On the origins of chess (2/5)

by Sergio Ernesto Negri
5/19/2018 – "Never play with drunkards and desperate men and quarrelsome people for it leads to a brawl”. Chess researcher SERGIO NEGRI continues his deep dive into the origins of our game, this time focusing on the most widely recognised theory, that of an Indian origin | Image (centre): Krishna and Radha playing chaturanga (early chess) on an 8x8 Ashtāpada (a board) (Wikipedia Commons)

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In case you missed it, see Part 1 focusing on the Persian origin theory

Part 2: Indian origin of chess

The predominant paradigm

Traditionally the paternity of chess is ascribed to an exclusive source, and the predominant theory posits an Indian origin. However, there is, oddly, documentary evidence exotic to Indian culture explored mainly by European historians, especially British.[1] Conversely, the hypothesis of a Chinese origin was not adequately explored, perhaps due to the fact that India was for a long time an English colony, while China remained closed to foreign scrutiny.[2] Although as the world has evolved, the Chinese thesis will need further development, and India remains as the prevailing origin story. Let's look more closely at why this is so.

In order, two key concepts are seen: chaturanga is used to refer to the Indian proto-chess par excellence, and ashtāpada which, while also applicable to its entertainment properties,[3] is more widely used for alluding to a board of 64 squares laid out in an eight-by-eight grid common to various games. In ancestral Indian literature, revised in Sanskrit, we find allusions to both terms as they can offer us important clues about the age of these ludic practices.

When analyzing the Rigveda (Ṛgveda), the oldest of all the texts of Hindu culture, from the second millennium BCE, it is observed that one of its Hymns (X - 34) is dedicated to the dice player, clear evidence of the relevance of its practice in those times. The mention is not exactly indulgent since they are assigned such a powerful and disturbing value as to exert a demonic influence on the player.

Rig Veda

Fernando Tola, the Argentine translator of the work, understands that in the text, "the dice are praised, their power is exalted and they are finally begged to free the victims who have bewitched."

A significant part of the aforementioned hymn occurs when the player is asked to do the following:

Play not with dice: no, / cultivate thy corn-land. / Enjoy the gain, / and deem that wealth sufficient. / There are thy cattle / there thy wife…

And the song ends by questioning the dice in this way:

Make me your friend: show us some little mercy. / Assail us not with your terrific fierceness. / Appeased be your malignity and anger, / and let the brown dice snare some other captive.[4]

These dangers could somehow extend to the earlier Indian versions of chess if the dice were considered to be part of their practice, at least for a rather prolonged period of time,[5] as we know from the great British historian Harold Murray. If their use could encourage irrational behaviour, and therefore be repulsive to the religions that successively dominated the subcontinent (Hinduism and Buddhism), the game could also be condemned as being in many cases associated with betting.[6] These kinds of interpellations will continue in the future, also in the Muslim, Jewish and Christian worlds, well into the Middle Ages, when chess will eve, at times, become subject to prohibition.

BrahmaIn chaturanga and chaturaji, both Indian proto-chess, there is the same etymological root: chatur that means "four", a number that in Hindu culture has a great symbolic value. Four are the castes in which Indian society is divided (even today!); four are the faces that the god Brahma has (to be able to see his beautiful wife on all sides); four are his hands (one of which holds the Rig Veda); four are the original Vedas; four are the stages of life. And four is the number of forces (anga) that participated in the battle inside the board as symmetrical image of other fights of real content.[7]

The Macedonian philologist Pavle Bidev emphasizes that the number four also acquires a special value via its association with the natural elements, each of which connects to the chessmen: Water, to the horse; Earth, to the car; Fire, the vizier; Air, to the elephant. The king, for his part, is represented by a fifth, which corresponds to the Ether. It is interesting to note that these five concepts correspond perfectly to those recognized in both Hinduism and Buddhism.

In addition to the respective kings (rajī), in the modality of four players appear pawns, horses, elephants and chariots (or ships).[8] On the other hand, in the design for two players there is also the adviser of the king. In both cases, 32 pieces are involved in the games.[9] The rivals could be four or two[10] since, ultimately, when one of the armies fell, the fallen force was combined with another.

As for the dice, so powerful according to the Rigveda, they served as the aid of the chaturanga or the chaturaji and alternatively they could be the classic entertainment when being thrown on flat surfaces — or a board like the ashtāpada.

