Reflections: Chess – An Asian Game Well Played

An enamelled gold chess piece from Jaipur, India

The origins of the ubiquitous game of strategy, chess, lie in an instructional military model used in ancient India to plan battles. This model made use of non-distinct terracotta figures that simulated the four (in Sanskrit, “catur”) divisions (“anga”) of ancient Indian armies – chariots, horsemen, elephants, and soldiers on foot. Asian Geographic traces the evolution of the game of chess through the ages.

Moving Pieces Through Time

One of the first gaming pieces – a war

elephant (bishop) resting on its knees,

protected by chain mail

300 BC

References to the term caturanga as the four wings of the army go back to before 300 BC

560 – 579 AD

King Sarvavarman Maukhari from Kanauj in India sent the game to the Persian king Chosrow I Anushirvan. This model used pieces made of ruby and emerald

625 AD

The Harshacarita is one of the earliest allusions to the game of caturanga in India, played on a planogram using terracotta figures

720 AD

Chess spread across the Islamic world from Persia. The Persian exclamation “Shah Mat!” (literally, “the king is helpless”), led to the phrase “checkmate”

800 AD

The first written reference to Chinese chess (xiangqi) appeared in the Book of Marvels. The pieces are placed on the intersection of the lines of the board

9th Century

The Arabs introduced the game to Western Europe in the ninth century

10th Century

Muslims carried chess to North Africa, Sicily and Iberia. Chess reached Russia from Byzantium and via the Vikings

11th Century

Ferdowsi, a renowned Persian poet, describes in the Shahnameh an Indian king who reenacted past battles on a chessboard

13th Century

Around 1262, the Russian word for chess, shakhmaty, was introduced

16th Century

Shogi was spawned when xiangqi was brought to Japan between the 10th and 12th centuries. The present form of shogi was played from the 16th century


The first modern chess tournament was held in London

Check out the rest of this article in Asian Geographic No.110 Issue 2/2015 here or download a digital copy here


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