War of the Wits — A Brief History

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Swedish national college, in Stockholm and the defense science and technology, in Australia formed special teams to study a game in an attempt to understand better on how to gain military success. This game isn’t lodged inside an X-box. It’s not some war simulation game, where you shoot your way through thousands of dead bodies. It is a bloodless game which took its early form in 6th century. And, like many other things it originated from India, traveling to other lands thereafter.

‘Chaturanga’ was said to be the early from or name for ‘Chess.’ It translates as ‘four divisions’ (namely the infantry, cavalry, elephantry, and chariotry divisions of ancient military). Only obscure details emerge about the invention of this game. Some believe that the Persians invented this game and many Chess historians are puzzled by this question: Was it invented by a single person or did it evolve over time?  The game’s first form was said to have surfaced in the period of Gupta Empire and was later introduced in Pre-Islamic Persia. The oldest chess pieces were excavated from Persian Empire, in today’s Uzbekistan.

The name for the game became “Chatrang”, which later evolved into “Shatranj.” The rules were developed from its first form and the players started calling “Shah mat” (translates into “King is helpless”) when the king was attacked and could not escape. The Islamic conquest of Persia made the game to spread more rapidly than before. Chess penetrated, wherever Islam penetrated, as far west as Spain (called “ajaderez”) to Mongol (“shatar”) and Ethiopia (“senterej”). Buddhist pilgrims, Silk Road traders carried the game Far East. In the East, “Shatranj” was often played on the intersection of the lines of the board rather than within the squares. It later spread all over Western Europe and Russia, around 10th century A.D. By 11th century France and England were playing the game, but they translated the names for each pieces.

Seven pieces set, Ivory, dated 7th century AD

Seven pieces set, Ivory, dated 7th century AD

Arabic word ‘alfin’ became ‘Elephant.’ ‘Rook’ came from the Persian word ‘rukh’ (chariot). ‘Firzan’ became bishop. The word ‘pawn’ means foot-soldier, which came from the medieval France. In England and France, Chess became an immensely popular game in the royal circles. By the 13th century, Church was against ‘Chess’ but its stand was weakened since it was patronized by kings and the priests played it as a relief from their monotonous convent life.  Around 1490s, the Lombard players of Italy reformed the game and gave queen and bishop their powerful and modern moves. The final reform of the game was made in 16th century, in Italy and Spain, with the addition of “castling” — the combined move of king and rook.

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China had its own board game named ‘Go’ or ‘weiqi.’ This game of territory was played in a 19*19 board by placing alternatively white and black pieces on the board. ‘Weiqi’ was often referred as ‘game of war’ and some scholars generalize that Chinese might at that time have been using it to model military strategies. Mao Zedong was said to have insisted his generals to study this warfare game.

There is no archaeological evidence that the brainy game originated from India (because of the lack of reports about follow-up within India), even though Chess historians and scholars like H.J.R. Murray, Richard Eales and H.F. Mabmann exhibit a firm opinion that it was invented by Indians. Through the Chinese game ‘weiqi’, historians have tried to identify the birthplace of modern Chess, but they failed to reconcile any facts about the relationship between Chinese and Western Chess.

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