Chess is a game that has fascinated and challenged millions of people for centuries. But have you ever wondered how the chess pieces came to be, and what they represent?
In this blog post, we will explore the history of chess pieces, and see how they evolved and changed over time and across cultures. We will look at the origins and meanings of each piece, and how they reflect the game’s development and diversity.
Here are some of the topics we will cover:
- The Indian Origins of Chess Pieces
- The Arab Influence on Chess Pieces
- The European Transformation of Chess Pieces
- The Modern Standardization of Chess Pieces
- The Variations and Alternatives of Chess Pieces
By the end of this blog post, you will have a better understanding of the history and significance of chess pieces, and appreciate their beauty and symbolism.
The Indian Origins of Chess Pieces
The history of chess pieces begins with the history of chess itself, which originated in India sometime between the 6th and 7th centuries CE. The Indian predecessor of chess was called Chaturanga, which means “four divisions” or “four limbs” in Sanskrit. The four divisions referred to the four types of pieces on the board: infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots. These pieces represented the four branches of the Indian army at that time.
Chaturanga was played on an 8×8 board, with two players controlling 16 pieces each. The pieces were:
- Pawns (padati): These were the foot soldiers or infantrymen, who formed the bulk of the army. They were also called pedes or peons in Latin and Arabic. They moved one square forward, and captured one square diagonally. They could not move two squares on their first move, capture en passant, or promote to another piece.
- Knights (ashva): These were the horsemen or cavalrymen, who were fast and agile. They were also called asp or faras in Persian and Arabic. They moved in an L-shape, jumping over any intervening pieces. They could also fork or attack two pieces at once.
- Bishops (gaja): These were the elephants or war elephants, who were powerful and majestic. They were also called pil or alfil in Persian and Arabic. They moved by jumping two squares diagonally, skipping over the first square. They could also be blocked by a friendly piece on the adjacent square.
- Rooks (ratha): These were the chariots or war chariots, who were strong and sturdy. They were also called rokh or rukh in Persian and Arabic. They moved any number of squares horizontally or vertically, but could not jump over other pieces. They could also castle or move together with the king in a special way.
- King (raja): This was the king or ruler, who was the supreme commander and leader of the army. He was also called shah or shakh in Persian and Arabic. He moved one square in any direction, but could not move into check or be captured. He could also castle with a rook.
- Queen (mantri): This was the counselor or minister, who was the king’s advisor and assistant. He was also called firzan or fers in Persian and Arabic. He moved one square diagonally, but could not jump over other pieces. He was the weakest piece on the board.
These were the original chess pieces that were used in India, and later spread to other regions through trade and cultural exchange.
The Arab Influence on Chess Pieces
The history of chess pieces continues with the history of chess in the Arab world, which adopted and adapted the game from India around the 9th century CE. The Arabs were fascinated by Chaturanga, and renamed it Shatranj, which is derived from the Persian word Chatrang, which in turn is derived from Chaturanga.
The Arabs also modified some of the pieces and rules of Shatranj. They replaced the elephant piece with a fil or alfil, which means “elephant” in Arabic, but changed its movement to a two-square leap in any direction. They also introduced a new piece called firzan or fers, which means “counselor” or “wise man” in Arabic, which replace
the minister piece and moved one square diagonally. They also added a rule that allowed pawns to move two squares on their first move, but only if they were not capturing.
Shatranj became a popular game in the Arab world, and was considered a noble art and a sign of intelligence. Many books and poems were written about Shatranj, and many famous players and puzzles emerged. Shatranj also influenced other aspects of Arab culture, such as mathematics, astronomy, literature, and philosophy.
The Arabs were instrumental in spreading Shatranj to other regions, such as Africa, Asia, and Europe. However, they also faced some challenges and difficulties in doing so. One of them was the problem of representing the pieces in different languages and cultures.
The Arabs used abstract symbols or shapes to represent the pieces on the board, rather than figurines or images. This was because of their religious prohibition of making or using graven images or idols. However, this caused some confusion and misunderstanding among other people who were not familiar with the symbols or their meanings.
- The symbol for the rook piece was a rectangle with a notch on one side, which resembled a chariot or a tower. However, some people mistook it for a boat or a ship, and called it by names such as marakib or markab in Arabic, nava or navis in Latin, bateau or nef in French, etc.
- The symbol for the knight piece was a circle with two protrusions on opposite sides, which resembled a horse’s head. However, some people mistook it for a dog or a wolf, and called it by names such as kalb or klab in Arabic, canis or canes in Latin, chien or dogue in French, etc.
- The symbol for the bishop piece was an X-shape with a dot in the center, which resembled an elephant’s tusks. However, some people mistook it for a fool or a jester, and called it by names such as matta or muthallath in Arabic, follis or stultus in Latin, fou or fol in French, etc.
These examples show how the Arab influence on chess pieces was sometimes lost or distorted in translation and transmission.
The European Transformation of Chess Pieces
The history of chess pieces continues with the history of chess in Europe, which received and transformed the game from the Arab world during the Middle Ages. The Europeans were intrigued by Shatranj, and adopted it as their own game. They also made some changes to it over time.
One of the first changes that occurred was the emergence of different names for Shatranj in different languages. For example, in Latin it was called scacchi or scacci; in French it was called eschecs or esches; in Spanish it was called ajedrez; in German it was called schach; in English it was called chess or checche; etc. These names were all derived from the Persian word Shah or Shakh, which means “king” in Persian and Arabic.
Another change that occurred was the evolution of some of the pieces and rules of chess. For example,
- The fers piece was transformed into a queen or dame or lady or regina or reina, which became the most powerful piece on the board, capable of moving any number of squares in any direction.
