The Secret of the King's Immortality

A documentary film project about the history of chess - a project in development

Shah-mat. "The King is dead". These words in Farsi (shāh māt" - شاه مات‎ ) made one of the names of the game loved by many. However, the king never dies. He takes his troops to the checkered battlefield, over and over again, through the centuries. The king is, in fact, immortal. What is his secret?

The Indian Invention - Chaturanga

Whatever they might say about ancient Greek or Egyptian board games, there is no direct evidence that chess game was invented in any place other than India. The Indians called their masterminding "chaturanga" (चतुरङ्ग ). The set of pieces corresponded to the ancient Indian army and included cavalry, elephants, chariots, and infantry. There were four players by the board, each one leading his own army, so there were four kings.

It is commonly supposed that chaturanga was invented in the 8th or 6th century. However, war elefants and chariots were already out of use in that time. The set of pieces clearly connects to at least 1000 years older warfare.

There is an old legend that there was a wise Brahmin, priest, whose name was, probably, Soety, and who invented this game. The purpose of the invention was either to entertain the local ruler, or to offer him an alternative to casting dice. Or, which is more likely, to distract the ruler from wars he had been continuously making for years. This probably explains why chess modeled a battle.

The ruler was more than satisfied and suggested that the brahmin chooses his award: "ask whatever you want", he said. The brahmin, apparently, was familiar with mathematic progressions. He asked for some grain - one grain for the first chessboard square, two - for the second one, four - for the third, eight - for the fourth... The ruler, laughing at the modesty of the brahmin, commanded to fulfill the request. But it turned out that the total number of grains to be given was more than all India would harvest in several hundred years.

The story does not say whether the Brahmin was given at least a part of his reward. May be he was just beheaded. But he must have known something important, as he was the Brahmin - 8x8 chessboard must have had some hidden meanings linked to ancient Indian spiritual traditions.

The game cought on anyway. Travelling along the caravan routes, the new game was introduced to central Asia, China and Korea, and even to Japan. Of course, the farther it went, the more different it looked, and some interacton with the local table game traditions occured everywhere. But the influence of Chaturanga was still remakrable. perhaps, playing cards originated from Chaturanga, too, though it is pretty difficult to prove it now. But, as we know, there are four kings and four suits ('armies') in the deck of cards - very similar to Chaturanga, isn't it?

The Persian Upgrade - Shatranj

The influence of Chaturanga was especially strong in Persia. There the words "Shah Mat" first sounded. The game belongs to the Persian civilization, not only by the name. Having combined the two armies of Chaturanga, the Persians have got a classic set of chess pieces which is not modified till now. Each army had two leaders - one of them was the Shah, or King, and the other one - the vizier, or ferzin, or assistant to Shah. It was the piece that later changed into the Queen.

The old Indian name "chaturanga" now changed to "shatranj" (Arabic: شطرنج‎; Persian: شترنج‎; from Middle Persian chatrang چترنگ) that is how the game was also called. Under this name it became known - quickly and widely.

Arabic Contribution and Further Spread of Shatranj

Well, we admit that the Persians did their job, but if you ask who made the game the world's passion - it was the Arabs. They had brought it where it hadn't been known before - to Europe and Africa, and also developed the theory of the game.

The new game inherited chaturanga's pieces. Generally speaking, they were slow and weak. That is why the whole game was played at a snail's pace, by modern standards. The two armies had to maneuver for long before the actual fight started. And it was not such thing as castling. That is why some pre-set positions were used to speed the game up. Such positions were called "tabia". The pieces in every tabia already stood in more active positions and the players using a tabia could start their "battle" much faster.

The tabias had their beautiful names - "sayal" (stream), "saif" (sword). The players appreciated the beauty of tabias and used them quite often. Modern time chessmasters also play their fist 20-25 or more moves mechanically, remebering them by heart, and start the actual fight from a certain pre-set position - just like the tabia users would do.

There were modifications of shatranj: shatranj al-Hasan, Byzantine chess, the chess of Tamerlane, etc.

The most powerful piece in shatranj was the rook. In Novgorod it was called "ladya" (boat), in Germany - "tur" (tower). But in the East the rook was a legendary bird. In Middle Asia, for example, the rook was a symbol of a formidable bird Simurgh which was known for killing snakes living in the heads of those disbelievers who doubt allmighty God. As simple as that.

The English word "rook" originates from the Arabian "ruh" - a giant legendary bird. Some researches believe it was Aepyornis bird, now extinct. But Arabs could have seen it while traveling to Eastern Africa and Madagaskar in the Medieval times.

The game quickly gained its popularity in Europe. In 1119, the first ever chess game by correspondence (by mail) was played - the King of England played with the king of France. A record of every move was dispatched with a special messenger over the English Channel.

However, the procession of chess in Europe has not always been triumphant. Despite the fact that many church leaders played and enjoyed the game, the official Christiandom viewed it extremely negative for a long time . There were some prohibition edicts putting chess in the same footing with such indecent time-passing as gambling and drinking.

In fact, people always tend to take their entertainment too seriously. Some chess players quarred over the board, some of them even fistfighted quite hard. Alarmed European kings issued decrees against that formidable chess game. Church angrily declared the game "sinful". But this new "Arab fun" had firmly taken ground in Europe.

Modern Time Chess Invented in Spain

Of course, chess in Europe had a long and sometimes controversional history. However, only the Spaniards gave the old game its modern shape. The game of shatrandj, slow and contemplative, well matched the unhurried life of the East, but Europe already needed a different pace. The people wanted to play it a bit faster.

