A Brief(ish) History of Chess

The Definitive Guide

This is the definitive guide to quickly understanding the history of chess from its murky beginnings until today.

There are other resources that delve into the topic far deeper, but the aim of this guide isn't to replace them.

Instead, you're going to get a distilled version of the story of how chess became the game that you know and love today.

So if you want to know how chess became the game it is today, but don't want to wade through hundreds of pages of dense material, then you'll love this guide.

Let's jump right in.

The First Era
On the Origins of Chess: ? - 600AD

The Second Era
Chess in Persia: 600AD - 651AD

The Third Era
Islamic Chess: 651AD - 1000AD

The Fourth Era
Chess in Medieval Europe: 1000AD - 1500AD

The Fifth Era
Beginnings of Modern Chess: 1500AD - 1866AD

The Sixth Era
The Modern Game: 1866AD -


On the Origins of Chess: ? - 600AD


In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. In it he introduced the theory that populations evolve through natural selection; that life had a common ancestor.

The history of chess is somewhat similar.

In this first section, we look at the origins of chess, some theories on where things started and study the game that most consider to be modern chess’ most distant ancestor.

Where did chess come from?

While there are a few theories regarding the origins of chess, most historians agree that the game we call chess originated in India.

Just as Darwin didn’t spend much time speculating on how the first spark of life came to be on this planet, nor will we expend much energy on trying to understand exactly where and when chess’ ancestor was born, simply because no one knows.

What we know is that just as humans weren’t moulded from clay, neither was chess; the game we play today is the result of a process of evolution that started several thousand years ago.

How long ago exactly no-one knows...

Evidence of board games have been found in Egyptian tombs from 4000BC, so it’s fair to say that humans have had a fondness for board games for some time.

It’s speculative but entirely feasible that games played by ancient humans in the fertile-crescent of the Middle-East were eventually brought into Egypt and India as civilizations began to spread across the globe.

Love of Board Games & Gambling in Ancient India

In 1500BC, when the Indo-Aryan people first entered India from the North, they may have brought with them games that had been known to them for a long time.

It’s from Sanskrit that we get the word Ashtapada, which is a square board consisting of 64 squares.

This board was used to play different games, many of which were games of chance.

In India at this time, board games and gambling went hand in hand. Arab historian al-Masudi, in 950AD, wrote about how players that lost all their possessions would end up losing body parts. 

The Indo-Aryan people, along with the Ashtapada, also brought with them a type of warfare that would stay static for a long time. 

An Indian army would typically be made up of four parts:

  • Infantry
  • Cavalry
  • Elephants
  • Chariots
  • In 326BC, at the Battle of Hydaspes, Alexander the Great was said to have encountered an army consisting of 30,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, 200 elephants and 300 chariots. 

    This formation was known by the name chaturanga; meaning “four-limbed”. 

    This word appeared in holy Hindu texts such as the Mahabharata and at times was synonymous with the army itself. 

    Experienced chess players might find it interesting to note that at the time, a horseman was thought to be worth three infantrymen, while an elephant or chariot was worth five. 

    (Note to beginner players; bishops and knights are thought to be worth roughly three pawns, while a rook is worth five pawns).

    At some point unknown to us, someone took the ashtapada board and turned it into his very own battlefield with which to play a new war game. 

    Since it was meant to represent war on a much smaller scale, it’s not surprising that this game was named chaturanga; the game that most historians consider to be the most distant, identifiable ancestor of modern chess. 

    How to Play Chaturanga

    While there are some differences between chaturanga and modern chess, a quick glance at a chaturanga board would be enough to convince just about any modern player that what you are looking is the ancestor of modern chess; in the same way that looking at Australopithecus hints at our own ancestry. 

     It should be noted that there are a few different variants of chaturanga described in various accounts, but the one described here is the one provided by Murray. 

    Looking at the board would immediately suggest a few differences; first you would notice that the board is uncheckered and contains markings on several squares. Murray suggested that these markings were vestiges from an older game.

