The Origin of Chess

By Sam Sloan

Copyright December 14, 1985 by Sam Sloan

Sloan Publishers

ISBN 0-9609190-1-5

In the mid-1950's, the most popular television program for a time was called the "$64,000 Question". Contestants, who were said to be carefully screened in advance and were experts, but not professionals, in their chosen fields, were asked questions of increasing difficulty. This was the first of the great popular TV game shows. First, there was the $64 question. If that was answered correctly, the contestant could quit and take his money, or go for double. The bets went from $64 to $128, $256, $512, $1000, $2,000, $4,000, $8,000, $16,000, $32,000 and $64,000.

Most contestants went high on the scale, and the tension and excitement increased from week to week as they moved towards their goals. I only saw it happen once that a contestant actually missed the first $64 question.

On that occasion, a boy of around twelve years old was brought out. His subject was chess. He was, of course, billed as a prodigy of the game. As usual, the moderator started with a relatively easy $64 question. "Where was chess invented?", the moderator asked.

"In China," the boy replied.

"Wrong!", said the moderator. "The correct answer is India."

With that, the boy was quickly hustled off the stage. This supposed child prodigy was never seen or heard from in the world of chess again.

Much later, it was revealed that much of the program had been rigged. Some contestants were nothing more than actors, who had been told what answers to give in advance. Many famous people, including especially Charles Van Doren who appeared on a similar show called "21", had their reputations destroyed because of this scandal.

However, there is as yet another unexposed scandal about this particular program. That kid who gave China as the answer to the first question should be brought back for a try at $128. The answer he gave was correct. Chess was not invented in India. Chess was invented in China.'!!

When I say this to my otherwise well informed fellow chess players, they stare at me with an expression which indicates either horror, dismay or disgust, or some combination thereof. Finally, after a polite pause, they usually say, "I'm sorry. You're wrong. Chess was invented in India. Look it up in H.J.R. Murray."

Of course, the fact is that I have looked it up in H.J.R. Murray. I have also looked it up in the sources which he cites. This is not so easy, as the aging pages crumble in my finger tips, but it is not so difficult either. All of the sources cited by Murray can be found in the New York Public Library and in similar repositories.

I believe that some day relatively soon, Murray's baseless claim that chess was invented in India will go down as a classic example of the blind leading the blind. There are many other examples of this phenomenon, but this one in particular is especially egregious. Virtually every educated Westerner, whether a chess player or not, seems to know or at least accept as a scientifically proven fact that chess was invented in India. Every source for this cites Murray. However, Murray, in effect, does not really cite any source at all.

More amazingly than that, the truth about the actual origins of chess has been staring everyone who has studied the question in the face for a long time. This case is almost as extreme at that of the medieval astronomers. In the middle ages, there were many astronomers who studied the skies with the naked eye. They made precise mathematical calculations which are still considered valid. They figured out in great detail all of the cycles and epicycles which the heavenly bodies followed in their movement around the earth, the center of the universe. As their calculations grew more precise, they had increasing difficulty doing this, but it was always possible, by postulating a new epicycle within an epicycle, to come up with a mathematically sound explanation.

One day, Copernicus was looking at this wealth of data collected by others, when it occurred to him that all of this could be explained more easily by saying that the earth moved around the sun, rather than the other way around.

Similarly, in the case at hand, the evidence has always clearly showed that chess was invented in China and did not arrive in India until nearly a millennium had passed, or perhaps even considerably longer. However, because nearly every researcher and author has accepted uncritically the assumption that chess was invented in India in the sixth or seventh centuries and moved to other countries later on, it has been necessary for them to go through a convoluted reasoning process to explain its appearance in other places at earlier dates.

Chess has been shown to have appeared in India at a date no earlier than the sixth century AD, and Indian scholars themselves seem to believe that the actual date was considerably more recent than even that. It seems unlikely that there could be any mistake on this, because there is a wealth of literary material available in Sanskrit going back to 1500 BC. If chess had existed in the early history of India, it seems almost certain that it would have been mentioned somewhere. At the same time, persons who are considered authorities in the field have long known that the highly similar game of Chinese chess, or at least a predecessor thereof, is known to have existed in China at least as far back as the second century, BC. How do they reconcile these two facts?

In essence, they make two points. First, they say that the ancient Chinese manuscripts are simply wrong. The game they were talking about was perhaps go or perhaps some other game, but certainly it could not have been chess, because, as everyone knows, chess was not invented until the sixth century, AD.

The second suggestion is that Chinese chess is a totally different game, unrelated to western chess. They emphasize that Chinese chess has a river, a cannon, a knight that cannot jump, and that the pieces in Chinese chess are written in Chinese characters and are placed on "points" rather than on squares. The fact that Chinese chess also has a rook, a king, a pawn and a bishop, all of which occupy the same place on the board in the starting position and have the same movement and the same name as in the known medieval predecessor of western chess, is simply ignored. In some cases, it is clear that the so-called scholars do not even know the proper rules of Chinese chess.

There are two references to chess in ancient Chinese literature. The first was from a collection of poems known as " Chu Chi ". The author was named Chii Yuan. He was the most famous writer in the Chou Dynasty (1046 - 255 BC). He killed himself by jumping into a lake. The second is from a famous book of philosophy known as " Shuo Yuan " which cited Chu Chi. It is from the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 221 AD). Both are well known to any student of Chinese literature.

A more recent reference to chess came from the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 AD). There was a famous poet named Li Ching Zhou. She wrote a book entitled " Hitting Horse Picture." By that time, the pieces had the same names as now.

In order, for example, to discover the origin of a language, linguists go through a process known as linguistic reconstruction. First, they identify the members of a family of languages by identifying features which cannot be explained in any other way than to say that they all came from a common origin. After that, they pinpoint uniform sound changes which can be shown to have occurred over a wide range of vocabulary items as the languages were breaking up. Finally, they are able to develop, in great detail, a proto-language with a description of how that one original language gradually broke up into the many languages in that family which exist today. Then, they are able to determine almost the exact spot in the world where the parent language originated and the time when it began to spread and divide.