- The alfil piece was transformed into a bishop or fou or alfin or aufin or alfiere or alfil, which could move any number of squares diagonally.
- The pawn piece was given the ability to capture en passant and to promote to any piece except a king when reaching the last rank.
- The king piece was given the ability to castle with a rook piece, which involved moving both pieces at once in a special way.
- The stalemate rule was introduced, which declared the game a draw when a player had no legal moves but was not in check.
These changes made the game more dynamic and exciting, and increased its popularity and complexity.
Another change that occurred was the development of different styles and designs for chess pieces. Unlike the Arabs who used abstract symbols for their pieces,
he Europeans used figurines or images that resembled the pieces’ names and meanings. They also used different materials and colors for their pieces, such as wood, ivory, metal, glass, etc.
Some of the most famous and influential styles and designs for chess pieces in Europe were:
- The Lewis Chessmen: These were a set of chess pieces that were carved from walrus ivory and whale teeth in the 12th century, probably in Norway. They were discovered in the Isle of Lewis in Scotland in 1831, and are now displayed in the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland. They are considered to be one of the oldest and most beautiful chess sets in the world, and have inspired many artists and writers.
- The Staunton Chessmen: These were a set of chess pieces that were designed by Nathaniel Cook and endorsed by Howard Staunton, a leading chess player and writer, in 1849. They were manufactured by Jaques of London, and became the standard design for chess pieces in Europe and America. They are characterized by their simple and elegant shapes, and their distinctive features, such as the king’s cross, the queen’s coronet, the bishop’s mitre, etc.
- The Isle of Lewis Chessmen
- The Staunton Chessmen
These examples show how the European transformation of chess pieces was marked by innovation and diversity.
The Modern Standardization of Chess Pieces
The history of chess pieces continues with the history of chess in the modern era, which witnessed the standardization and globalization of the game and its pieces. Chess became a universal game that transcended linguistic and cultural boundaries, and was played by millions of people around the world.
One of the factors that contributed to the standardization and globalization of chess was the establishment of international chess organizations and tournaments. For example,
- The World Chess Federation (FIDE) was founded in 1924, and became the governing body of international chess. It established the official rules and regulations for chess, as well as the titles and ratings for chess players.
- The World Chess Championship was established in 1886, and became the highest title and honor for chess players. It featured a series of matches between the best players in the world, who competed for the title of World Chess Champion.
- The Chess Olympiad was established in 1927, and became the largest team event for chess players. It featured teams from different countries, who competed for medals and trophies.
These organizations and tournaments helped to promote and popularize chess around the world, and to create a common ground for communication and understanding among different people.
Another factor that contributed to the standardization and globalization of chess was the development of new technologies and media for chess. For example,
- The printing press enabled the mass production and distribution of books and magazines about chess, which increased the availability and accessibility of information and knowledge about the game.
- The radio and television enabled the live broadcast and coverage of chess events and matches, which increased the visibility and awareness of the game.
- The computer and internet enabled the creation and use of software and websites for chess, which increased the functionality and interactivity of the game.
These technologies and media helped to enhance and enrich the experience and enjoyment of chess, and to create new possibilities and opportunities for the game.
One of the outcomes of the standardization and globalization of chess was the adoption and acceptance of a common style and design for chess pieces. The Staunton chessmen, which were introduced in the 19th century, became the standard and official design for chess pieces in the world. They were recognized and respected by all chess players and organizations, and were used in all chess events and matches. They were also reproduced and replicated by many manufacturers and makers, who used different materials and variations for their pieces.
The Variations and Alternatives of Chess Pieces
The history of chess pieces does not end with the standardization and globalization of chess. Chess is a game that has many variations and alternatives, both in terms of its rules and its pieces. Chess players and enthusiasts have created and experimented with different versions and forms of chess, which reflect their creativity and diversity.
Some of the variations and alternatives of chess pieces include:
- Thematic Chess Pieces: These are chess pieces that are based on a specific theme or topic, such as history, mythology, fantasy, science fiction, etc. For example, there are chess pieces that depict characters from Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.
- Artistic Chess Pieces: These are chess pieces that are designed or decorated in an artistic or aesthetic way, such as using different colors, shapes, patterns, materials, etc. For example, there are chess pieces that are made of glass, metal, wood, stone, etc.
- Novelty Chess Pieces: These are chess pieces that are unusual or unconventional in some way, such as having different sizes, movements, functions, etc. For example, there are chess pieces that are magnetic, electronic, musical, edible, etc.
- Variant Chess Pieces: These are chess pieces that are used in variant chess games, which have different rules or objectives from standard chess. For example, there are chess pieces that are used in fairy chess, which have different names and movements from standard chess pieces.
These examples show how the variations and alternatives of chess pieces are endless and limitless.
Conclusion on The History of Chess Pieces
In this blog post, we have explored the history of chess pieces, and seen how they evolved and changed over time and across cultures. We have looked at the origins and meanings of each piece, and how they reflect the game’s development and diversity. We have also looked at some of the styles and designs for chess pieces, and how they reflect the game’s innovation
- Murray, H. J. R. (1913). A History of Chess. Oxford University Press.
- Davidson, H. A. (1949). A Short History of Chess. McKay.
- Hooper, D., & Whyld, K. (1992). The Oxford Companion to Chess. Oxford University Press.
- Eales, R. (1985). Chess: The History of a Game. Batsford.
- Shenk, D. (2006). The Immortal Game: A History of Chess. Doubleday.
Benjamin Miller is the founder and editor of The Extra Game. He plays chess, scrabble and Monopoly at a masters level. He is a board game enthusiast, publisher, designer, and reviewer with over 10 years of experience in the industry. He loves to share his passion, knowledge, and recommendations for board games with the world.