    The Pieces of Chaturanga

    Looking at the starting position of the game, you could be forgiven for thinking that the game is exactly the same as modern chess. 

    There were two opposing sides of 16 pieces each and the individual piece makeup of each side was very similar.

    Each side starts with the raja, or king. Just like today, the raja was able to move to any square surrounding it that was not under attack from an enemy piece. It’s thought that the player was free to place their raja on either the D or E file. 

    Taking up the D or E square not taken up by the raja was the mantri; which means minister or advisor. The mantri was able to move to any diagonally adjacent square. 

    Flanking the raja and mantri were the gaja, or elephants. The gaja were able to move two spaces diagonally with the added ability to jump over the square closest to it. 

    Outside the gaja were the ashwa or horse. The ashwa moved in the same way that the modern knight does. 

    Capping the flanks on either side of the board in the place of the modern rook was the rat-ha or chariot. And just like the rooks of today, the rat-ha was able to move along empty files or rows. 

    In the front rank, just like in real life and modern chess, were the padati or foot-soldiers. Just like in modern chess, the padati move one space forward per move and capture diagonally. When they reach the end rank they are able to be promoted to become a minister. 

    The Objectives of Chaturanga

    The objectives of chaturanga were similar enough; checkmate the raja. 

    However, there were a couple of other ways to win at chaturanga that aren’t miles removed from how chess is played today. 

    There is some conjecture as to how widespread these extra rules were, but it’s fair to say that they were used in a significant portion in games at the time. 

    In addition to checkmating the king, one could also win by being stalemated. 

    You could also win through “bare king”; meaning that you take all the opponents pieces but do not put the king in checkmate.

    As similar as chaturanga is to chess, Murray had this to say:

    It is not too much to say that European chess owes more to its Persian predecessor, chatrang, than to its more remote and shadowy ancestor, the Indian chaturanga

    So we now take the next step on the journey and see what the Persians did to evolve the game further.  


    Chess in Persia: 600AD - 651AD 


    India and Persia had long known about the existence of the other.  In 518BC, Gandhara, in modern day Pakistan, became a satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire.

    By the 6th century AD, Persia and India had been in contact for over a thousand years.

    It’s not surprising then that the next place that chaturanga would spread would be Persia.

    How Chaturanga became Chatrang

    While there are plenty of stories and legends about how chess became to be widespread in Persia, none are taken seriously by historians today. 

    The game probably became popular in the same way things become popular today. Perhaps it was a popular way to pass the time on the trading caravans from India to Persia and it grew in popularity there. 

    Perhaps high ranking Persians discovered the games and popularity trickled down to the masses that way. 

    The truth is that no one really knows, but the first reference to chess in literature was around 600AD in a book written about the Persian dynasty of the day. 

    In this book, the founder of the dynasty was praised for his skill in chess. That chess is one of the qualities that made him a heroic figure suggests that the game was well known in Persia and possibly even considered the national game by this time. 

    Exactly when the Persians began to reshape the game to suit their own tastes is unknown to us as well, but we know about the end result. 

    While they continued to use the same board as the Indians, they began to tweak some aspects of the game. 

    The first change that occurred was a slight change in the name of the game.

    Because of the differences in languages, the Persians dropped the ‘u’ and then the ‘a’ from chaturanga, which resulted in the Persian name of the game being chatrang. 

    Let’s have a look at what else changed by the time the game settled in Persia. 

    How to Play Chatrang

    In addition to the slight change in the name of the game, the Persians changed the names of the pieces to suit their own tongue. 

    The raja retained its meaning as monarch and turned into the shah. This piece was still able to move one square in any direction. 

    The mantri kept its meaning and movement pattern and was renamed the farzin; the Persian word for a wise man or counsellor.  

    The gaja was renamed pil, possibly from a language from near Persia; since elephants were not native to Persia, they did not have a word for the animals, so it’s likely the word came from a region somewhere between Persia and India.  

    The ashwa was renamed asp but it started in the same place and its moving pattern was unchanged. 

