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The Origins of Chess

  • #1

    In 1913 Harold James Ruthven Murray wrote a 900 page book called "A History of Chess." You can buy it used at Amazon for about $40.00. In his book, he proposed that India was the birthplace of chess and for many years this was considered gospel. However, there's been much interest in refuting this idea over the years.

    Some say chess came from China - see Sam Sloan
    Some say chess came from Persia - see Dr. Ricardo Calvo
    Some have different ideas
         see the Initiative Group Königstein
         see here for a myriad of opinions

    Where chess was born may forever remain a mystery, but we do know where chess incubated.
    Persia, now Iran, at one time comprised of much of the mid-east, parts of Russia, Greece and all of Egypt. In this great empire chess, or some form of chess, was played increasingly by more and more people. Chatrang (Indian) in the form of the more developed shatranj (Arabic) was known to be played in Persia in the 6th century and when the newly founded Islam conquered Persia in the 7th century, the Muslims embraced the game. From the 8th century up to the 11th century, Islam swept across the Mediteranean, introducing this game to Sicily and to the Iberian peninsula.
    This medieval game was very similar to the game we play today. But it was very different as well. The main differences were the moves of the pieces we now call the Bishop and the Queen, the the two move option of the pawn (and, of course, en passant) didn't exist; pawn promotion and castling. (as well as the strategies and tactics inherent to the differences) Briefly, the Queen originally was the weakest piece on the board, moving one adjacent, diagonal square at a time; the Bishop could leap over adjacent diagonal squares to the square beyond that diagonal; pawns moved one sqaure at a time, even on their first move and promotion wasn't usually part of the game; castling wasn't yet invented but the King could leap 2 squares on it's first move (in fact, this was called a King-leap or a King-jump); originally, the game was played on a non-checkered, 64-squared board; stalemate counted as a win; Baring the King (capturing all the opponent's men) was the usual way of winning. (see: Shatranj)
    By 1475(?), all these changes except for castling had somewhat solidified thanks to Guttenberg and to the progressive chess thinkers in Valencia, Spain and in the cities of Italy. Castling would require more than another century to be codified.
    I've glossed over the origins of chess because, while it's important, the game played before 1475 was really not chess, but a proto-chess or pre-chess.
    The assumption [though this would be a great over-simplification] is that chess was born when this game was played and published as the basis for the poem, Eschacs d’amor, somewhere between 1475 and 1490 :

















    These are pieces from the Burmese game, Sittuyin. It very closely resembles chess. Other such pre-chess type games include:
          Shaturanga or Chaturanga
          Shiang-Chi - Chinese Chess
          Shogi or Sho-gi - Japanese chess
          Changgi - Korean Chess
          Makruk - Thai Chess

    You can read something about them here
    or actually play the games here

  • #2


    I found an article that muddles the whole origin thing as well. But is does support your plug for Murray - I think I will try to find a 1st ed. of Murray's book. I will paste the article below:


