The History of Chess (in a nutshell)


It occurred to me that many people on this site haven't an inkling about the history of chess. While I'm fully aware that each person has his or her own interests and fascinations, it seems to me that inquisitiveness and wonder, truly human traits, are common to us all.

If I were a baseball player, I would want to know about Babe Ruth and Joe Dimaggio; if I were a boxer, I'd want to know about Joe Louis and Rocky Marcianno; if I were a football player, I'd want to know about Y.A. Tittle and Joe Namath.

Not only does Chess have a history far longer and richer than any of those sports, Chess also has a unique characteristic: we are able to go back years, decades, even centuries and recreate games played between people long departed and in doing so, we can trace the development of the game almost microscopically.  I have trouble understanding how one can play through some classic game and not wonder - Who was Reti? Who was Sämisch? Who was la Bourdonnais? Who was Morphy?

I can fully understand that some chess-players wouldn't have a deep, abiding interest in all this, but I can't understand how they could have zero interest. 

History is simply a story. While historians get bogged down with facts and details, as they should, the rest of us should just sit back and enjoy the tale. Like any story, it can be novel-length or short and sweet. I decided to try to paint a picture-story of the History of Chess and daub it with swift, broad stokes, leaving out the fine details - Impressionistic-style.


- The History of Chess - (in a nutshell)

Chess, in a recognizable though far different form, was born about the same time as Islam and the two, like lovers, became intertwined. Islam felt it was their destiny to spread throughout the world and as the Moslems expanded across Africa and into Italy and Spain, Chess tagged along. All this happened sometime between the years 500 and 800. Back then people didn't record games, though some manuscripts and books depicted positions or chess-problems. The Moslem expansion had been halted when they tried to move into France and eventually the invaders were even driven from most of Spain. Then came the Middle Ages or the Dark Ages and things slowed down.  The Moslems, who were now being victimized by the Crusades, had planted the seed of Chess wherever they had invaded. As a result, Chess was being played quietly in different places, from Scandinavia to Italy to Spain, each with their own variations of the game (and all of them much different than the game as we play it today).  Chess was known as the Royal Game partly because it was played mostly by nobility and the clergy - two groups who had the leisure time, the eduction and access to books. Chess had grown rather stagnant in this limited environment.

Around the time of Michelangelo and Leonard da Vinci (the Renaissance) several things were happening all at once. This was around 1450-
1500. First, the Dark Age was ending. Second, the Bubonic Plague had recently wiped out a significant portion of the population of Europe and where there's a lack of supply, the demand goes up. Whereas in the Middle Ages, the common person had little worth, after the Plague, their value rose considerably. People demanded better conditions, more money, more leisure time - and got them. The common person now had the basic things that would allow them to learn Chess if the so desired. Third, the practical printing press had been invented, making books available to this new breed of generally more literate people.

The fourth thing was the internal changes to the game itself. As mentioned before, the game of Chess was different in many ways to the game we play today. Pawns moved one space, even on the first move; pawn promotion was limited; there was a  Queen who replaced, in name only, one that had very weak powers; castling rules were different too. The creation of the Queen as we know her today was the most significant change. When this change was catching on, it was often referred to as "Mad Queen" chess. Around 1475 the first known example with the new Queen was recorded in Spain (a game created or re-created for a performance).

By the next century, the 1500s, people started writing chess books - the begining of opening and endgame theory. The biggest seller was one by a Spanish priest named Ruy Lopez who was considered one of the strongest players in his day (he was finally defeated soundly by an Italian player named Leonardo di Cutri). It would be the next century, the 1600s, before another great chess book appeared. This book published the manuscripts of a player who went by the name of Greco. Since Greco came from Calabria, Italy, the book of his collected games was called a Calabrian. The Calabrian was like a chess bible for 100 years. Greco's games inspires players even today.

Leonard di Cutri defeats Ruy Lopez in Spain

In the next century, the 1700s, some Italians still wrote about chess, but a French musician and composer, François André Danican, commonly known as Philidor,  brought Chess to a new level. While his book on Chess was an immediate success, his ability to play multiple games without seeing the board brought him instant fame. His celebrity originated in the casino-like Paris coffee-house, the Café de la Régence, but he was even more popular in England where he put on blindfold performances for money. The only player from that century to rival him in popularity was the Turk, supposedly a machine that played Chess but which had a master-player hidden inside.

You might have noticed by now that Chess moved from country to country: first Spain, then Italy, then France... now England. The English are a remarkable people. They seem to like to form clubs and such. With Chess they were no different. Where in France people went to cafés to gamble, talk politics, play card, play chess and have their fortunes read, in England they went to clubs to.. well, play chess. It's no wonder that England soon surpassed France in Chess. However! ...Germany, at the same time, was quietly investigating Chess scientifically, studying and creating theory and publishing their findings. England's dominance wouldn't last long, but their national habit of forming clubs lead to the beginning of tournaments. a most valuable contribution to Chess as a sport. The strongest English player during the time when England was King, was Howard Staunton, after whom the Staunton chess pieces, those we most commonly use today, were named.

America was in the background of Chess with little to commend itself. .. that is until Paul Morphy came along. Morphy, who seemed to come out of nowhere, took the chess-world by storm and defeated everyone in his path. After 18 months, he retired. But he had sparked the embers of Chess in the USA and helped to make America a Chess-force to be reckoned with. Tournaments started flourishing in the USA as well as other places. Europe held many strong international tournaments and the idea of the "chess professional" was forming. Before this time, there had been players who made their living off of chess, but they were often looked down upon. With such players as William Steinitz in the late 1800s, the status of such professionals took a giant's leap forward. The twentieth century was the Golden Age of Chess. So many great players emerged; so many great tournaments took place - it's mind boggling. Players came from all over: Lasker from Germany, Capablanca from Cuba, Pillsbury from America, Alekhine from Russia. in the mid 1920s, around the time FIDE was established, Russia- actually, the USSR under Stalin - became the Chess capital. No such dominance had ever been seen or felt in Chess before. It would be a half a century before anyone could even think of challenging  them. That challenge finally came with the name Bobby Fischer. He met and defeated the Russian machine - on his own terms,  then like that other American player from the previous century, Paul Morphy, disappeared from Chess. Russia refilled the void left by Fischer with names like Karpov and Kasparov.

Today the field is once again wide open. Players from India and China, as well as computers have joined the ranks among the best.

 ...and so the story goes