    The chariot changed its name from rat-ha to rukh, which is what the piece is still called today, although the piece no longer looks anything like a chariot. 

    Finally, the foot-soldiers in the front rank were renamed piyadah and moved the same as before. 

    The rest of the rules, as far as we can tell, remained largely untouched. 

    There is a reason that Murray feels that modern chess owes a greater debt to chatrang than to chaturanga, however. 

    The Legacy of Chatrang

    Looking at the above section, you might wonder why Murray, the foremost chess historian, would think that modern chess owes more to the Persians than the Indians. 

    After all, from what we have seen so far, it looks like the Persians simply borrowed the game from India and gave the pieces names in their native language. 

    What we didn’t cover were all the different Indian variations of chaturanga. Some involved dice and chance played a large role in the outcome. Some versions involved four players and a completely different layout. 

    In Persia they seemed to have only played one version of the game. 

    In Murray’s own words: “Persia gave the game a fixity of arrangement, a method of play and a nomenclature that have attended the game everywhere in its western career” 

    The Persians codified their game to the extent that when it later spread beyond their borders, the version that would travel is the version that would eventually become modern chess. 

    It would be remiss to omit perhaps the most notable feature of the Persian game, and one that hints at modern chess’ roots; the origins of checkmate. 

    It was Persia where the tradition started to alert the opposing player that their king was under attack or that he had been defeated. 

    The modern word “checkmate” comes from shah-mat, meaning the king is helpless or defeated. 

    One little rule that seems to have been lost somewhere was that when a check forked another piece it was usual to say the second piece as well.

    For example, if you forked both the king and a rukh, you would say “Shah rukh”. 

    As important as Murray considered chatrang in the evolution of modern chess, Persia did not maintain a monopoly on “their” game for long. 

    At the time of chatrang’s rise in Persia, the ruling Sassanid dynasty was on the decline and they were soon about to run into an empire that was growing at a rapid rate.  

    THE third ERA

    Islamic Chess: 651AD - 1000AD 


    As with the adoption of chess in Persia, exactly how chespread from the Persians to the Arabs remains a mystery. There are plenty of theories but ultimately what matters is that the new rulers of Persia were quickly fascinated with the game.

    Some have speculated that the game was readily adopted because of its similarity to war; something the invading forces had plenty of experience with. 

    How Chatrang became Shatranj

    During the period when chess was becoming firmly entrenched into Persian society the Persian Sassanid Empire itself was growing weak.

    Nearby, Arabs were quickly expanding their Islamic Empire, so it was fated that the two would meet sooner rather than later.

    Muslims invaded Persia in around 638AD and by 651AD the Sassanid dynasty, which had stood for almost 400 years, was gone.

    Just like the Persians, one early change made by the Arabs was to change the name of the game to something that better suited their language. 

    Lacking the “ch” and “ng” sounds in Arabic, the game changed from chatrang to become shatranj. 

    The board remained uncheckered, although Arabic texts from the time suggest that calling the playing surface a “board” may be slightly inaccurate. 

    Our best guess is that the game at that time was played on soft surfaces such as cloth.

    The name of the game wasn’t the only things the Arabs changed to suit their own language; the names of the pieces changed slightly as well:

    • The Shah remained the same
    • The Farzin became firz
    • Pil became fil
    • Asp became faras
    • Rukh stayed the same
    • Piyadah changed to baidaq

    The shape of the pieces also changed. Islam forbids the worship of idols, so playing chess was considered by some early Islamic scholars to be prohibited. This was a contentious point for some time, but Arab chess pieces evolved to become more abstract. 

    On top of changing the look of the pieces, the Arabs introduced a couple of different rules. 

    First was that the kings faced each other on the board. This was a change that has stuck around. 

    Second was that the rule involving stalemate was flipped around. Where in chatrang, stalemating your opponent was counted as a defeat, in shatranj, being stalemated was counted as a loss. 

    Apart from these small changes, the game remained the same. 