For example, they know that proto-Indo-European originated, or at least began to spread, 5000 years ago in an area north of the Black and Caspian seas and south of the Urals, long before written history in that region existed. The only serious disagreement on this point revolves around a 200 mile radius from this area. Theories advanced by special interest groups, such as the Nazi claim that the Indo-European languages were invented by a blond-haired blue-eyed race on the southern shores of the Baltic Sea, have been shown to be simply false. How, one asks, are they able to be so sure of this, when it all happened thousands of years before any written history of that area?

The way the place of origin is determined is through words which are similar in all Indo-European languages and whose similarity cannot be explained by "borrowing". For example, the words for "birch tree", "horse", "horse-cart" and "chariot" are common to all the Indo-European languages from Europe to India. However, horses, horse-carts, and chariots do not exist naturally in either Europe or India, but they exist in abundance in areas north of the Black and Caspian seas, along with birch trees, so this is one of many pieces of evidence pointing to that area. (The special relevance of the non-existence of horses and chariots naturally in India will become apparent shortly).

The next logical step is to apply this process to the game of chess. Fortunately, just as there are many types of Indo-European languages, there are also many types of chess. There is western chess, Chinese chess, Japanese chess ("shogi"), Korean chess, Burmese chess, Cambodian chess, Thai chess, Malaysian chess, Indonesian chess, Turkish chess and possibly even Ethiopian chess.

Following the above mentioned linguistic process, the first step is to determine if, in fact, these are all branches of the same game. That is really not difficult. All of the above games have the objective of checkmating the king. They all have a king in the center, a rook in the corner, a knight next to it and pawns in front and the moves of these pieces are identical or nearly identical to that of western chess. None of them, besides western chess, has a queen, but we know that the queen was first invented in Italy in the fifteenth century, long after the other branches of the tree had divided. As to a bishop, only Japanese chess has a western style bishop, but the Japanese believe that this coincidence is relatively modern. Other forms of chess have an elephant, as the Arabic and Persian version of the game did. However, we know that the modern bishop is a purely western innovation that was derived from the elephant, most likely in the fifteenth century.

In Japanese chess, each side has only one bishop, and that starts out at an unlikely spot directly in front of the left side knight. These dissimilarities indicate either that the Japanese bishop was developed independently from the western bishop and the similarities between them are purely a matter of chance, or that westerners brought the bishop to Japan (or the Japanese took their bishop to the west) in relatively modern times. The elephants of Chinese chess clearly turned into the silvers of Japanese chess, while the chariots (rooks) of Chinese chess were reduced to the lances of Japanese chess.

There are many other similarities between all of these games, but we already know enough to be absolutely certain that they have a common origin, so next we need to proceed to determine when and where that origin took place.

First, let us dispose with the claim that chess was invented in India. We know that there are Chinese tracts concerning chess dating back to the second century BC. Most authors, including H.J.R. Murray, are actually unaware of this, while other writers on chess history, such as my good friend Fred Wilson, hastily skip over this and proceed to a subject they know more about, such as Bobby Fischer's defeat of Boris Spassky in 1972. One writer, who at least deserves credit for addressing the question, is Harry Golombek, who, in his "Chess, a History", states:

"I have seen a poem dating from the second century BC in which, according to the translator, there are two references to the playing of chess. If the game were indeed played then, it would completely upset all present-day theories; but there are two possible explanations for the references, either of which would leave modern theories untroubled. They could be to the game of 'wei-chi', or 'go', which is known to be considerably older than chess (or to another board game, backgammon, for instance). Or they could refer to the Chinese riverside game of chess, which is in fact not chess at all as we know it." Golombek, Chess, a History, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1976, p. 10.

A few pages later it becomes clear that, by the "Chinese riverside game of chess", Golombek means modern Chinese chess, which has a river in the middle. He proceeds to give the approximate rules for this game:

"The River Game has resemblances to chaturanga and chess which are quite remarkable. But so are the differences - so much that it is still unproven whether it is a variant or a derivative from chaturanga, or whether it stems from some more ancient game (perhaps that described in 'The Golden Palace') and was then blended with or strongly influenced by chaturanga, as it made its way to China from India."

"Chaturanga" is the supposed ancestor of modern chess which was played in India. Like so many authors, Golombek has a blind spot to the possibility that chess did not originate in India. On the preceding page, he states:

"Go, a much older game than Chaturanga, bears no resemblance to chess. Known as wei-chi, there are many references to it in ancient Chinese literature. I have seen translations of these which, wrongly in my opinion, render them as chess. An example of this is the "Golden Palace", an anonymous poem written in the first century BC." Ibid, p. 23.

Notably, when he states that the "river game" may have descended from some ancient ancestor, such as that described in the Golden Palace, he overlooks the clear possibility that the ancient game, whatever it was, may have been the common ancestor of both chaturanga and Chinese chess. A professional linguist would have noticed this possibility instantaneously. Golombek, however, is but a mere chess player.

There are many other examples of this, but let us put these aside and proceed directly to the source: H.J.R. Murray. Murray's work, "A History of Chess", was published in 1913. His other volume, "A Short History of Chess", was first published in 1963, but had been written in 1917 and was found in his papers after his death. Thus, his most recent work on chess history was written in 1917.

In almost every other field of academic endeavor, a work of such age is, by now, obsolete. However, surprisingly enough, serious academic researchers have apparently not been much interested in the history of chess and thus have not bothered to or even thought of going back to reexamine the underlying basis to Murray's conclusion. Also surprisingly, in Murray's otherwise seemingly well documented work, he seems to have only one concrete source for his claim that chess was invented in India. That source is H.J. Raverty.

"Raverty", I exclaimed when I saw this. I know Raverty well, because he is the main authority on another totally different subject in which I happen to have an intense interest. That is the Pashtu language, which is spoken in Afghanistan and in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. I have Raverty's complete Pashtu-English Dictionary at home, and I study it often. It is an excellent work, obviously compiled after years of prodigious effort. However, it is clear that Raverty was nothing more than a layman and was not a trained linguist. For example, Raverty did not really understand the difference between retroflex and palatal consonants. That difference happens to be critical in the Pashtu language and no trained linguist would have made this mistake.