Sixty-four was a very important number for both Hindus and Buddhists. The temples for both beliefs had to dissolve the boundaries between man and the divine; they were conceived like a miniature of the cosmos. The priest-architect made his plan as a grid, made up of equilateral squares and equilateral triangles arranged in the form of a net, representing a mandala (a model or map of the cosmos) that had sixty-four figures (for temples) and eighty-one (for houses). It is the vastu purusha mandala, space that symbolizes the existence and the action of the divine powers. There, Devas fight against the Asuras (angels against demons). And in the centre lies the creative God: Brahma.

In these conditions, the board must be seen not as a mere spatial representation or a place in which a human activity is realized but, more broadly, as a cosmogram, being both a representation and actualization of divine power and a path to enlightenment.[11]

Ashtapada square

Design of the ashtāpada on which various kinds of games were played with dice. The reason for the marked squares is not known. | Source: Jean-Louis Cazaux, history.chess.free.fr

Vinaya Piṭaka (Basket of Discipline) is a text from the 4th to 3rd centuries BCE and part of the Dialogues of Buddha. Although it is not considered a sacred book (Buddhism does not have them), it acquires a great relevance since it establishes the rules of conduct that must be respected. In that order, the monks (samanas and brahmanas) are required to be focused on the moral practices and, therefore, refrain from playing games, since their use weakens vigilance. It is clear that the recommendation points to the pastimes in the ashtāpada or daśapada which extends to the action of throwing dice on them.[12] The German researcher Andreas Bock-Raming points out that a mention in the same sense is included in another Buddhist text of the time: BrahmajÅlasutta.[13]

On the other hand, in Sūtrakṛtāṅga, which is of the same approximate period as the previous ones, considered one of the earliest writings that belong to Jainism (a non-theistic religion that arose in India in the sixth century BCE), their practice is also discouraged; specifically: "He should not learn to play ashtāpada, he should not speak anything forbidden by the Law; a wise man should abstain from fights and quarrels."[14]

In the Mahābhāṣya, a grammar of the second century BC that is due to Patañjali, the term ayanayan ("to move ayanaya"), which two centuries ago had been presented by Pāṇini in his influential first work of the genus: Aṣṭādhyāyī, is analyzed. With that expression alludes to the movements of some pieces on a board, so it is interpreted that this is a first Indian reference to a table game differentiated from the space on which it was disputed, which could well be antecedent of chess, according to the studies of the German Paul Thieme, an expert in Indian culture.[15] However, it is very probable that the game in question is the pachisi or the chaupar, as supposed by the Indian professor Madhukar Anant Mehendale.[16]

The Mahābhārata, the great Indian epic dating back to at least the third century BCE[17] is attributed to Vyasa, and reflects the war between two related families (the Kaurava and Pāṇḍava).


Manuscript illustration of the Battle of Kurukshetra

In its course, the theme of the game acquires centrality while the dice throwing decides central questions. Thus, Yudhishthira, son of the god Dharma, who had inheritance rights to the royal throne, will lose everything, including his brothers and his wife, and will be taken into exile for twelve years.[18]

There is a unique translation to Spanish of this very extensive work that is due to the Argentine author Hugo Labaté, who points to a single moment that could be connected, in the Virata Parva, Volume 4, Section 1, where Yudhishthira is appeared returning from exile after allegedly learning meanwhile "the science of the dice". In this context he is presented before a king and made the following reference:

Yudhishthira replied, 'Ye sons of the Kuru race, ye bulls among men, hear what I shall do on appearing before king Virata. Presenting myself as a Brahmana, Kanka by name, skilled in dice and fond of play, I shall become a courtier of that high-souled king. And moving upon chess-boards beautiful pawns made of ivory, of blue and yellow and red and white hue, by throws of black and red dice, I shall entertain the king with his courtiers and friends.[19]

The translator adds:

It is probably a reference to the chaturaji, a board game played with four-coloured pieces one for each player: white ivory (däntän phalair), yellow gold, green stone (vaiéüryän) and red stone (jyotï rasaiù ) and throw black and red dice (kýáíäkáä and lohitäkáä). The translation should read: ´mobile pawns of ivory, gold, green stone and red stone, throwing dice red and black.´ Unlike chess, in this game comes the chance".

