Chess History

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*what is the importance of chess in medieval European-Islamic society.
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Chessmen and Chess
Author(s): Charles K. Wilkinson
Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 1, No. 9 (May, 1943), pp.
Published by: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Senior Research Fellow, Departlment of Near Eastern Art
Chess has been played for more than a millennium
in the Near East, and it has been our
good fortune to find a dozen carved ivory
chessmen in a house of the early ninth century
in Nishapur. These pieces are valuable,
for very few of such antiquity have survived
although the game was widely spread at that
time. When they were made, chess had been
known in Persia for two or three centuries. It
did not originate there, however, but in India,
whence it spread both east and west. The invention
of the game is ascribed to India not
only by the Arabs, who acquired the game by
their conquest of Persia, but by the Persians
The Arabs were fascinated by chess, and to
no small extent its introduction into Europe
was due to them. They had produced famous
masters by the early tenth century, who are
known by name and who were renowned both
for their playing and for treatises on the game.
There was a certain amount of opposition to
this new pastime, however, and the people of
Medina, who themselves could not resist it
and even played Indian variations of the
game, are recorded as saying, “Chess is only
meant for the barbarians, who in company
merely stare at each other like cattle.”
MasCudi, a tenth-century Arab writer, gives
us many details of the game as it was played
in India and elsewhere. He tells us of the various
uses of the chessboard: how it served for
studying the strategy of war, for making mathemlatical
calculations, and even as an allegory
of the celestial spheres. He remarks that the
chief use of ivory in India was for the manufacture
of chess and backgammon pieces, and
tells how the Hindu played for high stakes,
for stuffs and jewels, not even stopping when
he had lost the proverbial shirt. Mascudi goes
on to say, “When they play they have near
them a cauldron of reddish ointment and the
players wager fingers, forearm, elbow, or other
parts of their body, cauterizing the wound
with this ointment, which is a mixture peculiar
to India and extraordinarily effective.’
The custom of which I have spoken is a notorious
fact.” Like earlier writers he asserts
that the game was introduced into Persia from
India, along with Kalileh and Dimneh, a famous
book of fables, during the reign of Nushirwan
(Khusrau I, A.D. 531-579).
The great Persian poet Firdausi, writing in
the eleventh century and using material from,
or similar to, an earlier Pahlavi manuscript,
the Chatrang-nimak, the Book of Chess, also
credits India with the invention of the game.
He relates in the Shdhnimeh that chess was
invented as a means of breaking to the mother
of King Gav, an Indian king, the loss of her
other son, Talhend, in battle with his brother,
this tragedy being shown to her in miniature
on the chessboard. The story ends with the ex-
1It is interesting to note that the Persian words.
dast-i-khin (the hand of blood) are used for the last
move at chess, or for a game in which the vanquished
party stakes his limbs.
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Buzurgmihr demonstrating the moves of chess to the Hindu envoy in the presence of
Shah Nushirwan
traordinary picture of the bereaved woman,
racked with anguish, neither eating nor drinking,
and spending all her time playing chess
until the end of her days.
Somewhat earlier in this long poem we have
another lengthy description of chess, where
we read that the Indian rajah sent an envoy to
Shah Nushirwan with a set of chess and a
message written on silk to say that unless the
Persians could name the pieces and work out
their moves he would cease to pay tribute.
Buzurgmihr, the Persian counselor, aided
somewhat by the indiscretions of the envoy,
solved the problem within a week. This scene
is shown in a fine miniature of the fourteenth
century in the Museum (illustrated above),
in which Buzurgmihr explains the chessmen
and their moves to the envoy in the presence
of the shah. The envoy is sitting at the
left of the chessboard in “the palace which
seemed all throne, and the throne all shah.”
The text under the picture then goes on to
describe how Buzurgmihr invented the game
of nard (backgammon), which the Persians in
their turn presented to the Indians to solve,
a feat which they could not accomplish. Another
page from the same manuscript shows
this game being explained to the rajah and
his court by Buzurgmihr, who is again seen
sitting at the right of the board (see opposite
page). In the Shahndmeh both games represented
a battlefield and were very much alike,
the important difference being in the arrangement
of the board and the use of dice, described
as being made of ivory with spots of
teakwood. Unlike Firdausi, most early writers
state that backgammon is older than chess.