Raverty was a nineteenth century British army officer. His main qualification was in having served in the perpetual wars against Afghanistan during that period. Apparently a believer in the adage "know thy enemy", Raverty studied the language, culture and literature of the people he was fighting. Murray, on the other hand, undoubtedly could not read a word of Hindi, Urdu or Pashtu, much less Sanskrit, so he had to rely on those such as Raverty who did.

In 1902, in the last years of his life, Raverty published an article in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. The article was entitled the "History of Chess and Backgammon". Raverty, H.J., "History of Chess and Backgammon", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol. 71, Part I, p. 47, Calcutta, 1902 .

This article for the first time provided the story which every chess player now knows. The story, in sum, goes: There once was a sage named Shashi in Sind, in the reign of King Rai Bhalit in North West India. One night Shashi invented a wonderful new game. The next morning he took it to the king, who marveled at it and asked what reward he wanted. The king said that any reasonable request would be granted. Shashi said that he merely requested that one grain of wheat be placed on the first square of the chess board, two on the second, four on the third, eight on-the fourth, and so on, until all 64 squares had been filled. The king readily agreed to this request.

We all know the end of that story. In any event, according to Raverty, Shashi had a son named Shah, and from that came the name "Shak" or chess. In the same article, Raverty also recounts how backgammon was supposedly invented, according to him, just a short time before chess. It has now been proven that at least that part of the story is pure nonsense.

Although Murray passes the story about the invention of chess off as a fable, without properly crediting Raverty (it is Davidson who clarifies the point that Raverty was the original source for this story), he nevertheless sticks to it. He says that chess was invented in a single night by a philosopher who lived in North West India. In Murray's time, before the partition of India in 1947, which broke India up into parts, North West India meant what is now the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan and, arguably, parts of Afghanistan.

This geographical region happened to be Raverty's area of expertise. Sind, however, is now the South Eastern most province of Pakistan, and includes Karachi. Perhaps Murray did not know exactly where Sind was. In any event, all of present day Pakistan, including Sind, could arguably have then been called North West India.

It so happens that Pakistan is a country that I know something about. I wrote a dictionary of a language spoken there and have traveled and lived extensively in that region, especially in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan. The people there are primarily desert dwellers. They are great merchants and traders. Their caravans can easily penetrate all the way from Arabia to China. However, to say that these people, the vast majority of whom even today cannot read and write, invented a game like chess, is ridiculous, and I am sure that my many friends in Pakistan will agree with me.

The Indians themselves are perplexed by the claim that chess was invented by them. Here is what was said in the Indian Historical Quarterly, a serious scholarly journal: Chakravarti, Chintaharan, "Sanskrit Works on the Game of Chess", Indian Historical Quarterly, Calcutta, June, 1938, Vol. 14, No. 2, Part I, p. 275.

"Though the game of chess is generally supposed by scholars to be of Indian origin and reference to the game is said to be found in various Indian works from a very early period, Sanskrit works dealing with it and describing its complexity are comparatively rare. As a matter of fact, no early Indian work on the subject is known and until recently the work of scholarship had very few descriptions of the game."

This journal also cites certain claims that chess was referred to in various writings by ancient Indian authors. However, it states that this was a common trick in those times. When one wanted to gain an audience for one's ideas, one claimed that such-and-such famous long deceased person said or wrote it. The journal then proceeds to list a number of famous authors who supposedly wrote about chess, and dismisses all of these claims. In conclusion, it is unable to find even one source in Indian literature regarding chess dated earlier than Sulipani in the fifteenth century, AD (more than 900 years after Murray says that chess was invented there)!! In short, each and every source cited by Murray, Davidson, Forbes, Golombek, Eales and others, which supposedly establishes that chess was written about in India during the first millennium AD, is discredited. The conclusion is: "This may appear to be rather curious and apparently raises a point of doubt with respect to the genuineness of the work."

It seems unlikely that there could be any mistake on this point. H. J. R. Murray cites two works from the seventh century and two more from the ninth century, which he claims contain references to chess. Murray says that references to chess are contained in Harshacharita by Bana and in Vasavadatta by Subhandu. These citations are followed uncritically by Golombek, Eales and others. However, these are the famous classical works in Indian literature. If they really contained references to chess, then every Indian school boy would know about it. Murray also states that chess is discussed in pre-Persian (Pahlavi) in the Karnamak and in the "Chatranj Namak". The Karnamak is a lost work which Murray could not possibly have read and which is not certain ever to have existed. The "Chatranj Namak" seems to be a work purely invented by Murray of which nobody else has ever seen or even heard. More recent works cited by Murray, Haravijaya of Ratnakara and Kavyalankara of Rudrata, do not, according to scholars, contain any references to chess. Murray states that the famous traveler Al-Beruni observed chess being played in India in the year 1030. However, Arab scholars who have studied the works of Al-Beruni in their original language state that these works contain no references to chess.

"Chaturanga" was the Indian word for the familiar 8x8 checker board, on which many games were and still are played. The use of the term "Chaturanga" in Indian litearture does not prove that the game we now know as chess was played on that board.

It appears that Murray, a mere school teacher without any scholarly credentials, never read these works himself, but relied instead on material published in Germany in the late nineteenth century. (Murray never seems to cite his actual source). In short, the claim that chess was referred to in classical Indian literature has hardly any sounder basis than the claim that chess was played by the Pharaohs of Egypt and that Alexander the Great was a strong chess player.

The fact that chess is not very popular in India even today is also significant. Hindus are great philosophers, but are not much interested in games playing. India only joined F.I.D.E. (the International Chess Federation) recently and did not send teams to international competitions until a few years ago. The only great Indian chess player in history, Sultan Khan, did not come from what is now India at all. He was a Muslim from near to Lahore, Pakistan, and his claim to greatness is derived in part from the fact that he came from what was considered to be a non-chess playing country.