Gyan chauper or Snakes and LaddersThat is, although in the Mahābhārata, the chaturanga is not mentioned, it refers to another board game in which we could register movements of pieces more complex than when merely throwing dice. Perhaps, instead of the chaturaji suggested, it is rather the gyan chauper (pictured), a very ancient Indian game that was popularized all over the world subsequently under the name of snakes and ladders. In the passage quoted there is one more element: it could be a version for four players since that is the number of colours of the different pawns involved.[20]

In the same way in the Rāmāyaṇa, the other Indian epic text, in this case, attributed to Vālmīki, that is of approximately third century BCE, considering the regularity of the streets and houses of the sacred city of Ayodhya (in segment 1.5.16), is described as colorful, it praises the beauty of their women and it mentions the palatial buildings of a city which "is arranged like a board". The term that is exactly used is that of astapadakaram,[21] that is to say that of the ashtāpada, which can be considered as squared surface[22] as in this quotation or, also, as a table game, in both cases closely linked with the future chaturanga.[23] Also mentioned several times in this influential account is the army, specifically that it was compounded by "four angas". India's only world chess champion, Viswanathan Anand, confesses that his grandmother, at the tender age of six, alluding to this text, told a story that the demon king Ravana invented chess to entertain his wife Mandodari.[24]

One should also review the Arthaśāstra, which was written in the third century BCE (alternatively it is placed between the second and fourth centuries CE) by Chanakia Pandit, a prime minister of the Mauria Empire. In that text, according to some approaches, there was talk of a board game that could be antecedent of the chaturanga. As it is a treatise on the art of governing, economic policy and military strategy, in fact, it is the first Indian text in which the art of war is studied; the four angas of the game in question are repeatedly mentioned.

We see clearly that, in the most relevant Indian texts of this early period, concrete references are made to the game of dice and others alluding to the ashtāpada considered preferentially as a board, but nothing is said about the chaturanga, whose footprints will then have to be found in periods corresponding to the Current Era.

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Sources of the Current Era

The first mention of proto-chess is in the Harṣacarita (The deeds of Harsha),[25] the text of Bāṇabhaṭṭa (Bāṇa), poet and writer of the court with its capital in Kanyâkubja (Kannauj). It is a biography of the Buddhist emperor of that name who ruled the destinations of a northern kingdom of India in the first half of the seventh century. It would be appropriate to remember that, according to the Persian accounts, it was from that capital of an Indian kingdom that the game came to Baghdad in the time of Xusraw I.

On the one hand, when speaking of the wise Durvāsas, a being by nature excessively angry that he was "brother of the Moon", describing one of his classic irritations, clarifies that "... gathering a frown that darkened the chess-board of his forehead, like the presence of the god of death ... ".

A parallel is drawn between the lines of the board and the furrows on the face of the character, with a Sanskrit expression in which appear the board (aṣţāpadam) and the game (caturaṅgaphalakam), intimately linked for the first time. Later, when speaking of the virtues of Harṣa, it is pointed out that:

Under this monarch are found only the cloth worn by devotees in meditation, and not forged documents; the royal figures of sculptors and not the vulgar disputes with kings; only bees quarrel in collecting dues; the only feet ever cut off are those in metre;[26] only chessboard teach the positions of the four members...

That is a reference to the angas that participate in the battles in the game, for which the term caturaṅga is used.

Kādambari,[27] another work of Bāṇabhaṭṭa, includes the following reference when tracing the panegyric profile of a called king Çūdraka:

While he, having subdued the earth, was guardian of the world, the only mixing of colour was in painting; the only pulling of hair in caresses; the only strict fetters in the laws of poetry; the only care was concerning moral law; the only deception was in dreams; the only golden rods were in umbrellas. Banners alone trembled; songs alone showed variations; elephants alone were rampant; bows alone had severed cords; lattice windows alone had ensnaring network; lovers’ disputes alone caused sending of messengers; dice and chessmen alone left empty squares; and his subjects had no deserted homes. Under him, too, there was only fear of the next world

The expression that alludes again to the board or to a game that is not necessarily the chaturanga, is in Sanskrit astapadaparicayacaturabhih. Since it is a romantic novel, it might be thought that, following the order of the preceding enumeration, the mentioned lovers' dispute could be associated with the situation in which it is indeed possible for the dice and pieces of the game to leave empty the squares of the board — an image that could be poetic (at least to chess lovers).

