Chess is one of humanity's most popular games; it has been described not only as a game, but also as an art, science, and sport. Chess is sometimes seen as an abstract wargame; as a "mental martial art", and teaching chess has been advocated as a way of enhancing mental prowess. Chess is played both recreationally and competitively in clubs, tournaments, online, and by mail (correspondence chess). Many variants and relatives of chess are played throughout the world. The most popular are Xiangqi (in China), Janggi (in Korea), and Shogi (in Japan).

Chess (from the Persian word Shah) is a board game and mental sport for two players. It is played on a square board of 8 rows (called ranks) and 8 columns (called files), giving 64 squares of alternating colour, light and dark. Each player begins the game with 16 pieces that each move and capture other pieces on the board in a unique way: eight pawns, two knights, two bishops, two rooks, one queen and one king. One player controls the white pieces; the other player controls the black pieces. The object of the game is to achieve checkmate. This occurs when a king is attacked and it cannot escape capture. Note that checkmate renders the actual capture of the king unnecessary since it is a foregone conclusion and the game ends at that time.

The Enigma of Chess Birth

The quest of chess origin is an exciting riddle. Earliest references are found in epic romances written in Pahlavi (old Persian) around 600 / 625 AD. They present Chatrang, Chess, as an Indian invention brought to the Shah's court. In China, the first undisputable source appears around 800 AD although there is an earlier one dated 569, but some experts argue that the referred game is not Chess. The similarities between both games are too great to deny a link between them.

Let's start by a short presentation of each. The Persian Chatrang (and the Indian Chaturanga) had already two armies of 16 pieces each, with a familiar set-up, on an uncheckered 64 cases board:

Each side has:
· 1 Shah, whose capture is the aim of the game and which moves 1 step in all direction as our King.
· 1 Vizier (Farzin, Firzan in Arab), close to the Shah and which moves 1 step diagonally.
· 2 Elephants (Pil, Fil in Arab) which moves diagonally 2 steps, leaping over the intermediate case if occupied.
· 2 Horses (Asp, Faras in Arab) moving obliquely exactly as our modern Knights.
· 2 Chariots (Rukh in Persian and Arab) which have exactly the orthogonal move of our Rooks.
· 8 Soldiers (Piyadah, Baidaq in Arab) which move 1 step straight ahead (never 2) and capture diagonally ahead as our modern Pawn. When reaching the last row, they are promoted to Farzin.

In China, the earliest description of Xiangqi, with all its pieces, are more recent. They are from Bei Song Dynasty, around 1000 A.D. and depicted the modern Xiangqi already. They are two armies, one blue and one red, with 16 pieces placed on the intersections of a 8 x 9 cases board, then 9 x 10 points :

· 1 General (Jiang for blue, Shuai for red) whose capture was here again the aim of the game and which moves 1 step, orthogonally only. It is confined to the 9 points of its citadel.
· 2 Advisors or Mandarins (Shi), also confined in the palace and which moves 1 step diagonally.
· 2 Ministers for blue, or 2 Elephants for red (both named Xiang but with different ideograms) which move 2 steps diagonally. They can not jump and are not allowed to enter the opposite half-board.
· 2 Horses (Ma) whose move is similar to that of our Knights with, maybe already, the impossibility of jumping over the first leg case if it is occupied.
· 2 Chariots (Ju) strictly equivalent again to our Rooks at the corners of the board.
. 2 Cannons (Pao) placed before most of the troops on the third row
· 5 Soldiers (Zu for blue, Bing for red) which step 1 case straight ahead as long as they are in their own half of the board, then which can also move 1 case sideways when they have penetrated the opposite camp. This is their only form of promotion. As all the other pieces, their move and capture are identical.

From this presentation, one can note an undisputable lineage. Non only, the pieces have similar moves, if not identical, but their names have often the same meaning and, moreover, their initial set-up follows the same principles.

Four Possible Scenairos

A natural tendency among games historians is to try to unroll the lineage of the board-games by unearthing the successive ancestors as if their history could simply be described by a succession of more and more evolved generations of games. Although it gives convenient schemes, often sufficient to sketch the history of a given game, I believe that in some cases, more complex relationships could have led to the invention of some of the most popular and successful brain games.