The association of chess with the strategy
of war has always been an extremely common
poetical metaphor, but several early writers
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Buzurgmihr showing the Hindu rajah how to play the game of backgammon
maintain that chess actually was used as an
exercise in martial science. The word by which
chess is now known in Arabic- and Persianspeaking
countries is shatrang. This is a corruption
of the Pahlavi word chatrang, which
comes from the Sanskrit chaturanga, a word
used not only for chess but for the “four arms”
of the army-the chariots, the elephants, the
horsemen, and the infantry, all of which are
represented among the chessmen.
When one looks at chess pieces as they now
are and considers their English names, any
relation with these four groups may seem farfetched.
However, a study of how some of
their original names, their character, and even
sex have been changed in their long journey
from Hindustan to the West, will show that it
is not so fantastic as appears at first sight.
Confusion has been caused, not by the translation
of names from one language into another,
a process which has preserved the original
meaning, but by the adoption of strange
words from foreign tongues. Such a taking
over often necessitated a change of pronunciation
in order that the word might be more
easily spoken. In some cases the word so borrowed
and mispronounced corresponded with
one that already existed in the language but
that had an entirely different meaning. This
native meaning was gradually substituted for
that of the imported word, and the character
of the chess piece as a symbol was thus affected
and changed. When, however, the adopted
and transformed name did not match any
existing word and was meaningless except as
the name of a chessman, the piece was given
a new name, suggested by its shape or the
character of its move. In this way, too, its
symbolic meaning was entirely lost.
The fate of the piece known in English as
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IX century ivory chessmen from Nishapur. The left-hand piece of the middle row is
stained green. Actual size
the bishop gives a very good idea of these
changes. Originally the “elephant,” it was
called by the Persians pil and by the Arabs,
who have great difficulty in pronouncing the
letter P, al fil. In Europe this was modified
to alphinus, alfin, or aufin, the definite article
al being unwittingly included. In early times,
when the piece was not a true representation
of the animal, it was characterized by two projections
from the top, perhaps a distorted survival
of the elephant’s tusks (see above). These
projections took many forms and, because a
resemblance to a mitre was seen, the piece
was called a bishop in England. In France it
became a fou and in Germany a Ldufer, so
that in all three languages the original significance
was lost.
The chariot (rook) lost its identity even
earlier in its journey to the West. From the
original Sanskrit ratha, chariot, the word was
corrupted in Persia to rukh, the name of the
powerful and fabulous bird which we all know
as the roc in the Arabian Nights. The Arabs
hardly changed this word, and our word rook
is merely a mispronunciation of rukhkh. It
was represented in early sets by a rather thin
piece marked with a deep cleft in the middle
(see above), and in the thirteenth century in
Europe it sometimes resembled a sort of tower
with two projections from the top (see ill.
p. 277). Great confusion has taken place between
the rook and the bishop, probably
owing to the fact that in a Hindu version of
chess the elephant (bishop) occupied the cor-
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XI century crystal chessmen in the Behague collection. Rearranged from Lamm’s
“Mittelalterliche Glaser.” 1/2 actual size
ner square instead of the chariot. In the
sixteenth century the Italian Vida, in a Latin
poem entitled Ludus scachorum, described the
rook as a fortified tower on the back of an
elephant. This book was translated into several
languages, including English, and in this
way, as Macdonell suggests, the castle may
have been introduced into England in 1562.
The tower has survived as a chess piece, the
combined form as a heraldic device and, as is
well known to all Cockneys, as the name of a
public house in South London, “the Elephant
and Castle,” recently destroyed.
The piece that has changed not only its
name and character but also its sex is the
queen. In Persian called the firzin, or counselor,
this piece was known as fers in England
in the Middle Ages, but by the twelfth century,
the functions of a vizier not being understood
in Europe, Alexander Neckham in
writing on chess (De Scachis) made the piece
symbolic of a queen.
The knight has always been associated with
a horse in the Near East and a horseman in
Europe, but in Germany, although represented
by a horse’s head, the piece goes by the
name of Springer from the nature of its move.
The pawns were the infantry, the footsoldiers,
and were then as now the simplest and the
smallest pieces on the board. The king, whom
they protected, went by the name of shah in
Persia, and as such he was known by the
Arabs. In Europe the word was literally translated
into king; but in two other ways this
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word shiah, hardly recognizable, is still employed.
The game of chess in mediaeval Latin
was ludus scachorum, the game of shahs, or
kings, and chess is nothing but shah by the
way of the Latin and the old French esches.
The term Shah! is used in Persian and Arabic
when the king is threatened and Shah mat!