    The Development of Shatranj Theory

    One major contribution of the Arabs to chess was the development of chess theory. While the Persians were keen players of the game, it was the Arabs who first attempted to analyse the game in a way not too dissimilar to the way we do it today.

    Some people attempted to estimate the relative values of the chessmen. Using the dirham (the currency at the time) as units, it was estimated that:

    • The king was considered priceless
    • A rukh was worth one dirham
    • A Faras (knight) was worth 2/3 dirham
    • Firz (queen) was worth 1/3 dirham
    • Fil (bishop) was worth 1/3 dirham
    • Baidaq (pawn) was worth between ¼ and 1/8 dirhams depending on the file it sat on

    The Arabs also divided the game up into the three parts that we still use today:

    • Openings
    • Middle-game
    • End-game

    Much of the theory focused on set opening positions called tabbiyya. Because the game was slower then, players would spend the opening phase of the game getting themselves into a preferred position to then launch at attack from. 

    Chess experts of the time created popular opening patterns for players to follow, just as people follow certain opening systems today. 

    It was also around this time that the Knight’s Tour was created. In today’s game, a knight’s tour consists of a sequence of moves such that the knight visits every square on the board just once. 

    In Arab chess, players would place all 32 pieces on half a board, then move their knight such that it captured 31 remaining pieces in 31 moves. 

    The Legacy of Arab Chess

    Arab chess made two major contributions to the game. The first was the development of theory and serious study of the game. 

    Without the seriousness with which the Arabs took chess, one could argue that it never would have caught on the way it did. This would have precluded the Arabs from making their second greatest contribution; the spread of chess to Europe.

    THE fourth ERA

    Chess in Medieval Europe: 1000AD - 1500AD 


    As chess theory began to develop in the Arab world, so grew the world in which they spread their culture and religion.

    After swallowing up the Arabian Peninsula, it quickly expanded to cover the entirety of what we today consider the middle-east. Afterwards it continued across North Africa and eventually into modern day Spain. 

    It was through this channel that chess spread into Europe.

    At the same time that Islamic armies were trampling over Spain, they were also attempting to invade Europe through the east; but were stopped at Constantinople; a city now known as Istanbul.

    Had they been more successful in that theatre, perhaps chess would have spread into Eastern Europe earlier (Constantinople finally fell in 1453) and it’s very likely that the game we play would have evolved differently. 

    We do not know the exact date that chess was passed from the Muslim invaders to the Europeans. Nor do we know exactly how it spread and became popular. 

    The invasion took place early in the 8th century and like many phenomena, the popularisation probably took some time to take hold. 

    Within a century or so, the game had become widespread among the Europeans. 

    One Spanish nobleman who was killed in a 1010AD campaign to take back Cordoba from the Muslims willed his chessmen to a convent in France, which suggests that it was quite popular by the 11th century in Spain. 

    From other mentions of the game in literature, it’s thought that the game spread from Spain into Italy and Southern Germany. And from there it began to make its way across the rest of Europe. 

    Murray considers modern chess to be an advanced version of Muslim chess. It seems that much of the theory developed by the Arabs failed to follow the game into Europe. 

    Where Arab chess entered a phase of stagnation, it began to flourish in Europe and head in a direction of its own. 

    How Shatranj became Chess

    As with the previous iterations, one of the first changes was the name of the game. Shatranj fitted the Arab tongue quite well, but Latin speakers of the time needed to use a different name. 

    In Spain and Portugal, the game was simply given a name that was easier to pronounce locally; ajedrez in Spanish and xadrez in Portuguese. 

    In the rest of Europe, the game was called variations of ludus scacorum, which translates as “the game of chess”. 

    It’s thought that scacorum is derived from the Arabic shah, but how the game came to be called after a single piece is unknown.

    Even today, throughout Europe, the game of chess is known by regional variants that come from some version of scacorum:

    • English: Chess
    • French: échecs
    • German: Schach
    • Italian: Scacco
    • Dutch: Schaken
    • Russian: Shakhmaty

    How the pieces were named in Europe is a little different than the previous iterations.