For instance, our Backgammon is most likely the fruit of the marriage between ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. One ancestor would be the Egyptian Senet, played on a 3x10 board with strong cosmological connotations, a second one would be the Sumerian so-called Royal Game of Ur, soon modified in the 20 Squares Game. This latter game was played over a board with 3x4 cases plus a tail of 8 cases in a line. When the 20 Squares Game reached Egypt (circa 1800 BC), the inhabitants adopted the habit to use game boxes with a Senet and a 20 Squares Game represented on top and bottom sides. Many of such game boxes have been excavated and can be admired in several museums. A possible, logical, evolution was to use a single 3x12 board with some thickenings to highlight either one game or the other. Such a board has been found at Ak-hor and is depicted by Murray in his second book. The next step was obviously to play a race game on that 3x12 board. That was what the Greeks did (probably) as well as the Romans (certainly).

(Later on, maybe to improve legibility of both paths for the opposite standing players, the middle row was omitted to lead to the game of Tables in Europe and Nard in Middle-East with a 2x12 cells)

A comparable process could have occurred for Chess, that game deriving from the encounter of two influences, a Chinese Xiangqi and an Indo-Persian Chatrang.

Looking for a Scheme

It is widely accepted that the striking resemblance between Chatrang and Xiangqi is not fortuitous. Both games oppose two sides of 16 pieces each with the goal of killing a central King or any sort of supreme authority. In both games, the armies have a front row of mere Soldiers and a back row with Chariots at the aisles, Horses then Elephants beside, encircling the leaders. The moves of all these pieces, although presenting some interesting discrepancies, are very like in both Chess.

How such a kinship can be explained? Logically, four scenarios can be constructed.

1) A westward birth followed by an eastward diffusion. An Indian origin of Chess is the dominating opinion among historians so far. It lies on the works of several famous scholars, Hyde (1694), Jones (1790), Forbes (1860), Van der Linde (1874,1881) and culminating with the never surpassed Murray and his monumental History of Chess, more than 900 pages of pure erudition, published in 1913. The most convincing arguments are the written texts in Sanskrit or Pahlavi which are the oldest known and accepted dealing with the game of Chess. This theory places the birth of Chatrang in North India around the 6th century AD and assumes that it was latter transmitted to China (around 800) along with other Indian cultural elements, possibly by Buddhist pilgrims. A sub-school is the one claiming a Persian origin for Chatrang, which is mainly supported by the fact that some of the older texts are in Pahlavi, even if they tell the story of an arrival from India (this could be a tale for fashioning the new game with the prestige of India) and also because the oldest known chessmen were excavated in Central Asia, then a Persian land .

2) An eastward birth followed by a westward diffusion. This option is often defended with such a polemic tone that it provokes its abrupt rejection by orthodox Chess historians. Nevertheless, many sinologists are more inclined to rely on such a scheme, following the most famous of them: Needham. It makes sense also, because a close examination of the structure of the Xiangqi - the move of the pieces, the marks on the board - suggests that the Chinese game would be of greater antiquity than the Chatrang. In other words, it is very difficult to convince that an evolution from Chatrang could have led to the Xiangqi characteristics. The absence of Chinese texts before the 6th or 7th century is disputed. They are texts dating from Beizhou period (557-581) which deal with a Xiangxi game. However, this Xiangxi is assimilated to an astronomical game and then, disputed. It has now been proved that board-game apparition in civilisations is very linked to other formalised activities such as divination, geomancy, astrology and other initiatory sessions . This is the case for Senet, 20 Squares Game, Awele, Liubo, precolombian American games, just to cite few examples, so why Xiangqi should be discarded?

3) A common ancestor for both Chatrang and Xiangqi. For differentiating from the previous cases, we must look for a seminal game at more or less the same “structural distance” to both successors. To have existed, such a game should contain the different germs which could have evolved up to Chatrang in one hand and up to Xiangqi in the other hand. That necessarily implies a time span of few centuries. No evidence of the existence of such a game has been found until now.

4) The development of two different war games with a mutual influence during their formation. The medium of such a coupling is well pictured: it is the Silk Road which was the theatre of many cultural and industrial exchanges between the Indo-Persian and the Chinese worlds. This theory, which implies a much more complex process than the three other ones, supposes the existence of a board game in China, an other one in the West and that both have evolved into a war game. Their evolutions would have been achieved with a strong correlation.

The reader will notice that this fourth scenario does not really exclude the first two ones. As a matter of fact it must be seen as an intricacy: neither an Indo-Persian nor a Chinese-only origin can explain everything, both bearing probably some truth but both being definitively too simple to be convincing.