There are other sources for the claim that chess was invented in India, but they are all based on Murray. Prior to Murray, the main authorities emphasized Persia as the most likely spot for the origin of chess. More than that, for various historical reasons, Murray himself indicates that for his thesis to be correct, chess could not have been invented earlier than the Huri domination of North India in around 500 A.D. Murray, H.J.R., A Short History of Chess with B. Goulding-Brown and H. Golombek, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, p. 1 (1963). After citing a source dated 600 A.D., Davidson states, "So runs the earliest reference to chess in all literature."

Unfortunately, Murray's problem seems to have been that, not only could he not read Hindi or Urdu, but he could not read Chinese either. Raverty, in his article, says that Shuli, one of the first great players and a follower of the inventor, Shashi, died in 946. He also mentions various unfamiliar historical figures, such as King Rai Bhalit, who lived in the time of Shashi, sometimes spelled Sassi, Sissa, Sahsih or even Shashi. (The spelling "Shashi" is most accurate for an English speaker, because the two /sh/ sounds are both retroflex). Raverty also says that Shashi was the son of Dahir, a ruler of Sind who fell in battle in the year 712 A.D. during the Akasirah Dynasty. This would indicate an origin of chess in the eighth century.

The other sources are similar to Murray. For example, there is Professor D. W. Fiske, who says:

"Chess is an ancient game which is first mentioned in documents dating back to the early years of the seventh century A.D. and associated with North West India and Persia. Before the seventh century of our era, the existence of chess in any land is not demonstrable by a single shred of contemporary evidence." Fiske, D.W., The Nation, 1900.

Then, there is Davidson, another well known author on the history of chess. He says:

"The trail of chess leads back to about A.D. 500. Then we strike a barrier behind which historical research has not penetrated. All we know is that during the sixth century, inhabitants were playing chaturanga, a game substantially like modern chess." Davidson, H.A., A Short History Of Chess, Greenberg, New York, 1949, p. 22.

From the above sources, we can reasonably conclude that chess appeared in India no earlier than the sixth century A.D., and perhaps considerably later. However, we also know that Chinese chess was written about at a much earlier date.

Next, we must deal with the contention, since it has been made, that Chinese chess is really not related to western chess. In this regard, we must use the well established evidence concerning the origins of modern western chess. We know from the writings of Lucena (of "Lucena position" fame) that the modern form of chess was invented or at least codified in Italy during the period from 1475 to 1497 A.D. and spread like wildfire across Europe. This game brought together three features which medieval chess did not have: the modern queen, the modern bishop and en passant pawn capturing. One move castling and automatic pawn promotion had not been codified yet. Nevertheless, these changes were enough to enable Ruy Lopez in 1561 to publish his famous opening analysis. The oldest game in "The Oxford Encyclopedia of Chess Games" is dated 1490, and even that does not play legally according to the rules of modern chess. Levy, David and O'Connell, Kevin, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Chess Games, Oxford University Press, 1983.

The game in Europe prior to 1475 was still substantially identical to that played by the Persians, Indians and Arabs in the seventh century. Indeed, the terms Persian chess, Indian chess, Arabic chess and medieval chess are here used more or less interchangeably, since there seem to be no known lasting differences between the games. Four handed chess, which some, starting with Forbes, believe was the original game, (Forbes, Duncan, The History of Chess, W.H. Allen 5 Co., London, 1860) has been proven to have been merely an unsuccessful variant.

In other words, the game, or at least the most popular form thereof, remained the same for about 800 years. Then, suddenly, three major changes were made more or less simultaneously and the old game was almost immediately forgotten. Actually, during those 800 years, there were constant experiments with different types of pieces, such as griffins, unicorns and other strange animals, just as there are even today. No doubt, the modern bishop and the modern queen were first thought of long before 1497. However, it was not until approximately that date that all of these elements were combined into the same game at the same time. The process seems to have been essentially Darwinian, with innumerable mutations, but only the rare superior ones ultimately surviving.

The original Persian or Indian game had exactly the same pieces with the same movement as the medieval game, but the pieces had slightly different names. The piece in the corner was not a rook, but a chariot. (Remember what was said about Indo-European languages). Next, came the horse. (The knight is purely a European term). After that, came the elephant. (It is still an elephant in Russian and in several other languages to this day. Also, in Spanish, it is the "alfil", which comes from the Arabic "Al-Fil", meaning "the elephant". "Al" means "the" and "fil" means "elephant". It was, of course, the Arabs who brought chess to Spain). The elephant jumped two squares diagonally, no more and no less. Next, came the chancellor or minister, which moved only one square diagonally. Finally, in the center, came the king, which moved like our king. The Persian name for the game was, and still is, Shatranj. The board was 8x8 colorless squares.

Now, let us examine Chinese chess. The name in Mandarin for Chinese chess is pronounced Shaingchi. This is sometimes spelled "Hsiang-chi", and, under the pinyin spelling system in the People's Republic of China, it is spelled "Xiangqi". However, in that system, "X" is pronounced "SH" (retroflex) and "Q" is pronounced "CH" (retroflex). The Chinese name, Shiangchi, sounds very similar to the Persian name, Shatranj. Indeed, they are about as similar as a Persian word and a Chinese word can sound. Shiangchi also sounds something like "Shakmat", the Russian word for chess, like "Shogi", which is Japanese chess, and like Chaturanga, the Indian name. Every linguist will agree that this is strong, if not conclusive, evidence pointing to the conclusion that these are all versions of the same game.

Next, let us look at the pieces, from left to center. The piece in the corner in Chinese chess is called the chariot. (Modern Chinese players sometimes call it the car). The name is also chariot in Persian chess. The movement is also the same. It moves like our rook. The next piece over is the horse ("asp" in Persian, of which I know a little). It is also a horse in Chinese chess. The movement is the same in both games, except that the horse cannot jump in Chinese chess. (The Chinese say that this restriction was a more modern innovation, to reduce the power of the horse). The third piece is the elephant. Again, the name is the same in Persian and Chinese, as well as in Arabic, Russian and many other languages. The move is also the same. Both move exactly two squares diagonally. In Chinese chess, the elephant cannot jump over an intervening piece. Some say that it could jump in Persian or Indian chess, but that is not clear. Next, there is the advisor, minister or chancellor. Again, both have substantially the same name in both Chinese and Persian chess. The movement is also the same: one square diagonally. However, here is one significant difference. Chinese chess has two advisors or guards and, for this reason, there are nine pieces across, not eight as in Persian and western chess. Also, in Chinese chess, the advisors and the king cannot leave a central area known as the "nine palaces". Finally, in the center in both games is the king.

