My grandmother told me that story when I first began to play the game at age 6. Chess also features in the Arthashastra (3rd century B.C.), perhaps the world's oldest political treatise. Its author, Chanakya, describes chess as a game of war strategy, known as chaturanga, played on an 8-by-8 board. Think of it as the world's first virtual war game.
I believe chess traveled westward out of India, through what is now Afghanistan into Persia, where it arrived during the Sassanid Empire — an Indian king is believed to have sent a chessboard as a gift to his Persian counterpart. At the royal court in Ctesiphon, the game was known as chatrang. The Arabs learned it (they called it shatranj) when they conquered Persia in the 6th century A.D. and carried it across northern Africa. They introduced the game to Europe when the Moors crossed the Mediterranean into the Iberian peninsula. It grew immensely popular in Moorish Spain, where it was played in the street — a practice still seen in parks and other squares in cities around the world.
Iberia underwent a major change after the 15th century reconquista by Catholic forces led by Queen Isabella I — and chess changed, too. On the board, the queen became the most important piece; the bishop replaced the camel and flanked the king and queen. (Modern chess is still played by rules formalized under Isabella's reign.) Around this time, the Spanish player Luis RamÍrez de Lucena wrote what may have been the first book about chess theory — the Lucena Position remains to this day the cornerstone of rook and pawn endings.
Ironically, Russia may have been one of the last places in the Old World to receive chess, likely through the Volga trade route. It became popular there during the reign of Peter the Great. The late introduction didn't stop the Russians from becoming the game's superpower, though, and it wasn't until 2000 that an Indian — yours truly — finally brought the title of world chess champion back to the land of the sport's birth.
I like to think that the arc of my own career has in some ways mirrored the journey of chess. I learned to play in India, then moved to Spain so I could play the European circuit, and won my first world championship in Iran. It's nice when your place in chess history has something to do with the bigger picture.
Viswanathan Anand, 39, is an Indian chess grandmaster and the current world chess champion