CHESS, a board game known in Sanskrit as catur-aṅga- (“having four members,” a common designation for an army of four divisions); in Middle Persian as čatrang; in Persian as šatrang, šatranj, or šaṭranj; and in Arabic as al-šaṭranj or al-šeṭranj (whence Sp. ajedrez, OFr. eschez, Fr. échecs, Eng. chess, possibly It. scacchi, Ger. Schach, etc., the latter two forms also under the influence of Persian šāh “king”).
The game of chess has a long history in Persia. Although its origin is wrapped in obscurity, it appears from its name, the organization of its pieces, and the earliest Persian traditions that it developed out of various ancient Indian board games (e.g., aṣṭāpada, cf. Mid. Pers. hašt-pāy, see below). In India chess may have been known already to Patañjali (2nd cent. b.c.), but the first certain mention of catur-aṅga- occurs quite late, in the 6th century of our era (cf. Thieme, p. 215), which is also the period in which the game seems to have been brought to Persia. Three Book Pahlavi texts mention chess (čatrang): Kār-nāmak ī Artaxšēr ī Pāpakān (The book of the deeds of Ardašīr I, son of Pāpak), Xusrau u rētak (Ḵosrow and his page), and Vičārišn ī čatrang u nihišn ī nēv-artaxšēr (The explanation of chess and the invention of backgammon). In Kār-nāmak (2.12) it is said that Ardashīr “with the help of the gods became more victorious and experienced than all others in polo, horsemanship, chess, backgammon, and other arts,” and in the small treatise on Ḵosrow (Parvēz) and his page, the latter declares (15) that he is superior to his comrades in chess, backgammon, and hašt pāy. The author of Vičārišn ī čatrang describes how the game of chess was sent as a riddle to Ḵosrow Anōšīravān (r. 531-79) by the “king of the Hindus Dēvsarm (?)” with the envoy Taxtarītūs (?) and how the riddle was solved by the vizier Vazurgmihr (Bozorgmehr), who in his turn invented the game Nēv-Artaxšēr (i.e., nard, backgammon) as a riddle for the Hindus. These three Middle Persian sources do not, however, give any certain indication of the date when chess was introduced into Persia. Although Kār-nāmak and Xusrau u rētak refer to kings of the 3rd and 6th-7th centuries respectively, the mentions of chess are simply conventional and may easily represent late Sasanian or even post-Sasanian redactions. The story told in Vičārišn is clearly legendary and cannot be accepted as an accurate historical account. This story appears to be the subject of a wall painting of the early 8th century c.e. at Pyandzhikent. There two men play a board game in the presence of the king; one of them wears the costume and hair style of a Hindu and is making the traditional Persian gesture of surprise (forefinger pointing to lips), as if impressed by his opponent’s prowess or intelligence (Bussagli, p. 46; for the dating of the wall paintings at Pyandzhikent, see Belenitskii and Marshak, pp. 35-46).
Although it is probable that chess was known and played in Persia at the end of the Sasanian period, the earliest certain evidence is from after the Islamic conquest. The story recounted in Vičārišn was retold in Arabic prose by Ṯaʿālebī (350-429/961-1038) in Ḡorar al-sīar (pp. 622-25) and in Persian verse by Ferdowsī (d. 411/1020) in Šāh-nāma (Moscow, VIII, pp. 206-16; ed. Mohl, VI, pp. 193-201). In the latter work the story was expanded to include an explanation of the Indian origin of chess (Moscow, VIII, pp. 217-47; ed. Mohl, VI, pp. 201-23). Gav and Ṭalḵand, two princes and half-brothers, sons by a single mother of the Indian king Jamhūr and his younger brother and successor Māy, both lay claim to the throne after the death of Māy. War broke out between the two, and Ṭalḵand, trapped on the battlefield without possibility of either escape or attack, died mysteriously in his golden saddle. His brother invented the game of chess in order to convey to their mother the news of this event.