    Whereas the Persians, and later the Arabs, simply translated the names of the pieces into their own languages, the Europeans seemed to have a gap in their information. 

    They translated the meanings of the pieces that they knew and kept the names of the pieces they didn’t. 

    Kings, knights and foot-soldier were all easy enough to understand and translate. But the other pieces caused a bit more trouble. 

    The chariot became the rook, which suggests that the original meaning of the chariot was either lost or unknown altogether. 

    In Spain, England and France, the firzan (wise-man or counsellor), kept its name, but in the rest of Europe, it became the queen. 

    Murray believed that: The fact that firz was adopted and not translated in some of the European languages proves that the meaning of the Arabic name was not understood

    The elephant piece also caused a bit of trouble for the Europeans of the time.

    Because elephants weren’t well known to people at the time and certainly not for use in war, had the Europeans known the meaning they may not have kept it anyway. 

    One theory suggests that it was from the shape of the Arabic elephant piece that Europeans began to call the piece the bishop. 

    Because many Arabic sets were abstract in design, the elephant piece had two protrusions that were meant to represent the tusks. However, with the rise of the church, it seemed fitting to place a clergyman next to the rulers. 

    While the pieces underwent slight changes at this point, the game itself stayed the same for quite some time. 

    How to Play Medieval Chess

    In this era, the king and queen were still placed on the D and E files, but could be placed on either one by white. Black would have to ensure that the two kings were opposite each other. 

    The king, queen, knight and rook continued to move as they had in the previous era. The pawns still were unable to move two squares on their first moves and promotion was only to queen. 

    As to how the game was finished, it remained the same as earlier; by either checkmate or bare-king. 

    No one knows how stalemate was treated in the early days of European chess. 

    The most interesting thing to happen at this point was the tinkering with the rules. Unlike in the Muslim world, where the rules had stayed much the same for a long time, Europeans were quick to try and improve upon the game. 

    The main complaint was that the opening phases took too long and the main aim here was to figure out how to get into the middle game in less time. 

    Because there was no governing body of chess at the time, the new experimental rules tended to be local and Murray has said:

    It took time for a happy improvement discovered perhaps in Spain to reach Germany, England or Iceland, and all the modifications did not commend themselves to players in other countries. 

    And so in this era, chess was played differently depending on where you lived. 

    In Spanish chess, the queen could not capture when leaping and en passant appears for the first time. 

    Whereas in Italian chess, winning by bare-king was gone and stalemate resulted in a draw. 

    Medieval Chess boards & Chessmen

    While the Arabs were instrumental in developing chess, because of the restrictions of Islam, the designs of their boards and chessmen never really evolved. 

    The same restrictions did not apply to the medieval Europeans, however. 

    Chess was quite a social game in those days and as such was frequently the subject of paintings. 

    Because of this we have a decent idea of what both boards and pieces looked like. 

    At this stage the boards remained uncheckered. However, because the game was typically played by nobles, the set one used to play with became somewhat of a status symbol. 

    Mostly gone were the simple Arab chess “boards” of soft cloth; many Europeans played chess with wooden or metal boards that were significantly larger than the boards we’re used to playing on today. 

    These boards often had a broad, raised edge that was finely decorated. The result was a deliberate resemblance to a medieval walled city. 

    Some poems suggest that when not in use, these heavy boards would be hung off a ring on the wall. 

    At some date unknown to us, but most likely early on after the European adoption of chess, checkered boards began to be used. 

    The rule that each player must have a white square on the bottom right corner was introduced later, however. 

    Medieval chessmen were often made out of ivory, walrus-ivory, bone, amber, ebony and various woods. 

    Slowly the shapes of the pieces went from almost indistinguishable to modern players, to something that just about anyone would be able to recognise. 

    With one exception. 

    The typical medieval form of the rook had two heads. 

    As far back as the 17th century, historians have speculated as to the reason for this shape and the best guess that we have is that it represented the reverse end of the lance. 

    Modern chess would end up owing more to medieval chess than just the boards or pieces though. 