In view of all this, how is it possible, then, that any reasonable and informed person could contend that these two games are not related? The answer is that detractors seize primarily upon the existence of the cannon and the river. The cannon is a unique piece. It moves like a rook, but captures only by jumping over an intervening piece and capturing the piece beyond it. Not only does this piece not exist in western chess, but it does not exist in Japanese chess or in any other version of the game, except for Korean chess. The explanation for this is simple. The cannon is an innovation which the Chinese say was invented no earlier than the tenth century A.D., after the other branches of the game had spread out and broken up.

As to the river, far too much emphasis has been placed upon it. The river is simply an artificial boundary between the opposing forces, with no real independent significance except that it provides a reference point and performs essentially the same function as having white and black colored squares in western chess. The chariots, horses and cannons can move back and forth across the river freely. Aside from marking the center of the board, only two rules have any bearing on the river. The first is that the elephants cannot cross the river, and are thus purely defensive pieces. The second is that the pawns acquire the power to move sideways upon crossing the river. Pawn promotion, as such in western chess, does not exist in Chinese chess. Without this rule, pawns in Chinese chess would become dead upon reaching the back rank. In Chinese chess, they can then move sideways and often play a major role in checkmating the enemy king in the endgame. Finally, it is clear that the creation of the river is just another relatively recent innovation. Even the highly similar game of Korean chess does not have a river, because it does not need one, although Korean chess is also played on a 9x10 board. The obvious reason for this is that, in Korean chess, the elephant has a different type of move, and is not restricted to just one side of the board, while the pawns can move sideways immediately and do not need first to reach enemy territory.

The fact is that Chinese chess, like western chess, evolved gradually and the rules changed over a long period of time. The Chinese have studied this subject with more zeal than their western counterparts and know far more about the history of their game. I met with Mr. Liu Guo Bin, the Director and Chief Arbiter of the Chinese Chinese Chess Federation at 9 Tiyuguan Road, Beijing, China, last April, 1985, and it turns out that he is one of the authorities on this subject. He says that the modern rules of Chinese chess were finalized in the Song Dynasty, which existed at around 1000 A.D. There is disagreement on this point, but the fact is that the Chinese have studied carefully the history of their game, whereas we have obviously neglected ours.

The Chinese written language has not changed much in 2000 years, even though the spoken language has naturally been in a state of flux. The same characters were used to write the name of Chinese chess then as now. When a westerner such as Golombek asserts that the Chinese do not know their own language and have mixed up chess with go in their ancient histories, he is merely presenting a half-baked opinion unworthy of consideration. At the same time, the Chinese themselves must share part of the blame, because they have not protested more vigorously, except in publications written in their own language.

There are two great Chinese games: "Shiang-chi" and "Wei-chi". Wei-chi is the game known in Japan as go. It seems well established that wei-chi is a truly ancient game, dating back perhaps as much as 4000 years, but originally played on a smaller board. (Interestingly, detractors from this theory assert that the ancient writers were talking about chess, not go). The symbol for "wei" is a Chinese character which has a meaning similar to the word pronounced "go" in the Japanese language (which also uses Chinese characters). This accounts for the difference in the two names.

The other game, Shiang-chi, uses the Chinese character pronounced "Shiang", which means, or meant, "elephant". The Chinese character for "chi", which can be thought of as meaning "game", is the same in both games. Thus, "Shiang-chi" means "elephant game". Japanese chess is called shogi in Japan. As mentioned before, this is pronounced similarly to Shiang-chi and even to Shatranj. However, different Chinese characters are used in Japanese. Since the word for "elephant" is pronounced much differently in Japanese, the Japanese, in typical fashion, looked for a word which was pronounced as close as possible to "Shiang". They came up with "Sho", which means "general". The name "general-game" is a good description for the game of shogi, so the name stuck. (The Japanese call our western game "International Shogi" and Chinese chess "Chinese Shogi").

There are, however, two significant differences between Chinese chess and Persian or western chess which I have not dealt with up to now. The first is that in Chinese chess (and in Korean chess) the pieces are placed on the intersections or "points", whereas in western chess (and in Japanese chess) the pieces are placed on squares.

We know the reason for this. The reason is that in the much older game of go, the stones were placed on the points, so when a new game was invented, this convention was followed. However, we cannot be certain whether, in the original chess game, the pieces were placed on the points or on the squares. This does not, however, at all disprove the common origin of the two games. Instead, it rather provides the explanation for another difference. The modern Chinese chess board has 9x10 points. That happens to equal a board of 8x9 squares, including the river in the middle. If the river is eliminated (and the river cannot really be called squares), then we have actually 8x8 squares on a Chinese chess board, just the same as in western chess. Again, this tends to indicate a common origin, and we simply cannot be certain whether the complex Chinese version of chess was the first and then was reduced to the simplified Persian version, or visa-versa. (Incidentally, Chinese chess is definitely more complex than western chess, as much as this statement may hurt the pride of westerners. There are more different kinds of pieces on the board in Chinese chess, more possible legal and/or reasonable moves in the average position, and the games last longer, sometimes for hundreds of moves, in Chinese chess. Japanese chess is yet again more complicated than both of them.)

There is, as yet, another tantalizing clue to be derived from the observation that Chinese chess is played on the points in order to follow a convention from go. Go has the peculiar property in that it can be played on any size board, except that preferably the number of points should be odd (to reduce the possibility of draws). Over history, go has been played on boards of many different sizes. Today, three sizes are in common use: 19x19 (the standard), 13x13 and 9x9. The 9x9 size is now used primarily to teach children and beginners, but it is a complex and challenging game in its own right. It so happens that a 9x9 go board also equals an 8x8 chess board. This is especially significant, because the original chess boards in India and Persia did not have white and black colored squares. (This, too, is a modern innovation). Murray says that on the original otherwise barren 8x8 chess boards, there were mysterious "markings". Is it possible that these "markings" were the handicap points in go? (Unfortunately, there is another disturbing possibility. Old Persian art work, such as that shown by Golombek (pp. 31, 36, 53), shows the names of the pieces written in Arabic on the board, rather than stand-up pieces. Other than that, I have not been able to locate any markings. Is seems almost unbelievable, but perhaps Murray did not understand what these Arabic "markings" were.)