A great variety of legends about chess appear in early Arabic sources (cf. Ebn al-Nadīm, ed. Flügel, pp. 172-73, tr. Dodge, I, pp. 341-42). Masʿūdī (d. ca. 345/956), for example, describes how a series of learned kings of ancient India introduced various arts and sciences (Morūj I, pp. 153-61; ed. Pellat, I, pp. 86-90). Barhaman (Brahman) was the first. Under his son Bāhbūd the game of nard was invented, and a couple of generations later King Dabšalem composed the book Kalīla wa Demna. In the reign of his son Balhīt the game of chess was invented, and certain of its mathematical properties were explored, especially the calculation and cosmological interpretation of the sum of squares from 1 to 64. Masʿūdī (Morūj VIII, pp. 312-17; ed. Pellat, V, pp. 218-20) also mentions six different forms of the game that were current in his time (see ii, below). Bīrūnī, in his book on India (tr., I, pp. 183-85), describes an Indian variant of chess played with a pair of dice by four players on an ordinary board eight squares on a side; in his Āṯār (tr. Sachau, pp. 134-36) he treats mathematical aspects of the problem of “the reduplication of the chess and its calculation.” Ebn Ḵallekān also explains this problem in a story about the inventor of chess, supposedly an Indian sage named Ṣeṣṣa b. Dāher in the time of a certain king Šehrām (or Balhīt), who asked as his reward that a grain of rice be placed in the first square of a chess board and that the amount then be doubled in each successive square of the sixty-four (Wafayāt, Būlāq ed., 1299/1882, II, pp. 328-32; tr. de Slane, III, pp. 69-73). Other Muslim writers attributed the invention of chess to a variety of legendary wise men, usually Indian. Most frequently mentioned is Ḥakīm Ṣīṣa/Ṣehṣa/Ṣefa/Sīsāk/Ses, etc., b. Dāser/ Dāher/Dāʾer al-Hendī (cf. Wieber, pp. 89ff.). In the form Dāser (e.g., in Moḥammad b. Maḥmūd Āmolī’s Nafāʾes al-fonūn fī ʿarāʾes al-ʿoyūn, comp. ca. 740/1340, cited in Yaktāʾī, p. 71; cf. ii, below), for example, it is possible to recognize Dēvsarm (see above) and the Persian and Arabic Dābšalem/Dābšalīm (associated with Kalīla wa Demna and its compiler, also known as Bedpāy). In other stories (e.g., Moʿallem al-šaṭranj, cited in Yaktāʾī, pp. 71ff.) Ḥakīm, Moḥammad b. ʿObayd-Allāh Lajlāj (a legendary son of Ṣefa b. Dāser according to Āmolī [see above] or a historical person and writer on chess living in Shiraz in the 4th/10th cent., cf. Wieber, p. 80), Šāt(a)rāš (cf. Yaktāʾī; a distortion of šatranj?), Mandūdarī (the legendary queen Mandodarī, wife of the demon King Rāvaṇa of Laṅkā/Ceylon in the Indian Rāmāyaṇa epic), Hermes, and the historical Abū Bakr Moḥammad b. Yaḥyā al-Ṣūlī (d. ca. 336/941; cf. Ebn Ḵallekān, Būlāq ed., 1299/1882, II, pp. 328-32, tr. de Slane, III, pp. 69-73; and Ebn al-Nadīm, Fehrest, ed. Flügel, pp. 167, 172-73, tr. Dodge, I, pp. 329-31, 341-42) are mentioned. All these references suggest that chess spread from Persia to the Arabs and other Muslim peoples quite early in the Islamic period and with it the general assumption that the game had originated in India. It subsequently traveled to Byzantium and Europe, where it was already known before the Crusades.
