Why is Chess Black and White?
Chess is a game of strategy and skill that has been played for centuries. But have you ever wondered why the pieces are black and white? Is there a deeper meaning behind the colors, or is it just a matter of convenience? In this article, we will explore the history and possible reasons for the choice of black and white in chess.
Summary of Why is Chess Black and White?
- The white and black color of the chess pieces are chosen to represent an opposition, making the pieces easier to identify. Other colors are too distracting, and black and white are two of the most common colors at the time.
- It is unclear if there are racist origins for the choice of the colors. Chess pieces are black and white simply because they need to be in contrast, making it easy to keep track of all the pieces and their positions on the board
- The checkering of the squares on the chessboard was a European innovation, introduced in the thirteenth century. The convention of White having the first move is much more recent than that2
- Historically, the most popular choices for the squares were red and black (probably because white wood is quite rare). Chess pieces were also made of different materials and colors, such as ivory, wood, metal, glass, stone, etc
The origin of chess
Chess is believed to have originated from an ancient Indian game called chaturanga, which means “four arms” in Sanskrit. It was played on a board divided into 64 squares, without any difference of color. The pieces were either yellow or green, and they were called frogs or bees2
Chaturanga spread to other regions, such as Persia, China, Arabia, Europe, etc. In each culture, the game evolved and adapted to different rules, names, and designs. For example, in Persia, the game was called shatranj, which means “four kings”. The pieces were made of ivory or wood, and they were carved into different shapes, such as elephants, horses, camels, etc. The colors were usually red and black
The evolution of chess
The colors of the pieces also changed over time. In some cases, they were red and black, as in Persia. In other cases, they were white and red, or white and brown. White wood was rare and expensive, so it was often reserved for royalty or nobility. Black wood was more common and cheaper, so it was used for commoners or enemies
As chess reached Europe in the Middle Ages, it underwent further changes. The board was colored in a checkered pattern of light and dark squares, to make it easier to see the moves. The pieces were also modified to reflect the feudal society of the time. For example, the elephant became a bishop, the camel became a knight, and the king and queen gained more power and mobility
The modern standard of white and black pieces was established in the 19th century, with the invention of the Staunton chess set. This set was designed by Nathaniel Cook and endorsed by Howard Staunton, a leading chess player of the time. It featured simple and elegant shapes that were easy to recognize and produce. The pieces were made of boxwood or ebony wood, which were naturally white or black in color
The symbolism of chess
The choice of white and black for chess pieces may have some symbolic meanings behind it. Some possible interpretations are:
- White and black represent an opposition or a conflict between two different forces or ideologies. Chess is a game of war and strategy, where each side tries to defeat the other.
“Chess is war over the board… The object is to crush the opponent’s mind.” – Bobby Fischer
- White and black represent light and darkness, good and evil, order and chaos. Chess is a game of balance and harmony, where each side tries to maintain control over the board.
“Chess is everything: art, science, and sport.” – Anatoly Karpov
- White and black represent day and night, sun and moon, life and death. Chess is a game of cycles and patterns, where each side tries to create opportunities or avoid threats.
“Chess is life in miniature.” – Garry Kasparov
However, these interpretations are not universal or definitive. They may vary depending on the culture or context of the game. For example:
- In some cultures or religions, white may symbolize purity or innocence, while black may symbolize sin or corruption.
- In some cultures or regions, white may symbolize coldness or winter, while black may symbolize warmth or summer.
- In some cultures or periods, white may symbolize peace or surrender, while black may symbolize war or resistance.
The notation of chess
Another aspect of chess that involves colors is the notation of the moves. Chess notation is a system of symbols and codes that are used to record and describe the moves in a game of chess. Chess notation is useful for studying, analyzing, and communicating chess games.
There are different types of chess notation, such as:
- Algebraic notation, which is the most common and standard method. It uses letters and numbers to identify the squares and pieces on the board. For example, e4 (pawn moves to e4), Nf3 (knight moves to f3), Bxe5 (bishop captures the piece on e5).
- Descriptive notation, which was popular in English- and Spanish-speaking countries until the late 20th century. It uses names and numbers to identify the squares and pieces on the board. For example, P-K4 (pawn moves to king’s fourth square), N-KB3 (knight moves to king’s bishop’s third square), BxP (bishop captures pawn).
- Figurine algebraic notation, which is a variation of algebraic notation that uses symbols instead of letters for the pieces. For example, ♘f3 (knight moves to f3), ♗xe5 (bishop captures the piece on e5), ♕h5+ (queen moves to h5 with check).
- Portable Game Notation, which is a text file format based on algebraic notation that can be processed by most chess software. It includes additional information such as player names, event, date, result, comments, etc. For example,
[Event “World Chess Championship 1972”] [Site “Reykjavik ISL”] [Date “1972.07.11”] [Round “1”] [White “Fischer, Robert James”] [Black “Spassky, Boris Vasilievich”] [Result “0-1”]
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 Qb6 8.Qd2 Qxb2 9.Rb1 Qa3 10.e5 h6 11.Bh4 dxe5 12.fxe5 Nfd7 13.Ne4 Qxa2 14.Rd1 Qd5 15.Qe3 Qxe5 16.Be2 Bc5 17.Bg3 Bxd4 18.Rxd4 Qa5+ 19.Rd2 O-O 20.Bd6 f5 21.Nc5 Nxc5 22.Bxc5 Rd8 23.Bb6 Qa1+ 24.Rd1 Rxd1+ 25.Bxd1 Nc6 26.O-O Qe5 27.Qf2 Bd7 28.Re1 Qd6 29.c4 e5 30.c5 Qe7 31.Bb3+ Be6 32.Bc2 Rf8 33.Qg3 f4 34.Qg6 Rf6 35.Qh7+ Kf7 36.h4 Bd5 37.h5 e4
The history of chess notation is also interesting and complex. The earliest systems of notation used lengthy narratives to describe each move; these gradually evolved into more compact notation systems. Algebraic notation was first used by Philipp Stamma in the early 18th century, but it was not widely adopted until the late 19th century. Descriptive notation was more popular in English-speaking countries until it was replaced by algebraic notation in the late 20th century. Figurine algebraic notation was introduced in the mid-20th century to avoid language barriers and printing difficulties. Portable Game Notation was developed in the early 1990s to facilitate computer analysis and online transmission of chess games.
Conclusion on Why is Chess Black and White?
Chess is a fascinating game that has a rich history and culture behind it. The choice of white and black for chess pieces is not random or arbitrary; it has historical, practical, and possible symbolic reasons behind it. However, the colors are not fixed or essential; they are just a convention that can be changed or challenged. Chess is a game that can be played with any colors, as long as they are in contrast and easy to identify.
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.