Chess has been played by humans in some form for more than 1,400 years. It is one of the world’s oldest and most popular games and has a cultural and intellectual significance that few other activities can match. Individual chess games such as Bobby Fischer’s victory over Boris Spassky in 1972 or Garry Kasparov’s loss to Deep Blue in 1997 are considered significant historical events.
Where Did Chess Come From?
The earliest known form of the game, now known as chess, dates back to sixth-century India.
This precursor, known as chaturanga (or catur), was played on an 8×8 grid and featured pieces comparable to modern chess.
The specific rules of chaturanga are unknown, but the game resembles modern chess with a few key differences. Initially, the rules for moving queens (formerly known as counselors) and bishops (formerly known as elephants) were generally more restrictive.
Some accounts of chaturanga indicate that a player could win by removing all of his or her opponent’s pieces other than the king.
By the tenth or eleventh century, the rules of chaturanga had spread to Persia, where it was known as chatrang, and it was here that the earliest recorded chess games were played.
The game spread from Persia to the Arab world. In China, Japan, and Southeast Asia, it evolved into the related games xiangqi and shogi, sometimes referred to as Chinese and Japanese chess, respectively. The first scholarly analyses of chess problems, openings, and other still-relevant topics were conducted during this time.
The arrival of Chess in Europe
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the game as it was known to Arab players spread to Europe via multiple routes, including Southern Europe via the Byzantine Empire and Muslim Spain via North Africa. From there, it was rapidly adopted by a large portion of the European aristocracy and by many eager medieval kings.
The game’s popularity peaked in Europe during the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. It became closely associated with the nobility and aristocracy, and for a time, it was considered an essential skill for young knights to learn, similar to how young Chinese aristocrats were expected to learn Go. Unfortunately, it also became associated with revelry, gambling, and violence, prompting some Catholic church members to seek its prohibition.
What Impact Did Europe Have on Chess?
European players introduced innovations such as checkered chess boards. They changed the names of various pieces to reflect medieval European figures such as knights, bishops, and rooks (whose name may have originated from the Italian word for “fort”).
During the Middle Ages, games were typically lengthy, lasting hours or even days. This resulted in a number of rule changes, including the ability to move pawns two spaces on the first move and the invention of castling, which made it easier to protect the king early in the game.
By the year 1500, players in southern Europe had enhanced the power of bishops and queens and significantly shortened the length of games by introducing additional changes to bishops and queens.
During this time period, players such as the Spanish bishop Ruy Lopez de Segura and later the Frenchman Andre Danican Philidor began to analyze the fundamentals of various opening and endgame situations.
How did the Game of Chess Become a Competitive Sport?
By the nineteenth century, the game had become integral to life in contemporary Europe. Players joined chess clubs, and chess problems began to appear in prominent newspapers.
In 1851, the first international chess tournament occurred in London. This led to the creation of modern timekeeping, variations on speed chess, and sealed moves. In 1886, the first World Chess Championship was held.
The first undisputed World Chess Champion was the Austrian (later American) player Wilhelm Steinitz, who exemplified the era’s aggressive, highly Romantic style, but later developed and theorized the positional style of play that would come to dominate the twentieth century. Adolf Anderssen played a significant role in popularizing modern chess problems.
During this period, other notable players included the German mathematician Emanuel Lasker, who reigned as World Champion for 27 years, and the American chess prodigy Paul Morphy.
Not until the 1880s were the rules of white going first established. Before that, it was common for players to alternate colors or for the first player to choose their own.
The World Chess Federation (Fédération Internationale des Échecs or FIDE) standardized the rules of chess and international competitions in the twentieth century. The emergence of chess theory in the early part of the century introduced radically new playing styles.
In the Soviet Union, World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik was instrumental in developing a generation of players who dominated the game for the majority of the 20th century, including World Champions Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov.
The 1972 World Championship match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer was dubbed the “match of the century” and was a pivotal moment in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The postwar era also saw the introduction of online play and chess computers, which advanced in sophistication until the end of the 1980s, when they were able to defeat grandmasters.
In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue was able to defeat Kasparov, the reigning chess champion at the time.
How have Computers Altered the Chess Game?
The introduction of chess computers that can defeat the best human players has profoundly affected the sport.
Players can now access databases containing millions of games to identify their own mistakes. This has also allowed players to discover previously unplayed brilliant new moves (called “novelties”).
No dominant school or style of chess exists today. However, Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion, is renowned for playing various openings that keep his opponents guessing.
Three Notable Chess Contests in History
What distinguishes a timeless game from a great game? Throughout the history of chess, players and historians have continually returned to particular games. They may be games that perfectly capture the strategic spirit of a particular era or games that introduce a revolutionary new concept or strategy.
- The Immortal Game. The so-called Immortal Game between German grandmasters Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky exemplified the Romantic era’s daring gambits and aggressive attacking.
- The greatest game of the century. At the age of 13, the future World Champion Bobby Fischer displayed astonishing improvisational brilliance against a leading chess grandmaster of the time. This game is notable for a number of courageous sacrifices (including an ingenious queen sacrifice) that Fischer converted into devastating strategic advantages.
- Kasparov-Deep Blue, Game 6. In 1996 and 1997, World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov competed against IBM’s supercomputer Deep Blue. The 1996 match was won by Kasparov, but a much-improved version of Deep Blue used an ingenious knight sacrifice to force Kasparov to resign in less than twenty moves. The result was a computer’s first victory over a reigning world champion.