Chess has a murky history. Thus, when traveling around the globe, if somebody says, “My country invented chess,” it’s best to nod your head regardless of your thoughts. People have passionate opinions on the subject, and it might be wise to choose to live your life instead. Nonetheless, the history of chess is fascinating, even if historical accuracy remains debated.
The origins of chess are controversial, but the modern game is rooted in Chaturanga, a war game popular in India in the 7th century. But chess didn’t hit its stride in Christian cultures until the 16th century. But long before that, many cultures played it, including the Vikings and Arabs.
Chess is an old game that has gone through many reboots. However, it is not the oldest board game by a long shot. Nonetheless, chess is one of the most beloved. But due to its unique spread across the world, long before the internet, it took many centuries before the rules were nailed down.
Interestingly, one of the first to try to bring some uniformity to the game was a friend of Leonardo de Vinci. In fact, Leonardo may have helped. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, let’s back up.
These are the 25+ historical facts and events of chess:
1. Chess’ Country Of Origin Is Controversial
Chess’s country of origin is controversial. There are arguments for:
- Central Asia
2. Modern Chess Has Roots In Chaturanga
Modern chess is thought to have roots in chaturanga, a war game that was highly popular in 7th century northwest India. Hence the widely held theory that chess began in India.
3. Chess Is Younger Than Checkers
Chess is younger than checkers. Ancient Greeks Homer and Plato mentioned checkers in their writings. However, it doesn’t appear as if Ancient Greek invented the game. Archaeologists found evidence of the game in Ancient Ur, which resides in what is now Iraq. The evidence is believed to be from around 3,000 BCE.
However, modern checkers emerged in the 12th century thanks to a Frenchman. However, this is still earlier than modern chess, which didn’t find its groove until the 16th century.
4. The First Christian Chess Master Was A Priest (Probably)
If historical records are correct, the first Christian chess master was a priest. His name was Ruy Lopez, and he has an opening named after him. No, he did not invent the move.
5. Lopez’s Chess Tip: Have your Opponent Face The Sun
So, what was the first chess master’s top tip? Lopez’s wise advice was to position your opponent to face the sun, so it shined into their eyes.
6. 1500: “The Father Of Accounting” Made Chess Cool
Luca “The Father Of Accounting” Pacioli made chess cool in Europe, or at least raised its profile, after writing the book De Ludo Scachorum (The Game of Chess) in circa 1500. It contained many chess puzzles to be solved.
7. Leonardo Da Vinci Illustrated Pacioli’s Book (Or Not)
In 2008, evidence emerged that Leonardo da Vinci may have illustrated Pacioli’s chess book, De Ludo Scachorum. The men were friends. However, not all scholars agree that the work is Leonardo’s.
Regardless of the truth, it makes a great story.
8. Pacioli’s Book Came After Luis Ramirez de Lucena
Pacioli’s chess book (manuscript) was not the first. The first book featuring (mostly) modern rules was published in Spain: Repetición de Amores y Arte de Ajedrezby Luis Ramírez de Lucena. In English, the title is Repetition of Love and the Art of Playing Chess.
9. The Vikings Played Chess Before The British
The Vikings played chess before the British. One of the most famous chess sets is The Lewis Chessmen, made from walrus ivory and whales’ teeth. It is thought they were carved in Norway circa 1150-1200 before ending up on The Isle of Lewis, Scotland’s largest Viking colony.
10. 1254: King Louis IX Bans Chess In France
Chess may be known as the royal game, but not every royal loved it. For example, King Louis IX banned it in France in 1254. He was far from the first ruler or leader to do so.
11. Arabs Taught Christians Chess During the Crusades
Arabs introduced some Christians to chess during the crusades (1095 – 1291). King Louis IX was displeased by this, hence his ban.
12. Arabs Spread Chess To Africa, Sicily, And Spain
In the 10th century, Arabs are also credited with introducing chess to North Africa, Sicily, and Spain.