(the king is dead) when the king cannot be
moved, and from these we have the words
check and checkmate.2
The moves of most of the pieces have undergone
considerable change. The knight’s leap
has remained constant but others have now
greatly increased powers. The queen, as a vizier,
could only move one square at a time and
was less powerful than the rook. The bishop
(the elephant) has had several moves but was
more restricted in its range. Al Biruni, an
eleventh-century visitor to India, tells us that
in one version of the game it could move one
square either straight on or to any of the adjoining
diagonal squares, these representing
the “elephant’s trunk and four legs.”
The two opposing groups of our ivory chessmen
were distinguished by their color, one set
being dark green. In the Shahndmeh the chessmen
are described as being of ivory and teakwood,
both of which were easily obtained in
India and were readily distinguishable. Many
other materials were used for early pieces. In
Egypt, in the Arab Museum, there are several
of colored glass (see p. 278), made perhaps in
the tenth century; and at the same time and
later very fine ones were made of crystal and
often elaborately decorated (see p. 275). Murray’s
suggestion in his History of Chess that
the pieces of one side were decorated and the
opposing men left plain seems most unlikely.
The plain and decorated chessmen probably
belonged to entirely different sets; plain pieces
being distinguished by material and color, for
instance, crystal and carnelian, and the carved
pieces by different decoration or metal settings.
It is possible that the red glass noted by
2 In the treasury of the Norman kings of England
accounts were kept with counters on a cloth divided
into squares. Owing to this we have the word exchequer,
and thus the English cheque and the American
check, a paper token for money, bear witness
to the far-reaching influence of chess.
Lamm in his Mittelalterliche Gliser on the
bases of some of the crystal pieces shown on
page 275 might have served this purpose.
Our chessmen, though simple, are of nicely
cut ivory, and most of them are in excellent
condition. They are carved in a very conventional
fashion and to our eyes are somewhat
obscure symbols of the figures they are meant
to represent. Drawings of these chessmen have
been set out in the usual order at the head of
this article, but it must be pointed out that
this order is not invariable in the East. Of the
dozen found, one rook (bottom right of ill.
on p. 274) is obviously from another set, and
it is possible that one of the adjoining pieces,
a queen, belonged to this second set also.
Only in the case of the pawns and the
knight would a modern chessplayer have reasonable
success in identifying the pieces. The
knight has approximately the form of a horse,
yet how much more realistic is the very fine
ivory knight of the eighth or ninth century
from Samarkand now in the Hermitage (see
p. 279. Published in Orbelli’s book Shatrang).
The elephant (bishop), unlike the magnificent
ivory specimen in the Bargello3 (see p.
279), is reduced to a piece of ivory with a silhouette
vaguely suggesting the animal, and
instead of tusks there are two small projections
from the top of the “head.” The chariot
(rook) has a deep cleft that was the distinguishing
mark of this piece for several centuries.
The king is represented by what may be
a throne, the counselor (queen) by another
considerably thinner than that of his master.
These shapes were very common for chessmen
of the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries,
except for the knight, which was usually
represented in Near Eastern sets by a
tallish piece with a single projection near the
top. Our pieces are good evidence that conventional
shapes were adopted early in the
history of the game in the countries of Islam.
Unlike the famous crystal pieces at Osna-
3Giovanni Villani, in his Tratto dell’ origine di
Firenze (1559), relates how the building known today
as the Bargello was the scene of an early feat of skill
in chess. In 1266 in the presence of the Podesta, Count
Guido Novello, a Saracen named Buzecca played three
games simultaneously, one over the board and the
other two without looking.
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.Two ‘slims pag ch MLLSS. t Alfol he vlsol of the -vv ise (28) Escorial^ in the
Two Mutslims playing chess. From the MSS. of Alfonso the WVise (1283) in the Escorial
briick, which, legend has it, were a present
from Harun ar Rashid to Charlemagne and
which had formerly been dated by that legend
at the end of the eighth century or the beginning
of the ninth and latterly by “style” in
the tenth century, we can date our chessmen
in the early ninth century by associated finds.
Because of this it is now possible that some of
the “Charlemagne” set of Osnabriick (see p.
278) are at least as old as the ninth century.
