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Chess is an old strategy game. It is also one of the most extensively played games in the world! Chess origin has been a topic of controversy for centuries. This is because chess pieces have been found in India, China, Pakistan, Central Asia, and Russia. 

However, most of these chess original pieces have been determined to be part of older, distant board games with dice and over 100 squares. Evidence suggests that modern-day chess has its roots in the war game chaturanga that did not exist before the 6th Century AD.

From Chaturanga to Chess

Mahabharata, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of India, mentions the term chaturanga to denote a battle formation. Somewhere around the 6th Century, chess originated in the form of chaturanga – a four-player war and strategy game. 

While the four-player game, played on a square board with 64 squares and dice, may now seem distant from modern-day chess, it had several pre-figured aspects that deemed it as the true precursor. One of the key features that determined its authenticity was that victory was based on a single piece – the king!

The chess origin journey from chaturanga to modern-day sets is still quite unclear. However, most historians believe that the game changed gradually over the years and transformed into chatrang or shatranj. This was a two-player board game played extensively in India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia. 

Shatranj looked a lot like chaturanga, but with changes in the way the game could be won! A player could win a game of Shatranj by either capturing the king or by eliminating all the pieces on the board except the king. In other words, Shatranj became the precursor to the modern-day rules of check and checkmate. 

As the game began to spread towards the east, west, and north, it began to take different turns and twists. A game similar to chaturanga made its way to Persia where the ‘king’ piece was renamed from Rajah to Shah. As the game began to spread to Europe, it received several English and French words, such as ‘check’ (from the French echec), ‘rook’, and ‘chess’, among others. 

Chess Origin in China 

While there are many who believe that chess originated in India, there are others who believe that chess was in fact invented in the Middle Kingdom. Legend has it that in 200 BC Hán Xin, a Chinese commander, invented chess to represent an important battle. However, once the battle ended, the game was lost. It only resurfaced around the 7th century AD, but with new rules and characteristics. 

In China, chess came to be known as XiangQi or the ‘elephant game’. It lost all its references to the ancient battle and had chess pieces that weren’t similar to any modern-day chessboard. The game had different rules, a different board, and different pieces. 

However, it is still considered an important aspect in the history of chess. It is believed that the elephant game first went from China to India, and then from India to Persia. During its journey, it slowly modified and transformed into chaturanga, and then to shatranj and only later to the 8×8 square board with chess pieces that we are familiar with today.  

Transformation of Chess 

Chaturanga was played on an Ashtāpada board, which is considered the predecessor to the board that we see today. Over the decade, chess boards were created using several different materials – from the most basic and affordable to precious and rare. You could find them in ivory, ebony, marble, glass, metal, and plastic. 

By the 18th century, chess boards made their way into the homes of people as chess tables. They were often round and intricately designed. Later on, boards became more portable. Nowadays important tournaments use wooden chess boards for the game. Vinyl, cardboard, and plastic are more affordable and available in people’s homes. 

Transformation of Chess Pieces 

Since the time of chaturanga, Chess pieces have gone from being simple to elaborate. They started off as basic pieces and later transformed into figures depicting noblemen, warriors, and animals. However, somewhere between the 9th and 12th centuries, the sets once again became simple to accommodate Islamic rules that prohibited the creation of images of living beings. 

Thus, the game returned to its simpler roots with chess pieces being made of carved stone or clay. This change spurred the popularity of the game further. Chess sets became easier to make and players returned their focus to the game itself. Stylised chess pieces only returned when the game made its way to Europe and Russia. 

As time went on, the king chess piece became the largest of the lot and was given an elaborate seat, mace, and crown. The knights, horses, elephants, pawns – all began to depict their social standing and power. After 1475, the queen chess piece became quite prominent. It grew in shape and size, and its powers expanded. It also went from being a male counsellor to the king’s consort. 

In 1835, Nathaniel Cook, an Englishman, created a simple chess design that became the standard for all modern chess sets. Once it was patented, Howard Stauton – the best chess player at that time, endorsed and promoted the design extensively. Owing to this, the design came to be known as the ‘Staunton set’. Today, all chess sets allowed in international competitions are based on the Staunton design. 

Chess Champions and Grandmasters

The history of chess origin is incomplete without a mention of the first world chess champion – Wilhelm Steinitz. From 1886 to 1894, Steinitz held the record of the world’s best chess player. As a chess theoretician, he took a scientific approach towards playing chess. He introduced the use of technique and strategy and laid the groundwork for all future chess enthusiasts. 

While world chess champion is a title that can come and go, Grandmaster is the highest title that a chess player can receive. Once a player becomes a GM, the title is held for life. In 1950, the International Chess Federation awarded the first batch of titles to 27 chess players from around the world. Even today, any player who wants to become a Grandmaster must compete in several difficult tournaments and follow set criteria. 

Man vs Machine 

While chess origin has its roots in the 6th Century AD, it’s still transforming in the 21st Century. The rise of modern computing has added another layer to the game of chess. Players around the world now use technology to advance their techniques, moves, and strategies. 

Over the years, supercomputers have been toppling world champions and making headlines. In 2018, an AI program called AlphaZero learned to play chess in a matter of hours, defeated some powerful chess engines, and even developed its own gaming style. 

The journey of chess from chaturanga to modern-day sets is quite intriguing. However, the game hasn’t yet reached its final state – it’s still evolving. The latest piece of technology that has been added has turned chess pieces into self-moving machines. One such example is a Squareoff chessboard. 

Square Off chess boards merges technology, analytics, and imagination to bring about an authentic chess session. The sets are designed to guide player movements, offer subtle prompts, and analyse performance. The board comes with an added benefit of chess pieces moving with a life of their own. 
From chaturanga to shatranj to automated chess boards, the game has come a long way! So, if you wish to learn as you play, check out the boards from Square Off.