In short, it is easy to postulate that when chess came from China to India, it was played on a 9x9 go board. When the Indians (or Persians or Arabs, which ever came first), who knew nothing of go, saw this, they simply and naturally moved the pieces off the points and on to the squares. Thus, a 9x9 go board became an 8x8 chess board. However, then there was one piece too many, so the Indians simply eliminated one of the chancellors. They also added three pawns, to fill up the empty spaces in front. (Chinese chess now has only five pawns, but it may have had more in earlier versions of the game). In this manner, it is possible that they converted Chinese chess to Indian chess in one stroke.

The other remaining difference is that western chess uses stand up pieces, whereas most oriental versions of chess, including Chinese chess, Korean chess and Japanese chess, use flat tiles with Chinese characters printed on them. (There are minor differences between these three types of tiles: Chinese pieces are circular, Korean pieces are octagonal, and Japanese pieces are pentagonal). Thus, the Chinese horse or the Korean horse or the Japanese horse simply has the Chinese character for horse written on the piece, whereas the western game has an actual carved figure of a horse.

Which came first? Again, we cannot know the answer. However, it should be noted that the old Persian and Arabic art work pertaining to chess does not show physical pieces on the chessboard, but rather has the names of the pieces written in Arabic on the board, just as the Chinese pieces are now written in Chinese. The first evidence of actual physical pieces does not appear until the game reached Christian Europe. This may explain the fact that archeologists have not had much success at digging up truly old chess sets, considering how popular chess is known to have been. Quite possibly, the names of the pieces were merely written on paper, and the chessboards themselves were drawn in the dust.

Second, some Chinese historians believe that the original pieces in Chinese chess were stand-up western style pieces. They state that ancient tombs have been unearthed from the Song dynasty which contain stand-up pieces. The theory is that, because China has always been a poor country, the people could not afford to buy individually carved pieces, so they finally settled for simple disks with the Chinese characters hand written on them. In addition, this enabled the pieces to be used for other games. For example, one variation which is still played in the park in Chinatown in San Francisco is a gambling game in which the players start with the pieces face down, to conceal the type of piece from the opponent. Gradually, as the game proceeds, the pieces are turned over and their character revealed. Similarly, the Japanese have put this feature to good use, because the reverse side of most of their pieces contains another piece to which the top piece can promote.

Here, there is one remaining aspect which I have avoided thus far. This is the Soviet claim that chess was invented in Soviet Uzbekistan. Everyone scoffs at this, because of the well known Soviet penchant for claiming that everything was invented in Russia. However, the actual Soviet tendency is to assert that everything was invented by the Russians, a Nordic race which originally came from Scandinavia. The Uzbeks, on the other hand, are not one of the Soviet's favored races. Uzbeks are Turks, who are the arch-enemies of the Russians. Actually, the Uzbeks are a Mongolian-type people who came to what is now called Uzbekistan only in fairly recent historical times, and who learned to speak Turkish from other races. Whoever was there before was wiped out by the hordes of Genghis Khan (said to be an ancestor of my daughter, Shamema, but that is another story). In any event, Uzbekistan, which is located in a much larger area once known as Turkistan, is but a caravan journey from both India and China, and it cannot be entirely ruled out as a possible source for both games.

On the other hand, Uzbekistan is primarily a desert area, like Afghanistan, and its inhabitants were always primarily nomads. It is hard to believe that they invented a game like chess. It seems more likely that they brought it by caravan from some other place. The current claim for Uzbekistan as a source for chess is based primarily on what appears to be possibly pieces from an old chess set featuring, among other things, the figure of an elephant, which was dug up in 1972. It has been dated to the second century AD (which, predictably, caused an uproar among those who are certain that chess had not been invented yet).(Dickens, A.S.M., British Chess Magazine, July, 1973) However, long before that, in fact before the establishment of the modern Soviet empire, Uzbekistan had been mentioned as a possible place for the source of chess. ( See Savenkov, I.T., The Evolution of the Game of Chess, Moscow, 1905, (in Russian) cited by Murray) Actually, whenever the existence of chess in Uzbekistan is mentioned, it is most often stated that this is evidence for an origin of chess in nearby China. Nobody seems to believe that the much maligned Uzbeks are capable of inventing such a game.

Uzbekistan is still a far more likely source for the origin of chess than India. This becomes apparent when we adopt the linguistic approach by looking at the names of the pieces. The major pieces are the chariot, the horse and the elephant. Horses, as stated before, do not exist naturally in India. Tame horses can be found, but not wild horses. The Aryans from central Asia are believed to have used horses and chariots 4000 years ago to conquer India. In more modern times, the British easily conquered India and what is now Pakistan by attacking them with horses. The Indian armies fled in fright, because they had never seen horses before. I have never been to Uzbekistan (except on the Afghan side), but I have recently spent a month in nearby Kashgar, on the Chinese side of the border, and I saw nothing but thousands, perhaps millions, of horses, many of them wild. In short, horses exist in great numbers north, but not south, of the Hindu Kush and Himalayan mountains. They also exist all across northern China. Two of the pieces in both Chinese chess and Persian chess and also in supposedly ancient Indian chess involve horses, namely the horse and the chariot. A game of Indian or Pakistan origin would more likely have involved a camel. At the same time, elephants existed in India and probably in China, but not in Persia, Pakistan or Uzbekistan, although the Persians had heard of elephants. By this process, we seem to have eliminated Persia, India, Pakistan and Uzbekistan as possible places for the origin of chess, leaving only China.