    "The Evidence for Early Chess: There is no confirmed physical evidence from the early days of chess. No chess boards or complete chess sets have been found. Some objects excavated by archaeologists might have been early chess pieces, but they might just as easily have served a purpose that had nothing to do with a game. The evidence that we have is taken from literature, and even that is subject to interpretation. Does a certain word translate as 'chess', as some other board game, or as something else entirely?
    The Early Chess Historians: Many chess players know Sir William Jones (1746-1794) as the author of 'Caissa', a poem composed in 1763. He was also an accomplished linguist; knew Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit; and while living in India, published a paper ‘On the Indian game of Chess’ (1790), which identified India as the birthplace of chess. Later, Duncan Forbes (1798-1868), a professor of oriental languages, published 'The History of Chess' (1860), confirming his theory of India as birthplace 5000 years earlier.
    Harold James Ruthven Murray (1868-1955) : Forbes' work was soon shown to be riddled with errors, and the integrity of his scholarship was called into question. The task fell upon H.J.R.Murray to consolidate and verify the work of his predecessors : Thomas Hyde (1636-1703), Jones, Forbes, Antonius van der Linde (1833-1897), and Tassilo von der Lasa (1818-1899), among others. Murray's 900 page 'History of Chess' (1913) was based on 14 years of research using original material from the best chess libraries, translated by specialists.
    Murray Established the Baseline for Future Investigation: Murray's monumental work was supplemented by 'A History of Board Games other than Chess' (1952) and, to be more accessible for non-scholars, 'A Short History of Chess' (1963). He quoted Daniel Willard Fiske (1831-1904), 'Before the seventh century of our era, the existence of chess in any land is not demonstrable by a single shred of contemporary or trustworthy documentary evidence... Down to that date, it is all impenetrable darkness.' After that date, it is all interpretation of the record.
    India - Chaturanga: It is not surprising that the earliest evidence of chess is also the murkiest. Forbes believed that the game called chaturanga, which means 'quadripartite' in Sanskrit, referred to a four-player version of the game using dice and was mentioned in the Puranas, which he dated to 3000 B.C. Murray showed that the four-player version came after the two-player version, discarded the notion of dice, and refuted the dating of the Puranas. This left literary evidence pointing to 620 A.D.
    Persia - Chatrang: The period of the Persian Empire relevant to the origin of chess, was known as the Sasanian dynasty or the Sassanid Empire and ruled Iran for over four centuries. One chapter of the 'Shahnama' ('Book of Kings'), describes how the Raja of Hind (India) sent the game via an emissary to King Nushirwan. The same chapter relates the legend of the invention of chess following a civil war between the two sons of a Queen. The game is also mentioned in the 'Karnamak' ('Book of Deeds').
    Arabia - Shatranj: After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D., one of the world's great conquests spread out from Arabia. By 656, the Persian Empire had been conquered by the Moslem Empire. Even though the status of chess was uncertain in the codes established by the Koran [Quran], chess flourished in the Moslem world. The great culture of early Islam gave us the first works of chess literature, first recorded the names of early chess players, and spread the game as far as Spain.
    Early Shatranj Players: The chess (shatranj) player as-Suli (d.946) was the strongest player during the reign (902-908) of Abbasid Caliph al-Muktafi of Baghdad. His strongest student was al-Lajlaj ('the stammerer'; d.970). In 988, Ibn an-Nadim wrote of the earliest known chess match, between al-Adli and ar-Razi, during the court of Caliph al-Mutawakkil (847-861). As-Suli, who wrote about the history of the Abbasid caliphate as well as about chess, mentioned that match plus the even earlier players Rabrab and Jabir.
    Myths, Legends, and Theories: Before these historical personalities of the 9th and 10th centuries, we have only myths and legends. The 'Shahnama' tells us that Bozorgmehr, the vizier of King Nushirwan, deduced the secret of the riddle ('To find out how that goodly game is played, To find out what the name is of each piece, The way to move it and its proper square, To find out footman, elephant, and host, Rukh, horse, and how to move wazír and king') and described the game of chess. • It also tells us how chess was used to explain the death of a Queen's son Talhand at the hand of her first son Gav ('Once on a time there lived a king in Hind...').

    Another legend is how the inventor of chess asked only to be paid by a grain of cereal, doubled on each of the 64 squares of a chess board. It is unknown whether it is Arabic, Persian, or earlier.

    The references to chess in Indian literature are only in passing. • From the 'Vasavadatta' by Subandhu (~600 A.D.): 'The time of the rains played its game with frogs for chessmen which yellow and green in color, as if mottled by lac, leapt up on the black field squares'. • From the 'Harshacharita' by Bana (~625): 'under this king only bees (shatpada) quarrel in collecting dews (dues), the only feet cut off are those in meter, only chess boards (ashtapada) teach the positions of the chaturanga (army or chess)'. • After these, there are no Indian literary references to chess until the ninth century.

    These brief references from India, together with the lack of archaeological evidence, leave a flimsy theoretical foundation for India as the birthplace of chess. It is no wonder that historians have tried to identify other cultures, most notably China, as a more likely birthplace. Here the evidence is even flimsier and the theory fails to reconcile other accepted facts about the relationship between Chinese chess and Western chess.

    Just as chess is a difficult game, its origin is a difficult puzzle. We may never know the truth of its birth."

  • #3

    I don't know of any important discoveries concerning the origins of chess since Murray wrote down all that was known in his day.  There were so many chess-like games but really nothing to absolutely tie them to chess. So, the origin of chess remains an on-going argument and a puzzle with no genuine solution.


                      - I found an article -

    I would find it very helpful if any article would be accompanied with where it was found, who wrote it, when it was written, etc. .. any pertinent documentation, if at all possible. 

  • #4

    Your wish is my command:

    "The Origin of Chess"

    By Mark Weeks, About.com

  • #5

    Thank you, genie.
    Mr. Weeks knows what he's talking about.


  • #6


    What do you know about The Immortal Game: A History of Chess ... by David Shenk? Is the book any good or is Murray more comprehensive?

  • #7
    I've read Shenk's Immortal Game twice. It is very good but it is much less a detailed history of chess than it is a discussion of what chess has meant to human beings for the last 1,400 years. It's a quick read.
  • #8

    Nice post, Batgirl.

