Chess and Other Games

by James Schroeder

Once upon a time a man found a large bone, flat on two sides. He put a mark on one side and two marks on the other side and then found another man with whom he gambled. The man tossed the bone in the air and the other man called one, or two; winning or losing depending on which side landed face-up. To keep score each man made a long vertical line in the sand and when he won made a short horizontal mark on his line.

Another game was to toss several bones in the air and try to catch them.

The game became so popular that the man made an oblong, four-sided bone, so that four persons could play.

One day some man made a scoring board of wood which had long vertical lines cut across by many short horizontal lines. Score was kept by moving a marker along the vertical line. This was a racing game, like cribbage.

The board could not be made very long because it would be too difficult to carry, and it probably had only twelve to fifteen horizontal lines.

The players wanted the games to last longer so they put in more vertical lines. Then they added lines to separate the “scoring” lines and suddenly they had a board full of squares.

It was easier to keep score by putting their marker on a square, instead of on a line, and they devised different types of tracks to follow on the board.

It was really a dull game but when they began tossing the bone onto the board it some times landed on a marker. Someone suggested a rule: If your bone lands on an opponent’s marker that marker must be removed from the board and start over. (Backgammon).

We won’t know when the bone was made into a six-sided cube, with dots one through six, called a “die”, but it was probably a cube when that rule was made, because it would have been easy to make a four-sided bone land on a marker.

Games of strategy were then invented where each player started with many pieces which moved on the squares and the object of the game was to capture all of your opponent’s pieces.

These games still used dies. A piece, or pieces, could move the number of squares indicated on the dies. The plural of die became dice.

Then they made different shaped pieces which could move in different directions.

A board of eight squares by eight squares (64 total) was called an ashtapada in India. The War Game of India was invented for the ashtapada and was called chaturanga in Sanskrit. Chatur = four. Anga = arm. The four arms of the Indian army were: Foot-soldiers, Chariots, Cavalry, Elephants. There was a Rajah and a Counselor. The object of the game was to capture the Rajah, which could move one square at a time, in any direction. The Counselor, being weaker, had lesser powers of movement.

A game with four armies on an ashtapada was later invented and called chaturrajah – Four Rajahs – causing some persons to incorrectly surmise that the first War Game of India was four-handed.

When chaturanga got to Persia it was called Chatrang and Rajah was changed to Shah.

The first reference to the game was found in a Persian romantic poem and they say that the game was invented in India around 550 A.D.

The Persians made a new rule: When a player attacked a Shah he was required to say “Shah!”. You can guess what happened: When some players saw their Shah captured they protested: “You didn’t say Shah!” So the Persians created a rule which forever torments us: When a Shah is attacked a player must make a move so that it won’t be attacked. If the player makes a move and the Shah is still being attacked, that move is not legal and must be replaced by a move which is legal. When the Shah is attacked and there is no escape the game is over, but the Shah is NEVER captured. And now we have Shahmat, a Persian word that somehow became checkmate in English. Mat is a Persian adjective meaning “helpless”.

Life would have been much simpler if those crazy Persians hadn’t changed the rules.

Burma and many other countries do not have any word for “checkmate”. They say: “I have won” or “I have lost”.

The game of chess that we now play was invented in the region around Italy, France and the Peninsula, around 1485 A.D., except for the rule for “castling”, which was invented in Rome about one hundred years later.

Because carved figures from earlier civilizations in many countries have been found some persons have incorrectly guessed that they were chess pieces. They were actually pieces for other types of games – mostly racing games.

Source: A History of Chess by H. J. R. Murray, Oxford University Press. First published 1913.

Copyright © 2001 James Schroeder

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