Actually, many Chinese themselves believe that their name, "elephant game", for Chinese chess, points strongly to an Indian origin. However, other Chinese say that (1) elephants existed in ancient China, but died out due to climatic changes and (2) although the character "Shiang" in "Shiang-chi" means or meant elephant, it also meant other things previously, and when the meaning of that character changed, so did the name of the game. For example, when "Shiang" is combined with another Chinese character, it means a constellation of stars in the sky, and for that reason "Shiang-chi" is sometimes said to be an astrological game. Also, the elephant is one of the weakest pieces in almost all versions of chess. Since the elephant itself is a strong animal, this lends support to the Chinese assertion that this character meant something else in ancient history.

Finally, there is one point, perhaps the most important point, which concludes my case. This is that Chinese chess is the most popular game in the world, with hundreds of millions of active players. It is far more popular than western chess on a man-for-man basis. Everywhere one goes in the People's Republic of China, one constantly finds games of Chinese chess being played. One sees games on the train, in the bus, in hotels, offices and other common meeting places, and even on the sidewalk on the street. It is clearly more popular than western chess on a population basis. The game is also ingrained in the Chinese culture. Virtually every male person in the world of Chinese origin knows the rules of Chinese chess and has played at least one or two games, having been taught during childhood. If one wants to play a game of Chinese chess in China, all one needs to do is to put down a board and pieces on the sidewalk and an opponent will materialize instantaneously. After a minute or two more, a crowd will have gathered to watch the game (and to make unsolicited comments and suggestions on the moves). Furthermore, there are several varieties of Chinese chess, some of which have died out but others of which are still played.

The enormous popularity of Chinese chess is a point overlooked by almost every western source. Golombek states, for example, than when chess entered China, it was eclipsed by the more popular game of go. ( Golombek, Chess, a History, Id., p. 22.) Actually, the reverse was true. Chinese chess is the more recent of the two games. Nowadays in China, the number of players of Chinese chess is vastly greater than the number of players of go. Go is the game of the intellectual elite. Chess is the game of the masses.

In addition, going back to the fable of Shashi about the invention of chess, in which the inventor wanted one grain of wheat on the first square of the chess board, two on the second and so on, we know at least that the person who invented the fable was both a chess player and a mathematician who realized that 2 to the 64th power was a very large number. We also know from our own experience that this is the general case. Many chess players are mathematicians and most mathematicians are chess players. The connection between chess and mathematics is well known. Right now every mathematics department in every university in the United States is clamoring to get its fair share of mathematicians now being sent out by the People's Republic of China in great numbers. The Chinese involvement with mathematics is part of their culture and history and is not a recent development. It is difficult for a westerner to grasp the full significance of this, because in the western world, people are accustomed to doing things because of personal preference rather than because of their cultural or religious background. It is hard for a westerner to understand or believe that, to the extent that chess was played in India at all, it was played by Muslims but not by Hindus. However, throughout Asia, a man's religion is a far greater factor than his personal preference in determining what he eats, how he dresses, what kind of job he has or what he does in his spare time.

From all this, there seems to be no other choice but to conclude that chess originated in China. From this starting point, we can work out how chess must have developed and spread over the centuries. China has always tended to be an isolationist country, throughout its recorded history. It built the Great Wall in ancient times and even now is still reluctant to allow in tourists. Marco Polo is famous, not so much because he went to China, since the physical trip was not so difficult, but because he lived to return and tell about it. Only during the short Mongol reign of Kublai Khan were a few foreigners allowed to enter and leave China. Before and after that, the door was closed. In view of this well known history, it seems unlikely that a game of foreign origin could have entered China from India and become so enormously popular so quickly. Instead, it is more logical that it was invented in China at a date no later than the second century BC, and that it took at least 800 years before it penetrated to other countries. It reached Persia by around 650 A.D. It arrived there at an opportune time, as Islam had just started and begun to spread.

The Arabs carried chess along with the Koran all the way across North Africa into Spain and France, within less than one hundred years. This is the reason that chess seems to have popped up everywhere almost simultaneously. (Murray, on the other hand, felt that the game spread rapidly from a single source because of its great intrinsic merit). At the same time, going in the opposite direction, the Arabs penetrated into China, as a result of which Islam is still today the second most popular religion there. Perhaps, this is also how the Arabs learned of chess, rather than from the Persians or the Indians.

There is Muslim tradition which has it that only a few years after the death of Mohammed in 642 A.D., the Caliphs Omar and/or Ali already knew of the game and perhaps played it themselves. (Some more present day Muslims, however, maintain that chess playing is a sin and such a thing could never have happened). In any event, it is a proven historical fact that in the Ommayad period of Syrian rule in the eighth century which started with the death of Ali, chess was popular throughout the Muslim world. Needless to say, an endorsement of the caliph (or of Ali, the first Imam, depending upon which branch of Islam one happened to belong to) was sufficient to insure that all Muslims would take up the game.

Chess also spread from China in the opposite direction. The traditional view is that it reached Japan in the Nara period, which was from 704 to 790 A.D. If this is true, it would also be strong evidence against an Indian origin, because it is unlikely that it could have been invented in India during the sixth century, crossed Kashmir to China (the supposed route), and then crossed all of China and the Sea of Japan, to reach Japan in only about one hundred years. Actually, there are so many differences between Chinese chess and Japanese chess that the authorities in Japan do not believe that it came directly from China, or even from Korea. (Korean chess is relatively similar to Chinese chess). Instead, they believe that the evolutionary process took much longer, certainly hundreds and perhaps even a thousand of years. It was not until around the fifth century A.D. that even go reached Japan from China, although go had flourished in China for more than two thousand years already, and Confucius mentioned it in the fifth century BC.

Japanese chess evolved in the opposite way from western chess. In western chess, the pieces gradually got stronger. In Japanese chess, the pieces gradually got weaker but more aggressive, since they generally lost their defensive capabilities. The piece in the corner became the Japanese lance, which, like the rook, can move forward, but, unlike the rook, cannot move sideways or backward. (One of the characters on the Japanese lance is still the same as the Chinese character for chariot). The horse from Chinese chess became the "kiema" in Japanese chess, which moves in the pattern of a knight, but only forward, not sideways or backward. Perhaps the name "kiema" is derived from "ma", which is the spoken word for horse in Chinese. (The "horse" itself in Japanese chess is a totally different piece, the promoted bishop, and was added at a much later date). The elephant in Chinese chess became the "silver" in Japanese chess, which moves one, not two, squares diagonally and also can move one square straight forward. The chancellor became the Japanese "gold", a somewhat different but also weak piece. The king remained a king and the pawns remained pawns. The Japanese pawns move and capture the same as Chinese pawns, one square straight forward, and do not capture diagonally as they do in western chess.