From at least as early as the 6th century c.e. the main form of chess seems to have been played on a board with eight squares on each side and with more or less the pieces and arrangement that are known today. The chessmen are obviously categorized according to the traditional division of the Indian army (as mentioned, e.g., in the Amarakośa): hasty-aśva-ratha padāta, that is, elephants, horses, chariots, and foot soldiers, led by the king and his counselor. The arrangement of the pieces was described in Vičārišn ī čatrang: the king (šāh) in the center, the two rooks (raxu) on the right and left flanks, the counselor (fračīn; equivalent to the queen in the European version) beside the king, the elephants (pīl) like the royal guards (i.e., in the positions of the European bishops), the horses (asp; in the European version the knights) like the cavalry, and the foot soldiers (padātak; pawns) in the front line. Ferdowsī (Moscow, VIII, pp. 206-16; ed. Mohl, VI, pp. 193-201) follows this description closely, giving the Persian names of the pieces as šāh, roḵ (perhaps to be identified with the fabulous bird; cf. also OFr. roc, Eng. rook), dastūr, pīl, asb, and pīāda, but in the immediately following account of the invention of chess by Ṭalḵand (Moscow, VIII, pp. 217-47; ed. Mohl, pp. 201-23) he mentions a board of 100 (i.e., 10 x 10) squares, with an extra piece in the shape of a camel (oštor) on each side, between the elephant and the horse. The counselor is called farzāna (wise). These names were borrowed or translated into Arabic, whence some of them found their way into European languages.
Although the chessmen have remained generally the same, the rules for their movements have undergone change. The most important took place in Spain around the middle of the 15th century, when the queen, which formerly could move only one square at a time diagonally, was given the power to move along the entire board both diagonally and in a straight line. This version of play was called de la dama (in the style of the queen), in contrast to del viejo (the old style). The modern form of castling (moving both king and rook in a single turn) was not introduced until the beginning of the 17th century. These innovations were then introduced to Persia and the rest of the Muslim world. Despite such alterations, however, the game is won in the same basic way, by šā/ăh-māt (checkmate). It is generally supposed that māt is the Arabic perfect of the verb “to die,” but this seems unlikely since the very point of the story, as told in the Šāh-nāma, is that the King is made powerless and paralyzed without being hit by anybody (cf. Murray, p. 159). Other pieces get killed (NPers. košta) but the King becomes māt (cf. Moʿīn, III, s.v. 1-māt; Morgenstierne, p. 48), a word appearing in various Persian languages with the meaning “broken, paralyzed.” Furthermore, early usage implies that Arabic al-šāhmāt was a loanword from Persian (cf. Dozy, Supplément, s.v. šāh and šahmāta). The term was also adopted in most European languages (e.g., Sp. jaque mate).
The game of chess has long played an integral part in Persian culture. It is mentioned frequently in Persian literature, and almost all the great poets have used it as a metaphor for human strife and the blows of fate (e.g., Moʿezzī, Sanāʾī, Ḵayyām, ʿAṭṭār, Awḥadī, Ḵāqānī, ʿOnṣorī, Saʿdī, Ḥāfeẓ). On the other hand, some writers, for instance, Kaykāvūs b. Eskandar, author of Qābūs-nāma (comp. 475/1082-83), followed theological tradition, warning against indulging in chess and nard (p. 76). At times the game has been depicted in miniatures, especially those illustrating the introduction of the game to the court of Ḵosrow I Anōšīravān (e.g., two manuscripts of Šāh-nāma, one copied in 731/1330-31 and now in the Topkapı Sarayı, Istanbul, Binyon, pl. XVI-B; and Pers. ms. 9 in the John Rylands Library, Manchester, Robinson, 1980, p. 110, no. 470, now attributed to western India in the Sultanate period). Occasionally a game of chess appears in illustrations of lyrical poetry, for example, a ḡazal by Kātebī in the British Museum (Add. 16561, dated 873/1468, Robinson, 1957, pl. viii). It should be noted that in these illustrations the chessboard is usually depicted in monochrome (often white), which seems to have been normal for boards at least until the 9th/15th century. Apart from inlaid wood, stone, and other hard materials, chessboards could be made from leather (e.g., red shagreen). The chessmen are usually depicted simply as colored or marked pieces, rather than as sculpted figures, and the game was probably often played with such pieces in the early days. At the same time, however, exquisitely carved chessmen are known to have existed almost as long as the game itself; they were carved from wood, ivory, or stone. Already in Šāh-nāma (Moscow, VIII, p. 245; ed. Mohl, VI, p. 222) the chessboard of Ṭalḵand is described as made of ebony (ābnūs) and the chessmen of teak (sāj) and ivory (ʿāj).
A. M. Belenitskii and B. I. Marshak, “The Paintings of Sogdiana,” in G. Azarpay, Sogdian Painting. The Pictorial Epic in Oriental Art, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1981, pp. 11-77.