In the Vāsavadattā[28] of Subandhu, a romance written some time between the fourth and fifth centuries (although others place it in the seventh), this passage is included:

The (rainy season) even the (fate of rain), played, as if with chessmen coloured with lac, with yellow and green frogs jumping in the enclosures of the irrigated fields.

Vasavadhata oil painting | Rajasekharan Parameswaran CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The pieces appear with an unusual yellow and green tone that is typical of the animal in question. Murray emphasizes in the point the use of words: nayadyütair, that could be translatable by pieces of some proto-chess and koshthikā that would be equivalent to the existence of a bi-colour board. However, in some translations, it is considered that instead of pieces there are dice. For the British philologist Frederick W. Thomas the colours of the frogs are associated with those that characterize the pieces (of chess or perhaps of backgammon); and their leap is representative of their movement on a board whose squares, in their judgment, are black.[29]

Since there is evidence that the game entered Baghdad in the sixth century, these references from Indian literature belonging to the Current Era should be considered late since the first specific ones, those of Bāṇa, are of the seventh century. Complicating the chronology, Murray affirms that it will be necessary to look as late as the ninth century to obtain more conclusively, specific references to the game in literary sources of the country, in the prose and poetry of the northern region of Kashmir.


The first reference is the one of Haravijaya (The Victory of Shiva)[30] of Ratnākara, an epic poem in which the board (an-ashtāpadam) is mentioned, but not the game, although it is alluded to. It is presented Shiva, with his assistant Attahasa who, thanks to his skills in tactics and strategy, could repel the forces of his enemies even though they were made up of the four angas: patti (infantry), ashwa (cavalry), rat-ha (chariots) and dvipa (elephants).

Knight's tourOne can also appeal to the Kāvyālaṅkāraḥ of the poet Rudrata (875 CE), in which the movements of the pieces is mentioned: chariots; horses and elephants, as is particularly studied in the work of the Indian professor C. Rajendran.[31] The Kāvyālaṅkāraḥ answers a question that will eventually become a classic, as to whether it was possible to visit all the squares of the board without landing on the same square twice with a piece of the game. It provides solutions for the case of the tower (rat-ha), the elephant (gaja) and the horse (turaga). In the case of the horse, it is a remarkable antecedent of a "knight's tour" problem that years later would inspire so many mathematicians, among them the Swiss Leonhard Euler in the eighteenth century.[32]

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Three centuries later...

If, until now, the Indian literature — whether epic or fictional — speaks about the board in which some kind of proto-chess is practised (always without too much detail), we mu wait until the twelfth century to find more explicit mentions. This will occur in the Mānasollāsa (The refresher of the mind), also called Abhilaṣitārtha Cintāmaṇi (The magical stone that fulfills desires), an encyclopedia produced in the western and southern portion of the territory which is attributed to Someśvara III, and a king of the Chalukya dynasty. In this book, several games are indicated, including some variant of the nard, and it specifically talks about the versions for two and four hands of the chaturanga.

This work is very complete from a technical perspective; in its various chapters, there is talk of the initial position of the pieces on the board and of three alternative arrangements preset to start the game (similar to the ta'biyat of shatranj), the form of movement of the chessmen. It foreshadows the possibility of a sort of pawn promotion, and some possibilities to stalemate and checkmate the king.

It could be argued that the manuscript is the translation of an Arabic text on chess, a game by then widespread in that culture. However, this possibility is discarded by Bock-Raming who interpret it as a genuine Indian text.[33] In the variant of chess for four players, of course, the figure of the minister disappears, and the kings in this case can be captured; in addition, the die is not used and there are only two colours: red and white.

RajatarangiṇīFrom the same period, although now returning to the north of the country, possibly the cradle of chess, we have the Rājatarangiṇī (The River of the Kings), work of the Brahmin Kalhaṇa,[34] that centers in the legacy of Kashmiri dynasty kings, which includes this fragment:

The king, though he had taken two kings (Lothana and Vigraharāja), was helpless and perplexed about the attack on the remaining one, just as a player at chess (who has taken two kings and is perplexed about taking the third). He had then no hidden plan (of game) to give up for its sake (his figures). Yet he did not pay regard to his antagonist who was taking his horsemen, peons and the rest.