13. Chess Was Allowed In Muslim Culture Because Of Skill
One of the reasons chess flourished in Arab cultures was that Muslims were not supposed to play games of chance. After Muslim authorities put the game through rigorous scrutiny, it was decided it was one of skill, not chance. Thus, chess was permitted in the Muslim religion.
14. Chess Was Part Of Warrior Training
Part of the reason Arab fighters knew chess at the time of the crusades was because it was part of training. It was believed to be a “without bloodshed” method of training the mind in the sense of the warrior.
15. Abu Bakr bin Yahya al-Suli: The First Chess Master
Abu Bakr bin Yahya al-Suli (870-941/948), poet, scholar, and Abbasid courtier, is the first Arab chess master. His book on the game came over 500 years before Pacioli’s. The form of chess al-Suli played is known as Shatranj; rooted in Chaturanga, it heavily influenced modern chess.
16. The Queen Went “Mad” (Free) In 1450
In 1450, the queen broke free in Christian nations such as Italy, Spain, and France. She began to move around with ease, speeding up the game. The men dubbed this as the queen going “mad.” We’d say she’d become fed up with her constraints and embraced her inner warrior.
17. The “First” Chess Tournament Was In 1575
The first chess tournament in Western European nations was in 1575. It is often proclaimed as the first chess tournament anywhere, overlooking that chess had taken off in many parts of the globe thanks to trading, wars, and exploration.
But yes, the first chess tournament in the Western sense of the game was in Madrid. Paolo Boil and Leonardo da Cutri from Italy played Ruy Lopez and Alfonso Ceron of Spain at the pleasure of Philip II’s court.
18. 1770, The Turk: First Massive Chess Scandal Begins
Chess is no stranger to scandal, cheating, and hoaxes. But one of the biggest and longest began in 1770 when Wolfgang von Kempelen introduced the “Mechanical Turk.” (No idea why it was a “Turk” when Kempelen was Hungarian.)
The Turk was supposedly the first automatic chess-playing machine with a cabinet full of enough gears and cogs to make any steampunk’s heart have palpitations. For 84 years, this “machine” beat players all around Europe and America, including Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin.
However, the machine was not a genius. It was finally revealed that chess masters would hide in the cabinet and move the pieces via magnets.
19. Timers Are Introduced To Chess In 1861
Chess was taking too long. Thus, 3-hour hourglasses were introduced in 1861.
20. Tumbling Clocks Are Patented in 1884
Hourglasses are swiftly replaced with tumbling chess clocks, patented in 1884.
21. 1886: First World Chess Championship
The first World Chess Championship took place took place in 1886. Wilhelm Steinitz (Austria) beat Johannes Zukertort (Poland).
22. The First World Chess Champion Played 20 Games
The rules of the championship required the winner to win ten games. Steinitz and Zukertort played 20 games before Steinitz won his tenth, to Zukertort’s five, with the remaining five games draws.
23. The First World Chess Championship Was in 3 Cities
Steinitz and Zukertort were required to spread their World Chess Championship games between three cities:
- New York (5 games)
- St. Louis (4 games)
- New Orleans (11 games)
24. Bobby Fischer Is Born in 1943
Robert James Fischer was born on March 9, 1943.
25. 1964: Bobby Fisher Wins With A Perfect Score
Bobby Fisher wins the 1964 US Championship with a perfect score. It was a first in the history of the tournament.
26. A Computer Beat World Chess Champion In 1997
Computers and machines took a long time to exceed the talent of human’s best chess player. As mentioned, “The Turk” was a lie. It wasn’t until 1997 that IBM came up with a computer that could beat World Chess Champion Gary Kasparov. Until then, Kasparov had beaten IBM’s attempts in 1989 and 1996.
All Things Considered
Chess has a messy and intriguing history. It spread through trade routes, wars, and exploration, evolving into unique rules and configurations. Therefore, despite the game being ancient, the rules we play are relatively young. In addition, humans have led to their own defeat. Thanks to the technological revolution, the true chess grandmasters are now machines.