L. Binyon, J. V. S. Wilkinson, and B. Gray, Persian Miniature Painting, London, 1933.
Abū Rayḥān Bīrūnī, Ketāb taḥqīq mā le’l-Hend men maqūla maqbūla fiʾl ʿaql aw marḏūla, tr. Sachau, Alberuni’s India, 2 vols., London, 1888-91.
N. Bland, “On the Persian Game of Chess,” JRAS 13, 1851-52, pp. 1-70, pls. I-IV. M. Bussagli, Painting of Central Asia, Cleveland, 1963.
T. von Heydebrand and der Lasa, Zur Geschichte and Literatur des Schachspiels, Leipzig, 1897.
W. Jones, “On the Indian Game of Chess,” in Works of Sir William Jones IV, London, 1807, pp. 323-33.
Kārnāmak ī Artaxšēr ī Pāpakān, in Nyberg, Manual I, pp. 1-17.
ʿOnṣor al-Maʿālī Kay Kāvūs b. Eskandar, Qābūs-nāma, ed. Ḡ.-Ḥ. Yūsofī, 3rd printing, Tehran, 1364 Š./1985.
A. van der Linde, Geschichte and Litteratur des Schachspiels, 2 vols., Berlin, 1874. M. Moʿīn, Farhang-e fārsī, 6 vols., Tehran, 1342-52 Š./1963-73.
G. Morgenstierne, An Etymological Vocabulary of Pashto, Oslo, 1927.
H. J. R. Murray, History of Chess, Oxford, 1913.
B. W. Robinson, Persian Miniatures, Oxford, 1957.
Idem, Persian Paintings in the John Rylands Library, 1980.
P. Thieme, “Chess and Backgammon (Tric-Trac) in Sanskrit Literature,” in E. Bender, ed., Indological Studies in Honor of W. Norman Brown, New Haven, Conn., 1962, pp. 204-16. Vičārišn ī čatrang, in Nyberg, Manual I, pp. 118-21.
R. Wieber, Das Schachspiel in der arabischen Litteratur von den Anfängen bis zur zweiten Hälfte des 16. Jahrhunderts, Walldorf-Hessen, 1972.
Xusrau u rētak, ed. and tr. J. M. Unvala, The Pahlavi Text “King Husrav and His Boy,” Paris, n.d.; ed. and tr. D. Monchi-Zadeh, “Xusrōv i Kavātān ut rētak,” in Monumentum Georg Morgenstierne II, Acta Iranica 22, 1982, pp. 47-91.
M. Yaktāʾī, “Pīšīna-ye tārīḵī-e šaṭranj,” Barrasīhā-ye tārīḵī 4/5-6, 1348 Š./1969, pp. 55-76; 5/1, 1349 Š./1970, pp. 91-112; 5/2, 1349 Š./1970, pp. 103-22.
Āčmaz (Turk. açmaz, Ottoman Turk. ačmāz; also ʿerā, Arab. loanword), the interposition of a chessman to keep the king out of check.
Asb “knight” (lit. “horse”).
Asb o farzīn nehādan or asb o farzīn ṭarḥ dādan, the laying aside of one or more pieces (cf. savār) by the stronger party in order to make the game more even or to express a feeling of superiority.
Baydaq, bedaq (Arabicized form of Pahlavi payādag “foot soldier, pawn”), pīāda “pawn.”
Baydaq al-baydaq, see pīāda-ye aṣl.
Begard “check” (lit. “turn back!”; Šāh-nāma, Moscow, VIII, p. 246 l. 3325).
Dast, round, game (e.g., yak dast šaṭranj “a game of chess”).
Dastūr (lit. “minister”; ibid., pp. 210 1.2701, 246 l. 3311), farzān, farzāna (Pahl. farzīn, lit. “a sage”; Šāh-nāma, Moscow, VIII, p. 246 l. 3319; Bīrūnī, India, p. 183), wazīr “queen.” In great chess farzīn and wazīr are two distinct pieces with different moves.
Farzān, farzāna, see dastūr.
Farzīnšodan, the promotion of a pawn when it reaches the end of the board.
