Sports & Games

Chess 101: Who Invented Chess? Learn About the History of Chess and 3 Memorable Chess Games

Written by MasterClass

May 30, 2019 • 6 min read

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Human beings have been playing some version of chess for more than 1,400 years. It’s one of the oldest and most widely played games in the world and has attained a cultural and intellectual significance that few other activities can match. Chess is so deeply rooted in our lives that individual games—like Bobby Fischer’s victory over Boris Spassky in 1972, or Garry Kasparov’s loss to Deep Blue in 1997—become significant historical milestones.

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Where Did Chess Originate?

The earliest form of the game that’s now called chess can be dated back to India in the sixth century.

  • Like the modern game, this predecessor, called chaturanga (or catur) was played on an 8x8 grid and featured pieces generally similar to those of modern chess.
  • Though the exact rules of chaturanga are unknown, it looks remarkably similar to modern chess, with a few key differences. Firstly, the rules for moving queens (then called counselors) and bishops (then called elephants) were generally more limited.
  • The objective of the game may have also been somewhat different: some accounts of chaturanga say that a player could win by removing all his or her enemy’s pieces besides the king.
  • The rules of chaturanga spread to Persia, where it was known as chatrang, by the tenth or eleventh century, and it’s here that the earliest recorded games of chess are found.
  • From Persia, the game passed into the Arab world. It also spread to China, Japan, and Southeast Asia, where it evolved into the related games xiangqi and shogi, which are sometimes called Chinese and Japanese chess, respectively. This period saw the first scholarly studies of chess, analyzing chess problems, openings, and other topics still considered today.

Chess Arrives in Europe

The game as known to Arab players passed into Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by way of several different routes, including Southern Europe by way of the Byzantine Empire and Muslim Spain via North Africa. From there, it was quickly adopted by much of the European nobility, and even fond eager sponsors in a number of medieval kings.

The game reached the height of its popularity in Europe during the late Medieval and early Renaissance periods. It became deeply associated with the nobility and aristocracy, and for a period, was considered an essential skill to be learned by young knights—similar to the way young aristocrats were expected to learn Go in ancient China. It also became associated with revelry, gambling, and violence, which led some in the Catholic church to attempt to ban it.

What Was the European Influence on Chess?

European players introduced a number of cosmetic as well as mechanical changes to the game, introducing innovations like checkered chess boards and changing the names of various pieces to reflect medieval European figures like knights, bishops, and rooks (whose name may have come from the Italian for “fortress”).

  • During the medieval period, games were slow, frequently lasting hours or even days. This led to a number of changes to the rules, including the ability to move pawns two spaces on the first move, as well as the development of castling, which made it easier to protect the king early on.
  • By the year 1500, players in southern Europe introduced additional changes to bishops and queens to that made both pieces more powerful and considerably shortened games.
  • Around this time modern chess theory began to develop, as players like the Spanish bishop Ruy Lopez de Segura and later the Frenchman Andre Danican Philidor began to analyze the principles of various opening and endgame situations.

How Did Chess Develop Into a Competitive Sport?

By the nineteenth century, the game had become a fixture of modern European life. Players joined chess clubs, and chess problems became fixtures in major newspapers.

  • The first international chess tournament was held in London in 1851. This led to the development of modern timekeeping, speed chess variations, and sealed moves. The first World Chess Championship was held in 1886.
  • The first undisputed World Chess Champion was the Austrian (later American) player Wilhelm Steinetz, who first exemplified the aggressive, highly Romantic style of the period, but later developed and theorized the positional style of play that would come to dominate in the twentieth century. His sometime rival Adolf Anderssen played a major role in popularizing modern chess problems.
  • Other important players during this time included the German mathematician Emanuel Lasker, who reigned as World Champion for 27 years, as well as the American Paul Morphy, an early chess prodigy.
  • It wasn’t until the 1880s that white going first was codified in the rules. Prior to that, it was common for players to alternate or for the first player to choose their own color.
  • In the twentieth century, the World Chess Federation (Fédération Internationale des Échecs or FIDE) standardized the rules of chess and international competitions. The early part of the century also saw the development of chess theory, which introduced radically new styles of play.
  • In the USSR, the World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik played a key role in developing a generation of Soviet players who dominated the game for much of the twentieth century, including the World Champions Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov.
  • The 1972 World Championship match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer has been called the “match of the century” and became a significant event in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
  • The postwar period also saw the introduction of online play and chess computers, which developed in sophistication until they were able to defeat grandmasters by the end of the 1980s.
  • In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue managed to defeat Kasparov, then the reigning champion, in a historic match.

How Have Computers Changed the Game of Chess?

The advent of chess computers that can defeat even the best human players has had dramatic ramifications for the game.

Players can now consult databases of millions of games to identify errors in their own play. This has also allowed players to discover brilliant new moves (called “novelties”) that have never been played before.

Today, no particular school or style of chess dominates. The current world champion, Magnus Carlsen, is famous for playing a variety of openings that keep his opponents guessing.

3 Memorable Chess Games in History

What sets a timeless game apart from a merely great game? Throughout the history of chess, players and historians have kept going back to certain games. They may be games that perfectly capture the strategic spirit of a given age, or games that debut an astounding new idea or strategy that’s never been seen before.

  • The Immortal Game. The so-called Immortal Game between the German masters Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky defined the Romantic era of daring gambits and aggressive attacking.
  • The Game of the Century. At the age of 13, future World Champion Bobby Fischer demonstrated his improvisational mastery in a stunning brilliancy against a leading chess master of the day. This game is notable for several daring sacrifices (including an ingenious queen sacrifice) that Fischer turned into deadly strategic advantages.
  • Kasparov-Deep Blue, Game 6. In 1996 and 1997, Kasparov, then World Champion, played a series of matches against the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue. Though Kasparov won the 1996 match, a much-improved version of Deep Blue used an ingenious knight sacrifice to force the Kasparov to resign in less than 20 moves. The result? The first victory by a computer over a reigning world champion.

Learn more about chess and chess strategy in Garry Kasparov’s MasterClass.