It might easily be assumed that the reason
for making chessmen of such conventional and
simplified shapes was merely one of economy,
and that, for more sumptuous sets, others
more elaborate and naturalistic were made,
like the elephant in the Bargello and the
knight from Samarkand. But the finely carved
crystal conventional pieces in the Behague collection,
from Ager in Catalonia (see page
275), dispose of this assumption. That such
crystal pieces were considered valuable is evident
from the castrensian will (that is, one
drawn up in camp before battle) of the Count
of Urgel in Catalonia in the first decade of the
eleventh century, by which he left his Eastern
pieces to the convent of Saint Giles. It is also
evident that chessmen were made in the Near
East in these curious forms to comply with the
religious prohibition against the representation
of living creatures. We know that the Persians,
the early Abbasids in Mesopotamia, and
the Fatimids in Egypt did not always obey
this law, and several fine chess pieces bear witness
to that. But there was always opposition
to freedom of representation, and some chess
players were undoubtedly quite orthodox and
preferred to enjoy themselves without contravening
the religious law.
No trace of any board was discovered in the
excavations at Nishapur, and we are entirely
dependent on literary and pictorial references
for information about chessboards. These
would seem to have sometimes been made of
pliable material such as cloth or leather. Mas-
(udi, in an Arabic poem, describes how two
loyal friends played chess with a red leather
chessboard between them, the scene evoking
the memory of war though no blood was
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on bottom the row. Reproduced
Glass chessmen in the Arab Museum, Cairo. Two typical Near Eastern knights are shown
on the bottom row. Reproduced from Lamm’s “Mittelalterliche Glaser.” About 3/4 actual size
Some of the so-called Charlemagne crystal chessnen. Reproduced from “Der Domschdtz zu
Osnabriick,” by Fritz Witte. About 3/4 actual size
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sought, and the warriors engaged in combat
without the sound of trumpets or the waving
of banners. In the early game, as played in the
Near East, the board was usually divided into
sixty-four squares, eight to a side. There were,
however, many variants of this form; we read
of one with a hundred squares, necessitating
the use of “camels” as well as the “horses” and
“elephants.” Even in the thirteenth century a
board with twelve squares to a
side was known in Spain. Oblong
and circular boards are
also mentioned by Mlascudi.
There was an important difference
between the early Arab i 0( !i
and Persian board and that i
used Europe, urope, finor in the former
there was no distinction in
the color of the squares. This
can be seen very clearly evenl
in the fourteenth-century paintings
in the Shihnrmeh (see p.
272). The chess problems in the
very fine Florentine manuscript
of the thirteenth century known
as the Bonus socius are accompanied
by drawings in which all
the squares are white and the
names of the pieces written in
black and red. But in the contemporary
manuscripts of Alfonso
the Wise the boards are checkered,
even though Arabs are
shown playing, as can be seen on page 277.
There are many references to show that
chess was very popular with the early caliphs
and the court, just as in Europe a century or
two later there are legends and writings to
show that it was a pastime of kings, courts,
and clergy. Ma’mun, a caliph of the early
ninth century, called skilled players to his
court, but that did not prevent him from making
the observation that chess and politeness
did not go well together. Sets of chess, often
of great value, were given as presents between
rulers and persons in high places, not only in
Europe, but by Muslims to Christians. We
have the legend of such a gift to Charlemagne
from Harun ar Rashid, and we also know that
Louis IX received one of crystal and gold from
the Old Man of the Mountains, the last of
Hassan Sabbah’s line to reign in the famous
castle of the “Assassins” at Alamut before they
were swept away by the Mongols.
In spite of such high patronage, however,
there were many Muslims who objected not
only to backgammon, which was almost entirely
a game of chance, but to
-::: :: i:chess also, although it was considered
a more intellectual pastime;
for both games were played
for stakes. There was much
heated theological controversy
about chess and Ash Shafici, one
of the greatest of the orthodox
divines, laid down conditions
. .. that had to be fulfilled to ensure
lawfulness: the game must
not be played for a stake nor
allowed to interfere with prayer,
the player must refrain from improper
language, and the game
must not be played in the street
or in any public place.
In Europe, too, where chess
was often played for stakes, diffictulties
with the Church arose,
as well they might when we hear
that at the very beginning of
the eleventh century Mathilda,
daughter of Otto II, was “won”
as the result of a chess match between Ezzo,
the Count Palatine, and her brother, Otto III.
The clergy themselves were susceptible to the
fascination of the game, and in the same century
Cardinal Damianus, Bishop of Ostra,
wrote to reprove a bishop for sporting away
his evenings with the vanity of chess and so
defiling with the pollution of a sacrilegious
game the hand which offered up the body of
the Lord.
Chess has survived all these onslaughts and
has undergone remarkably few changes considering
that it has existed for some fourteen
hundred years, a lingua franca between the
civilizations of the East and West.
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