Isabella, the queen of Spain, was probably the most powerful piece on the European board in the late 15th century. Probably that is why a strong, energetic and dominating "queen" appeared replacing somewhat sluggish "ferzin". The "elephant" became an influential and far-seeing "bishop". The King finally learned to castle, quickly hiding under the protection of powerful "towers". And the pawns were taught to make their first move two squares ahead. This  changed the game forever, and we still play it. The first treatise on chess was written also in Spain - Ruy Lopez was the one who wrote it.

Developing the Gameplay in Europe

The Spaniards may be forever proud for what they did to the chess game. But they hardly knew how rich and diverse the possibilities involved were. Other European nations liked the new rules of the game and actually discovered the real potential of the Spanish innovations.

The game was played as a pure improvisation till the 18th century. In France, a famous master Filidore developed his well-known defensive system (still appreciated by many masters today) and laid foundations of positional game. It was him who demonstrated the abilities of the pawns fighting as a phalanx - the formation really hard to crash. No wonder - it was the time of linear tactics of the musketeers, and the French musketeers were among the best back then. 

The Industrial era brought a new historic development. Newspapers made the game widely popular. They started to publish game records of the prominent masters, chess problems and combinations. The taste for "romantic chess" based on brilliant combinations quickly developed in the first half of the 19th century. No wonder, it was the well-known period of romantism in European culture.

Romantism in chess meant less attention to positional fight and more - to sacrifices. This way of playing was often interesting and even beautiful, but at the same time it had serious limitations. Because there can not be a single dominant mode of playing in chess (and not only in chess). Tilting the gameplay style is no good.

The First World's Champions and Their Styles

The game became so much popular, that a new need emerged - the need to find out who is the world's champion. The first world championship was won by Wilhelm Steinitz - the Austrian grandmaster who is still considered as a founder of modern chess theory. He became famous for his pragmatic strategy of slow accumulation of small advantages. This strategy allowed him to win a match against a brilliant combinatory player and the last great romantic of chess ­- Johannes Zukertort. It happened in 1886. The era of "romantism" in chess ended, and a new era commenced: the era of turning chess into a subject of a profound study - the study Willhelm Steinitz had been conducting and propagating himself.

However, for every Steinitz there is one Lasker. Emanuel Lasker became world champion in 1894, winning the match against Steinitz. Lasker was the follower of Steinitz's theory of position game. Sometimes he is viewed as a pioneer of so-called "psychological style" in chess. People say, Lasker could sometimes deliberately worsen his position, just to provoke his opponent to attack. However, what is more likely, Lasker was just very good at playing chess.

But for every Lasker there is one Capablanca. Capablanca was the next world's champion. The 20th cetury was, in a way, the century of chess. The world championships and various tournaments where the leading grandmasters participated moved to the focus of public attention globally. The newspapers, radio, and then TV brought chess news all around the world - much faster then caravands did in the past. The new world champions - Capablanca, Alekhine, Eive, Botvinnik - really examined the limits of human mind. After the 2nd World War, the Soviet chess school began to dominate. Botvinnik, Tal, Spassky, (with a break for Fisher), Carpov, Kasparov. Their contribution is very valuable. As a result, it is really very difficult now to substantially change the strategies and theoretic base of the gameplay like it happened earlier in the past.

Modern Time: Chess vs Computer Games

The end of the 20th century marked a beginning of a new, not quite favorable period in the history of chess. There were previously unknown organizational difficulties. But it was computerization that changed everything. 

Computer games with their more and more sophisticated and absorbing visualisation definitely take some public audience away from chess. But we understand that computer games do not challenge human mind as much as the game of chess does. Generally, computer games require much less mental capacity.

The problem of computer games addiction has not been known previously. Those who tried to prohibit "the harmful game of chess" in the past would definitely be horrified to see how much time, nerve and creative powers modern people waste on computer games and how much computer games distract people from performing their duties. No doubt, church leaders of the medieval times would condemn computer games as a pure satanic entertainment. Chess game is definitely warm and fuzzy, compared to computer gaming.

The general balance is obviously ruined. We spend too much time and effort on entertainment.  It takes too much attention. Yes, we do need a break, but we still need to excercise our mind. Therefore chess can still be "the pill" bringing modern humans back to more decent and mind-challenging ways of time-spending. Will the ancient game of chess become as popular as it has been?

What Next?

The game develops. As we remember, some innovations have been introduced all the way. First the new twists seem exotic, but then they gain more popularity. Or go into oblivion. Or still being played - like Capablanca chess, Grand chess, Gothic chess, Omega chess, and a broad variety of hexagonal chess. Some masters find these twists really fascinating.

For sure, modern time is a major callenge, and the challenge is accepted. The king took it. He would deploy his troops and lead them to the black and white battlefield, over and over again. Because, as we know, the king never dies - as long as people love chess which is still one of the most popular games in the world. 

Key Takeaways

  • Although the game of chess is believed to be invented in the 8th or 6th century, the set of pieces with war elephants and chariots clearly refers to much earlier warfare, so the game can be much older.
  • Every development intruduced to the gameplay, as well as the dominant playing styles, have a very close relation to the progress of civilization and changes in the ways of thinking over time.
  • The game of chess, unlike computer games, is an addiction-free activity, and at the same time more demanding in terms of mind capacity, which is very important in our time.