Farzīnband, position in which a pawn is protected by the queen in order to block the forward movement of a hostile piece whose only chance of advancing is to take the pawn.
Ḡāʾeb, ḡāʾebāna (lit., “absent, like somebody absent”), to play blindfolded or without looking at the board (Bland, pp. 24-25).
Kālā (lit., “commodity”), chessman (Bland, p. 46; see mohra).
Ḵāna “square, position” (lit. “house”).
Keš, kešt, kīš “check” (lit. meaning uncertain; cf. šāh).
Koštan, see zadan.
Lāt and lāt šodan, also pāt and pāt šodan, when a player is left with a unprotected king (lit. meaning uncertain).
Manṣūba, chess game, position, or stratagem (now obsolete; also manṣūbabāz, manṣūbagošāy).
Māt, see šāhmāt.
Mohra “chessman” (lit. “bead, marble”).
Naṭʿ “chessboard,” also known as roqʿa-ye šaṭranj, taḵt-e šaṭranj, besāṭ-e šaṭranj, ḵānahā-ye šaṭranj, ṣafḥa-ye šaṭranj, ʿarṣa-ye šaṭranj, karbās-e šaṭranj, and waraq-e šaṭranj.
Pāt, see lāt.
Pīāda, see baydaq.
Pīāda-ye aṣl (lit., “the original pawn”; Ar. baydaq al-baydaq), two special pawns, one to each side, in great chess. They are positioned in front of the farzīn’s rook (Bland, pp. 12-13, and pl. 1).
Pīl, fīl “bishop” (lit. “elephant”).
Pīlband, protecting the bishop with two pawns.
Qāʾem, qāyem: 1. a box or bag to hold a set of chess; 2. an idiom indicating that the two sides are equal.
Qāʾemandāz “chess player.”
Qaḷʿa raftan “castling” (lit. “going to the castle”).
Roḵ (Arab. roḵḵ) “rook.” This piece is sometimes made in the shape of the bird of the same name.
Roqʿa, see naṭʿ.
Šāh “king,” see also keš.
Šāhāt (sic), interposing a piece between the king and a hostile piece (Bland, p. 57; cf. āčmaz).
Šāhfāt (sic), sacrificing a piece to save the king (Bland, p. 57).
Šāh-māt “check mate,” also simply māt (origin uncertain; possibly from Arab. māt “he is dead”).
Šāhqām, term signifying a drawn game when one player, in order to escape certain checkmate, repeatedly checks his opponent’s king. It may also refer to escaping checkmate by sacrificing a number of pieces (Borhān-e qāṭeʿ, ed. Moʿīn, 1, p. 1236; Dehḵodā, s.v.; Bland, pp. 53-57).
Šāh-roḵ, when the king and a rook are attacked by the same piece.
Savār “chess piece” (lit. “on horseback”).
Sīāh-mohra bāzī kardan, allowing the opponent to choose black.
Taʿbīa (lit., “arrangement”), opening, deployment (now obsolete; see gostareš; Bland, pp. 47-49).
Tarḥ dādan, to give as odds.
Wazīr, see dastūr.
Zadan, lit. “to strike, to kill,” capturing a chessman from the opponent; also koštan “to kill.”
Żarb “turn” (Arab., lit. “strike”) in chess and backgammon.
Types of chess.
Šaṭranj-e moraqqaʿ (lit. “patched chess”), like standard chess, the only difference being that the bishops are placed next to the rooks, instead of the horses.
Šaṭranj-e ḏawāt al-ḥoṣūn (lit. “chess with castles”), is played with a board with ten by ten squares. The four corner squares are called ḥeṣn “castle.” There are four extra pieces, dabbāba (lit. “battering ram”), which move like the bishop (cf. al-šaṭranj al-tāma “complete chess,” in Bland, p. 28). According to Masʿūdī (Morūj VIII, p. 313, ed. Pellat, V, p. 2190 the dabbāba moved like the king. The game is played like šaṭranj-e moraqqaʿ, but with the difference that the king can be castled provided it is not hindered on the way and there is no promotion of pawns. A variety mentioned in the Šāh-nāma (Moscow, VIII, pp. 245-47) also has ten by ten squares but four oštor “camels” positioned between the bishops and knights.