Since these differences, which are far greater than the differences between western chess and Chinese chess, cannot be explained by a simple jump over to Japan, the Japanese believe that the game took an unlikely route down the Malay Peninsula and then jumped to Japan from there. In support of this idea is the fact that Burmese and Thai chess have a piece which moves just like a silver in Japanese chess. Finally, the Japanese believe that the period between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries brought about the re-introduction of the rook and the introduction of the bishop. This accounts for the strange placement of the rook and the bishop in shogi as compared with other chess-type games. Kimura, Yoshinori, "An Introduction to Shogi EPast and Present", Western Shogi Quarterly, North American Shogi Federation, No. 3, p. 3, Fall, 1985.

Most of this evolution is believed to have taken place inside Japan itself. The Japanese experimented wildly, and came up with more than thirty different kinds of pieces in a game called "great shogi" and twenty-one pieces in "middle shogi", as compared to just eight for modern shogi, seven for Chinese chess, seven for Korean chess and six for western chess. There was also "big shogi" and many other kinds of shogi, several of which enjoyed considerable popularity at one time or another. The end result was the present game, traditionally called "small shogi", which contains numerous features which no other popular form of chess has, including the fact that captured pieces become part of the enemy army and can reenter the game and that six of the eight types of pieces have the option of promoting to a different piece, once moving in enemy territory. The Japanese pieces also lost their color and became pentagonal rather than circular. These vast changes cannot be explained by any normally glacially slow evolutionary process. The only possible explanation is the Japanese fascination with experimenting and improving upon any idea introduced into that country.

Chinese chess also reached Korea, but relatively few changes were made. The names and Chinese characters for the primary pieces remained the same: chariot, horse and elephant. The move of the elephant changed radically, however. Now, it moves like a giant knight, three up and two over, which is more fitting for an elephant. The pieces are not circular but octagonal and are colored green and red rather than red and black. The initial starting point of the king is one square forward, and the horse and the elephant sometimes switch places in their starting position.

Chess also spread to other areas subject to Chinese influence. Going south, it entered Burma, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. From there it reached Thailand and Malaysia and crossed to the island of Java in Indonesia, where chess relics have been found. (Chien Chun Ching, "Research in Chinese chess from the Tang and Song Dynasties", p. 86, Hong Kong, 1984 (in Chinese). Although Chinese chess itself is still played in Vietnam, other variations of the game took hold in most of the other countries. Some of these have now died out or, as in the case of Malaysian chess, have been radically modified in recent times so as to conform more closely to the rules of modern western chess. ("Rules in Malay Chess", Royal Asiatic Society - Striates Branch Journal, Singapore, No. 49, p. 87-92 (1907), also No. 8, p. 261 (1917)). However, many, such as Korean chess, are still played with fanatical zeal in the country where they settled.

Finally, and quite possibly last of all, chess reached the west. It was probably taken by caravan across the Gobi desert to Uzbekistan, where the oldest known physical pieces, including a stand up elephant dating to the second century A.D., have been found. From there it crossed Afghanistan, reaching Persia by the seventh century A.D. At that time, Persia had the dominant culture in the region. Even the Indian language, Hindi, is substantially derived from Persian. The history of that region tells us that in those days, most things passed from Persia to India, not the other way around. Chess also crossed from Persia to Ethiopia, where a little known form of the game, in which both sides move simultaneously and as quickly as possible, is still played. "Ethiopian Chess", Journal of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 1912. (One suspects, however, that this is not really chess as we understand it.)

There is sound basis for the claim that western chess is actually the most recent version of the game. The first serious modern chess writer who could put up a good game was apparently Lucena in 1497. (Actually, his endgame studies, such as the famous one in the rook and pawn endgame, applied equally well to medieval chess). Ruy Lopez, who was clearly writing about the modern version of the game in 1561, was probably no better than a class C player by present day standards. Even McDonnell, of LaBourdonnais - McDonnell fame, was perhaps no better than class A, and that was in 1834 and he was the best player in England. It is clear that prior to Morphy in 1860, no player in chess history had ever reached the modern grandmaster standard.

By contrast, in Japan in the year 1604 there were players who, if alive today, could play for the championship against the top professionals in shogi, without the need for any openings brush-up. Similarly, in go, the best players in history lived more than one hundred years ago, not today. See, for example, "Invincible: The Games of Shusaku, the greatest Japanese go genius who ever lived", translated by John Power, The Ishi Press, Chigasaki, Japan, 1983. Only because western chess is so new is it that one needs the latest "Encyclopedia of the Chess Openings" to keep up with the latest developments. Two hundred years from now, knowledge of the latest developments in opening theory may not be nearly so important as it is today.


Sam Sloan, also known as Mohammad Ismail Sloan, especially in the Middle East, is a rated chess expert (or candidate master). He is also officially ranked as a shodan at shogi (Japanese chess) by the Shogi Renmei (the Japan Shogi Association) in Tokyo. He lived in Japan for one year, where he was associated with The Ishi Press, Inc., a leading publisher of books on go, shogi and other oriental games. He has traveled extensively in the People's Republic of China, where he learned to play Chinese chess, and in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. He studied linguistics as a graduate student at New York University, and is the author of a Khowar-English Dictionary, which is a dictionary of a language spoken only in North West Pakistan, where he is a well known personality. He can speak Khowar, Pashtu and Spanish, as well as some Persian, Arabic and Mandarin Chinese. He has been to 62 countries in the world, including almost all of the countries mentioned herein. He is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Berkeley Computer Chess, Inc. and has three children: Peter, Mary and Shamema.

This article has been translated into Portuguese by Francisco Lo Fiego. Here is that translation: The Origin of Chess (A Origem do Xadrez)

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