    For those interested in Chinese Chess, just to let you know: "shiang-chi" is the name in the Wade-Giles system of transliteration, which was fairly universal prior to about the 1980s. The pinyin transliteration used in the Peoples Republic of China, and now the UN standard, would be "xiang qi." Same pronunciation, but different way of writing it. Depending on when a book was written, it could have either name, but it's the same thing.

  • #9


    Quote (Batgirl): In 1913 Harold James Ruthven Murray wrote a 900 page book called "A History of Chess." You can buy it used at Amazon for about $40.00. In his book, he proposed that India was the birthplace of chess and for many years this was considered gospel. However, there's been much interest in refuting this idea over the years.


    Good luck I went to amazon and could only find the cheapest at $85 new or I can go to one of my collector sources and get a first edition for $250 - $400

  • #10

    I agree with Duffer1965.  Shenk's book is excellent and, while it gives a rudimentary history of chess, it's concern is in demonstrating how chess has elevated every society that embrace it. Shenk tells the story within a story within a story. The story of Anderssen's Immortal Game provides the framework, while Shenk's own story about his maternal great grandfather, Samuel Rosenthal establishes a personal perspective on the game.  That David Shenk really had no particular interest in chess before commencing this project makes the quality of the book, his ideas and his rapid understanding of certain nuances fairly remarkable. Personally, I count both Shenk's book and Richard Eales' The History of a Game, as two indispensible books on the development (as opposed to the origins) of chess in society.


                "I went to amazon and could only find the cheapest at $85"

    O well, I had found it at $40 when I first wrote the above. It's probably a bagain at $85, but it really depends on one's financial situation and priorities.

  • #11
    I will be purchasing one regardless but I am still a tightwad and wanted to get the Batgirl special discount rate or package. Wink  Thanks for the recommendation on the other books as well!
  • #12

    Who exactly was HJR Murray?


    He was featured in the 1907 issue of BMC for his contributions in chess history up to that point. You can read the BMC articlce here: http://sbchess.sinfree.net/Murray_BCM.html 

    Note that at the end of the article, it states that Murray is working on a piece on Staunton for the BCM. That piece can be read here: http://sbchess.sinfree.net/Staunton_BCM.html



  • #13

    The following is an extract from a book which I donwloaded as a PDF file from the net. Apologies for any typos, I had to type the text, including some very eccentric punctuation, into Notepad and copy it here. I have tried to preserve the use of block capitals as in the original.


    Remarks on the ancient date of Chess-playing.

    Chinese Mss. accounts, represent the inventor of the game to have been HENSING, a Chinese Mandarin, eminent in their history as a general, but they fix the date of the incident only 174 years before the Christian era, and from this circumstance it is supposed, that he only introduced it into China.
    The ancient Hindoo game, an ingenious but imperfect work of invention, is stated in the Purans, ancient authorities among the Brahmins, about the end of what is termed in their chronology, the second age of the world. The wife of RAVAN, King of Lanca (i.e. Ceylon) devised it to amuse him with an image of a field of war, while his Metropolis was closely beseiged by RAMA; and this was about 2029 years before the Christian era.

    The high degree of polish which prevailed in the Court of RAVAN at this early period, is emphatically noticed in history; in an ancient Hindoo painting, his capital appears to be regurlarly fortified in the antique style, with projecting round towers and battlements and he is said to have defended it with singular ability; hence his people were called magicians and giants. RAVAN appears to have been the Archimedes of Lanca.

    The Hon. D. Barrington, supposes Chess to have been introduced into Europe in the twelfth century, when ANNA COMNENA flourished; at which time it was rather commonly played in Constantinople, and seems to have beef first known to the Italians, through their vicinity to Constantinople, and an early trade with the eastern parts of the Mediterranean. From BOCCAE, who lived in the 14th century, we fnd at an usual amusement at Florence. France and Spain might have derived it from Italy; the Hon. gentleman, considers it most probable that it was introduced into England, in that part of the 13th Century which followed the return of Edward the 1st., from the Holy Land, where he had ramained so long, attended by many English subjects.

    The following are extracts from the section entitled "Opinions and Anecdotes Respecting the Game of Chess.

    In a history of the Goths, Swedes and Vandals, whereof an English abridgment appeared in 1658, we read :- "It is a custom among the most illustrious Goths and Swedes, when they would honestly marry their daughter, to prove the disposition of the suitors that come to them and to know their passions, especially by playing with them at Chess :- for at this game, their anger, love, peevishness, covetousness, dullness, idleness, and many more mad pranks , passions, and motions of their minds and the forces and properties of their fortunes are used to be seen; as whether the wooer be rudely disposed, that he will indiscreetly rejoice and suddenly triumph when he wins, or whether when he is wronged, he can patiently endure it and wisely put it off."

