The king is the biggest and the most precious figure of chess. The American chess player and psychoanalyst Rueben Fine who wrote the book "The psychology of chess" compared him with a worn out father figure. But why is the king so important and why is he so weak?
While the old Indians invented chess, they designed a figure for each arm of the service. The king figure corresponded to the Indian emperor, the "Schah-in-Schah". This "King of kings" was a wise ruler and not a warrior; the battles were fought by the generals. An empire was defeated when the emperor was captured. That is why a game can only be won when the enemy king is captured. This fault made chess unique. He is too slow to leap himself to safety. That is why castling was set in the 16th century.
The queen has got the most interesting history of all chess pieces. First, she was a man, the adviser of the king. The figure goes back to the old Persians. The adviser, called "Firzan", could move one field diagonally and served for the safety of the king. The figure was taken over by the Arabs and was changed very much. Later, the Europeans called the figure "Fers", derived from "Firzan". Because they did not know the meaning of the word "Fers", they interpreted the figure as queen, because she is standing beside the king.
The queen won extreme amounts of power through the development of the game in the 15th century. She became the most powerful figure on the board, even more powerful than the rooks and the king. It is still doubtful why the Spaniards, who developed the game further, have given so much power to the queen. Maybe they were inspired by the Spanish queen Isabella, the virgin of Orleans (Joan of Arc) or the holy Virgin Mary.
The rook was already known in "Chaturanga", but there, this figure was a carriage and was called "rukh". The war carriages have been a part of the old Indian army until the 5th century. At the time the game came to Arabia the name did not change but the portrayal was simplified. In Europe the English name "rook" remind us to the descent.
But how has the figure changed from a war carriage to a rook?
By the year 1527 Vida, bishop of Albay, published a poem about a chess game between "Apollo" and "Mercury". The rooks were fortifications on the back of an elephant. The European chess players took over the description. Finally they left out the elephant for the normal use.
The bishop was also already known in "Chaturanga". He was represented as an armed attendant who sat on the back of an elephant. The Arabs called this figure "al-fil", which means "elephant". The problem was that in Central Europe elephants were not known, so they could not recognize the figure. The bishops were interpreted differently by the different nations. That is why the bishop is a "Läufer" (runner) in Germany, a "fou" (fool) in France and a "alfiere" (standard-bearer) in Italy.
The bishop also profited by the development of chess in the 15th century. At first he could jump one field diagonally. Later the jump was abolished and he could move diagonally as far as he wanted.
The knight has changed very little through history. Already in "Chaturanga" he moved with his special jump. The Indians represented him as a mounted warrior with a shield and a sword. As the Arabs took over the figure, they simplified it. Now the knight was a cap with a triangular hole. Later in the Middle Ages nice carved knights were all the fashion. The Stauton-knight we use today looks like a stomping stud.
Already at the beginning of chess the pawn had the role of a soldier. In the Middle Ages monks tried to represent the pawns as citizens. The first pawn (above the left rook) was an agricultural worker, the second a farrier, the third a weaver, the fourth a businessman, the fifth a doctor, the sixth an innkeeper, the seventh a policeman and the eighth a gambler. But these differences do not interest us in the reality.
The double step from the first row and "en-passant" as a direct result were introduced in the 15th century. The change of the pawn on the eighth row was already known in "Chaturanga".