    The Legacy of Medieval Chess

    Just as Arab chess made two major contributions towards the evolution of the modern game, so did the medieval Europeans. 

    The first was the rapid adoption with which the game spread throughout the continent. 

    The second was the readiness to tinker with the rules in order to create a better version of the game. 

    Without large numbers of people in all different parts of Europe coming up with new (and occasionally better) rules for the game, the modern game would not have come about as it did. 

    The creation of different ways to play the game would lead to a convergence later in the game’s evolution that would round the bend and cross the line as modern chess.  

    Murray believed that the development of European chess fell into two well defined sections with the boundary line syncing with the end of the middle-ages and the adoption of the modern moves of the queen and bishop. 

    Now we’re at this point in history let’s take a leap over the chasm into the home stretch of the history of modern chess. 

    THE fifTH ERA

    Beginnings of Modern Chess: 1500AD - 1866AD 


    By this stage, the moves of chessmen throughout Europe remained quite stable and had been for a hundred years or more. At this stage in the game’s evolution, few imagined that things would have changed.

    However, at the end of the 15th century, there was an emergence of a new chess game that was growing in popularity. 

    So much so that in Italy, France and Spain, the game covered in the previous chapter had begun to be known as old chess. 

    This new game differed in two points only; bishops and queens took the modern moves and abandoned their leaping privileges. 

    This had a dramatic effect on the game since the bishop and queen could quickly get a game started. 

    No longer could players develop as they liked; they had to respond to threats immediately. 

    History is unsure as to when or where this variant emerged exactly, but emerge it did and chess was not the same afterwards. 

    It was in this era that the rook took on the modern form. It’s thought that this form came from Italy, where the closest word to rukh was Rocca, meaning rock or fortress. 

    Our best idea as to the origins of the modern tower is that it came from confusion and the form simply stuck. 

    The rook’s representation as a tower first appeared in the literature by Pedro Damiano in the mid-15th century. More elaborate chess sets placed the tower on the back of an elephant. 

    Damiano’s book was considered important; so much so that little was published afterwards for at least 50 years. Murray speculates that this was because people were still feeling the new game out for potential. 

    By this stage, chess referred to the game that we’re familiar with today. 

    Because it began to be played across the continent by the same rules, informal international competitions began. 

    In the year 1559, there was a new pope (Pius 4th) in the Vatican and many priests from Catholic Europe began to visit Rome. One of them was a young Spanish priest named Ruy Lopez. 

    Although the Italians considered themselves formidable players of chess, all the top Italians were soundly defeated by Lopez. 

    It’s from Lopez’s time in Rome that we get gambit. According to Murray: 

    “from Italian word gambitare, which means to set traps, from which a gambit game means a game of traps and snares, and it is used to describe this opening because of all the openings which Damiano gave, this is the most brilliant and happy”

    Upon returning to Spain, Lopez wrote his own book of chess in 1561. 

    By this time, castling was quite common in Italy and castling became official rules in France in 1640. 

    Taking a pawn in passing was possible in some places, but not in Italy. 

    Bare king was another rule still used in some places, with mentions found in 1634. 

    Stalemate was considered a half-win in Spain at the time, but in Italy and France it was a draw. 

    In Spain and Italy, pawn promotions could only be made to queen, while other places swapped them with captured pieces. The current rule regarding pawn promotion has been in place since 1733. 

    These small disagreements were some of the last in Europe and this point was the beginning of the convergence of the game that we play today. 

    After Lopez, the next huge influence on the game of chess was Andre Danican Philidor, born in 1726. Thought to be the greatest player that would exist, he actually focused on a career in music before turning his attention to chess. 

    At this time, chess clubs and coffee houses were setup for chess. It had become a popular pastime for the upper classes of Britain and France. 

    Vienna, 1770, saw for the first time the Mechanical Turk. In 1809 Napoleon (rumoured to be a very average chess player) lost to it. 

    By the start of the 19th century, plenty of books and theory were being published. 

    The first newspaper to contain a regular chess column was the Liverpool Mercury in 1813. 