    We are told that Charles I. was at Chess, when news was brought of the final intention of the Scots to sell him to the English; but so little was he discomposed by this alrarming intelligence, that he continued the game with the unmost composure; so that no erson could have known that the letter he received had given him information of any thing remarkable.
    King John was playing at Chess, when Deputies from Rouen came to acquaint him that their city was besieged by Philip Augustus, but he would not hear them until he had finished the game.

    And finally, my personal favourite:

    It is also related of Al Amin, the Caliph of Baghdad, that he was engaged at Chess with his freedman Kuthar at the time when Al Mamun's forces were carying on the seige of that city with so much vigor that it was on the point of being carried by assault. The caliph is said to have cried out, when warned of his danger, "Let me alone, for I see check-mate against Kuthar." 


  • #14

    You may find this interesting to note: 
    Willard Fiske, in his book on the 1st American Chess Congress, listed all the books (with a brief description of each), chronologically, printed or reprinted in the United States up to 1860.

    The above book was the 12th book ever published in America. 

    Here is Fiske's entry:



    The Chess-Player, illustrated with Engravings and Diagrams ; containing Franklin's Essay on the Morals of Chess ; Introduction to the Rudimants of Chess, by George Walker, Teacher ; to which are added the Three Games played at one and the same time by Philidor ; Sixty Openings, Mates, and Situations, by W. S. Kenny, Teacher, with Remarks, Anecdotes, etc, etc., and an Explanation of the Round Chess-Board.  Boston: Published by Nathl. Dearborn, 1841.  12mo. pp. 155.

       This loosely-compiled volume contains, after Franklin;s essay, first, Walker's Chess Made Easy (pp. 13-115) ; then Philidor's games with Conway, Sheldon and Smith (pp. 116-123) ; then a few brief games and positions (pp.124-142) ; and lastly, the round Chess, and a few anecdotes (pp. 133-155).


    Something about George Walker
    Something about Daniel Willard Fiske

  • #15
    Thanks - that was great! I sure wish I could own that book.
  • #16
    qtsii wrote: Thanks - that was great! I sure wish I could own that book.

    The download the PDF from The Internet Archive:


    Just do a search for 'chess' and set the media type to 'Text'  (otherwise you'll get all sorts of rubbish).

    This site also contains a link to the Project Gutenburg edition of Staunton's "The Blue Book of Chess" which contains many games in PGN format and Caxton's "The Playe and Game of Chesse", the first book about chess ever printed in English and second book ever printed in that language, which should give you some idea of the game's enduring popularity (Caxton never printed anything that didn't sell!) as well as numerous  other works in the public domain.

    A note on the Caxton.

    Unfortunately this is a moral tale designed to show the feudal system illustrated by the chess pieces, with appropriate homilies about the king, queen, bishops, knights, rooks, and, of course, the pawns whose lowly position was necessary and by golly they had better stay there! I can imagine one or two dedicated players buying the thing, reading the first chapter and then hurling it out the window while swearing heartily. 


  • #17

    Also on project gutenberg: Bird (of Bird's opening fame)'s Chess History and reminiscences -- provides names of some pre-1400 AD non-european chess players; and regrets the fact that we don't have any of their recorded games. [I remember one name off-the-cuff - Ali Shatranji.]

    OTOH at least one K+R+R v K+R+R study by  the persion poet, mathematician and chess master Firdawsi survives. I found it in Kasparyan's book 'Domination in 2545 endgame studies' [english tr.; Progress Publishers, USSR 1980 - i don't have the original Russian book].

            White to play and draw. 

            Study by firdawsi (935-1020)











     The solution, of course, is 1. Rh5!. 

  • #18

                                "Caxton's 'The Playe and Game of Chesse'"

    It should be noted that Caxton was a printer, not an author. The above titled book was an English translation of a French translation of De Ludo Scachorum by Jacobus de Cessolis.  A while back I had written something on the Symbolism in Chess embodied in Cessolis' book.

  • #19

                                  "The solution, of course, is 1. Rh5!. "

    Of course??

    I looked at that position for a good 15 minutes before I understood the "of course" drawing line.

    Thanks for posting it.

    circa 1000 . . . wow. impressive.


  • #20

    thanks! and lucky I found something you hadn't already posted :) [I had to say 'of course' now that WGM Rusa is a group member - what would she think of us otherwise? Tongue out]

    Thankfully the R moves and the K moves haven't changed for 1000 years :) 

    I was wondering if there is anything at all i could post about chess history that you hadn't already posted -- Like I had started a thread here on Sultan Khan where i wrote i intend to add more in due course --- and now I see that all that I wanted to do is on your Sarah Beth chess site! So i'll just post that link on my thread instead - until i can get some of his annotated games. :)


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