Šaṭranj-e kabīr (great chess) or šaṭranj-e kāmel (complete chess), a more elaborate game, played with 56 men, 28 on each side, on a board with 112 squares (10 x 11 plus one projected extra square on the right of the second row of each side). Each side consisted of a king, a wazīr, a farzīn, two giraffes (zarrāfa), two dabbābas, two advance guards (ṭalīʿa), two bishops, two knights, two camels (lion [šīr] in Āmolī, apparently a misspelling of camel [šotor]), two rooks, and eleven pawns including a peculiar pawn called the original pawn (pīāda-ye aṣl, Ar. baydaq al-baydaq). Chessmen are arranged in three rows (see Bland, pl. II). There are three kinds of moves: straight (mostaqīm: wazīr, dabbāba, rook), oblique (moʿawwaj: farzīn, bishop, ṭalīʿa), and mixed (morakkab: knight, camel, giraffe), which pieces use to move one square (wazīr and farzīn), two squares (dabbāba and bishop) or more (rook and ṭalīʿa). The moves of camels and giraffes are not clear according to Bland. Pawns can be promoted, but only to the rank of the piece they belong to except for the original pawn. This pawn, once it reaches the end of the board, can be put back anywhere on the board. Should that happen twice the pawn is called šāh-e maṣnūʿa (false king) and moves as a king (Bland, pp. 11-13, pls. I-II).
Jawāreḥī, a kind of chess that according to Masʿūdī (loc. cit.) was played on a board of seven by eight squares with twelve pieces, six on each side and representing different organs of the human body. The game was invented in the 4th/10th century (ibid.; it is not mentioned by Āmolī).
Types of chess more removed from the original comprise the following:
1. A game played with dice and a board with four by sixteen squares. The chessmen were set as in the following diagram. The number of eyes on the dice determined which piece to move (1 = pawn, 2 = rook, 3 = knight, 4 = bishop, 5 = queen, 6 = king). Masʿūdī (loc. cit.) describes a variant of this game in which chessmen are arranged in four rows at the narrow ends of the board, with the pawns in the four inner rows.
2. A game, well known at the time of Āmolī, that was played on a circular board, in the middle of which there was a small circle. Once a king was moved to this circle and was left there he could not be checked. Pawns could capture each other when meeting head-on; they could not be promoted. Bishops could meet one another. Masʿūdī (loc. cit.) mentions a round game, which he attributes to Byzantium.
3. Falakīya, a game played with dice on a round board, on which the squares of inner circle were named after the twelve houses of the zodiac, and those of the outer circle after the five planets (twice), the sun, and the moon. Movements were according to celestial rank, for instance, Saturn (Zoḥal) moved seven squares, Jupiter (Moštarī) six, Mars (Merrīḵ) five, the sun four, Venus (Zohra) three, Mercury (ʿOṭāred) two, and the moon one. The player who threw the highest number on the dice began by placing a piece of his choice from the outer circle in a square of the inner circle. If a piece was moved to a house in which it would be in regression (ḵāna-ye rajʿat) it had to move back the appropriate number of squares. After all the pieces had been moved to the inner circle they were moved back to the outer one. To win the game one had to gather the sun and Jupiter on one’s own side and Mars and Saturn on the opponent’s. Masʿūdī (Morūj VIII, p. 314, ed. Pellat, loc. cit.) describes a similar game, in which, however, colors also played a role in the movement of the pieces.
Moḥammad b. Maḥmūd Āmolī, Nafāʾes al-fonūn fī ʿarāʾes al-ʿoyun, Tehran, 1290/1873, pt. 2, pp. 215-17.
Abū Rayḥān Bīrūnī, Ketāb taḥqīq ma le’l-Hend men maqūla maqbūla fi’l-ʿaql aw marḏūla, tr. E. Sachau, Alberuni’s India, 2 vols., London, 1888-1910, I, pp. 183-85.
N. Bland, “On the Persian Game of Chess,” JRAS 13, 1852, pp. 1-69.
(Bo Utas, Moḥammad Dabīrsīāqī)
Originally Published: December 15, 1991
Last Updated: October 14, 2011
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Vol. V, Fasc. 4, pp. 393-397