    The late 19th century saw the first chess magazines published in Britain and Germany. 

    With popularity increasing, the first international tournament was held in 1851. It was held in London during the Great Exhibition of that year. 

    It involved 16 of the strongest players in Europe and was eventually won by Adolf Anderssen from the Berlin Club. 

    With tournaments becoming more common, timed games became necessary and hourglasses were first used. It wasn’t long before modern clocks were in use. 

    By this stage chess was basically the game we know today. All the changes to come were merely tweaks on existing rules rather than the introduction of something completely new.   

    THE sixth ERA

    The Modern Game: 1866AD -


    The previous chapter was a story of a game that diverged greatly before finally converging towards the game that we know of today.

    The year 1866 marks the point at which this occurred. This chapter focused more on the style of play and the refinement of the rules compared with the dramatic rule changes of the previous chapters.  

    Steinitz & The Classical Era of Chess

    It was around this time that the style of play began to change. As tournaments became the normal way to establish yourself as a champion chess player, the rules of the tournaments began to have an influence on how the game was played. 

    Because, in a tournament, players are heavily penalised for a loss, players began to play more cautiously. 

    Where once daring attacks were the norm, safety plays became more common; the game became one of steady advances and attrition. 

    Wilhelm Steinitz was one of the foremost players of this style of chess. He realised that attack was not more honourable than defence. After he won the 1873 Vienna Tournament with his strategy, this style of play was taken up by chess players across the continent. 

    Steinitz became the first world champion in 1886 and defended his title until 1894, when he was beaten by Emanuel Lasker, who would go on to hold his title for 27 years. 


    The hypermodern school of chess emerged after the First World War. Aron Nimzowitsch is considered the founder and showed that games could be won through indirect control of the centre. 

    This differed from the prevailing view at the time, most famously by Siegbert Tarrasch, which was that the centre must be occupied by pawns. 

    In his book, "My System," Aron Nimzowitsch coined the base of various strategic assets. As chess scholars of the 21st century, scrutinizing positions by using terms like prophylaxis or hanging pawns is a 5/9 occasion, but not everyone knows that all of these strategic terms were designed in the past century.

    In fact, the cornerstone of this period dates back to 1895, when the reigning world champion Emmanuel Lasker gave a series of lectures in London that came to be known as "Common Sense in Chess". 

    In the same way as Thomas Paine ignited the smoldering situation in the British colony, Emmanuel Lasker armed the chess player’s with the ability to look at chess from a sheer different perspective.

    Inspired by Lasker’s revolutionary ideas, at the onset of the 20th century, several elite-profile chess players branched his unprecedented ideas and began to question the validity of Romanticism.

    My System played an instrumental role in transforming the nature of mainstream chess ideas.

    Nowadays, the work of Nimzowitsch receives harsh criticism. Influential figures like Nigel Short claim that "My System" should be banned. Does such a ground-breaking piece deserve this treatment?

    The problem is that "My System" is a fundamental book. It defines the basic terms of chess as we know them today. IM John Watson claimed that if you don't read My System until after you've become an experienced player, you may initially feel disappointed that the material is elementary and almost self-evident.

    After all, the influence of My System is capacious, and even after a century, it is still relevant.

    The era of hypermodernsim was officially established in the 1920s. Several new openings, such as the Benoni, the Grunfeld, and the Indian Defenses, kicked off the final wave of the novelties.

    Perhaps, the most hypermodern of them all was Alekhin's Defense.

    How contradictory against Siegbert Tarrasch's ideas? Playing your Knight in the first move annunciated that there is a new period of chess.

    Another novelty put forth by Alekhine was having an ambiguous playing style, famously known as Dynamic style. He could play extremely tactically and aggressively or quietly and positionally. This type of playing style evolved later in the century with Mikhail Botvinnik.

    Since then chess theory has developed rapidly and for a thorough understanding of how the theory has evolved, you’re better off reading Kasparov’s My Predecessors. 

    Soviet/Russian Dominance in the 20th Century

    After Mikhail Chigorin had put Russian on the chess map, his apprentices flocked one after another to snatch the title of the World Champion. Mikhail Botvinnik came to be known as the first winner of a World Chess Championship overseen by FIDE.

    His playing style was impossible to detect. Many chess players of the era called him "Chameleon" referring to his ability to change the playing style depending on his opponent.


    Aside from his triumphal playing career, Botvinnik was one of the most impactful chess coaches in the history of the game. He trained no less than three future world champions (Karpov, Kasparov, and Kramnik).

    Botvinnik was also one of the pioneers in computer chess. He was a successful computer scientist known for creating the "Pioneer" AI that was projected to model a chess master's mind.

    Tigron Petrosyan, also known as "Iron Tigran," developed a strong positional game. His nickname comes from his impenetrable defensive style. Later in his career, in an interview with Time magazine, he claimed that Aron Nimzowitsch's book Chess Praxis had the most substantial influence on him as a chess player [1].

    He beat Mikhail Botvinnik in 1963 and held his crown until 1969 when he lost to Boris Spassky.

    In 1971, Robert Fischer defeated Mark Taimanov and Bent Larsen in matches of first to six wins by not dropping even half a point.

    It was obvious that Fischer will storm Spassky's position. In the wake of the Cold War, their antagonism climbed up to the political stage, making it even tenser.

    In 1975, Fischer refused to play against Spassky, as FIDE, under the governance of ex-world champion Max Euwe, refused to satisfy a ridiculous list of demands from Fischer. Bobby is, indeed, the most eccentric individual in the history of the game.

    Talent merged with controversy, and the Cold War made him just leave the arena to come back in 1992, win a match against Spassky, and disappear again. It goes without saying that the world will never see another chess player like him.

    Anatoly Karpov won the World Champions' title in 1975. His playing style was best described by Viswanathan Anand, "Karpov isn't interested in his own plan, but he will keep on foiling yours." Combine this unique style with his exquisite technique to materialize even the slightest advantage gained, and you will get the character of almighty Anatoly Karpov.

    At that time, another genius was proving himself on the Soviet land. Garry Kasparov played the first of his five matches with Anatoly Karpov in 1984. The duo ended up having 144 official games, 104 draws 21 wins for Kasparov, 19 wins for Karpov.

    In 2000, Kasparov lost the crown to the underdog Kramnik. Kasparov had the highest ELO at that time, being the first chess player ever to breach 2800 ELO.

    On the 10th of February, 1996, for the first time ever, a computer defeated the best chess player in the world. Kasparov ended up winning the match against the machine called Deep Blue by a score of 4-2. This event receives huge attention nowadays, as it was the point where it was officially confirmed that at one point computers will play better chess than humans.

    However, humans are also getting stronger thanks to the help of computer analysis. Nowadays, almost everyone uses chess engines, including Magnus Carlsen. He holds the record for the highest ELO recorded (2882 ELO in 2014). Many chess geeks argue that he is better than Kasparov, but isn't it just the part of evolution?

    Final Thoughts...

    There you have it; a (brief-ish) history of chess. From it’s murky origins in India, to the Persians who developed the game, the Islamic world who helped spread it far and wide, to Europe, where the modern game was brought about. 

    What’s the next step in the evolution of the game?

    Will computers force it to evolve again?

    Write your thoughts in the comments below. 

    Related Questions

    Why is chess called chess? 

    When did chess start in India?

    Why was chess invented?

    Who invented chess?

    How old is chess?

    Where did chess originate?

    Did chess originate in China?

    Did chess originate in Africa?

    Recommended Reading

    The history of chess is much more involved and nuanced than this guide can describe. If you enjoyed this guide and would like to learn more, then you'll want to read A History of Chess by H. J. R Murray

    It's 900 pages in length and isn't the easiest book to read by far, but if you want to know everything about the history of chess then you won't find a more detailed source than this. 


    1. Vasiliev, Viktor (1974). Tigran Petrosian: His Life and Games. Pp. 15-22