In this regard, it must be remembered that in the four-player version, when one of the monarchs falls, his forces join the army of another player. That is why the passage in question is a clear allusion to the chaturaji version that seemed to have gained a lot of prominence in comparison to what could be happening with the classic scheme for two players or chaturanga. This could indicate precedence: the four-player worth more attention due to its novelty.

Indian proto-chess

Indian proto-chess in four-player design | Source: history.chess.free.fr

In modern times, The Nectar from twentieth-century author Prabhupada Swami, writes:

Kṛṣṇa and his close friends sometimes played to fight or to struggle with their arms, other times they played ball and others played chess.

The idea that Kṛṣṇa (Krishna), one of the main gods of Hinduism (and avatar of the great Vishnu), practices chess, is wholly suggestive and meaningful, and somehow connects with Indian tradition.

If, as we have seen, Indian histories are rather unspecific in the case of the earliest sources, and very late when it comes to more conclusive expressions of the existence and characteristics of the game. Interestingly, it could be said that also the records derived from the archaeological finds are not old enough.

In this regard, when referring to terracotta figurines found in excavations in the areas of Mohenjo-Daro and Lothal (formerly very important sites of the Indus Valley),[35] it is generally said that they hardly correspond to some type of proto-chess. However, German researcher Joaquim Petzold does not rule it out[36] and, if he is right, considering that these places correspond to long past civilizations, one would have to believe that a game at least related to the future chess might have appeared in the third century BCE.

Indus valley board

Image of objects found in the Indus Valley exhibited at the Archaeological Museum in Harappa, Pakistan | Photo: BBC

There is, however, consensus on the relevance of other images, also in terracotta, found in this case in the vicinity of Kanyâkubja,[37] that is to say in the same capital city of the kingdom from which the caravans departed carrying the chaturanga to Baghdad. Although they have diverse dates, they certainly correspond to the Current Era, one reason why it is not a proof that the Indian game does not necessarily originate in antiquity.

Furthermore, in these analyses, it will always be possible to discuss whether we are actually in presence of pieces corresponding to a board game at all. Alternatively, and especially when it comes to images very past, even probably it can be the case that we are dealing with amulets, toys, religious or ornamental elements. It is difficult to distinguish two chessmen-like images — for instance, an elephant and a bull that were found in Dalverzin-Tepe (currently in Uzbekistan) in 1972,[38] and date to the second century — to say nothing of a piece of ivory dating back to the sixth century that appeared in 2002 in the course of excavations of a Byzantine palace in the ancient city of Butrint, Albania — a location that is anyway quite strange from the perspective of the presumed geographic spread of chess.

The oldest pieces of which there is not much doubt belonging to a proto-chess are called Afrasiab, which appeared in excavations made in 1977 in the vicinity of Samarkand.[39] These are seven ivory figurines made up of two soldiers (pawns), a horse, an elephant (which is mounted), a cat who, as he has a rider, is speculated to be the king, and two chariots. They would be of the seventh and eighth century, coinciding historically with the times of the Sassanid Empire in Persia — so they should belong to čatrang.

Afrasiab pieces

Image of some of the pieces Afrasiab | Photos: history.chess.free.fr

This ancient city, which today forms part of Uzbekistan, had its heyday in the late Middle Ages at the time of the Turkish-Mongolian warrior Tamerlan and was always a strategic place in the link between the Far and Middle East. Therefore, these archaeological findings are compatible with all the main foundational theories: the Indian, because of its proximity to the subcontinent; the Chinese one, since that region was a Chinese protectorate; the one of cultural syncretism, for being part of the Silk Road.

The findings then — despite their intrinsic relevance — do not allow us to shed light on which of these explanatory alternatives should be considered more likely.

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Recent development

In 2006 five other pieces were found in an area located in the north of Afghanistan of similar characteristics to the previous ones. Although for the moment unclear, they could be of seventh or eighth-century origin.

In studying the subject, Jean-Louis Cazaux[40] argues that, in addition to the surprising fact that there are no archaeological elements very old in territories of India, the same happens in the case of China. Concerning its own proto-chess, the xiang-qi (象棋), which will be discussed in more detail in a subsequent article, the first pieces discovered would be only the tenth century; they were in fact discovered very recently, in 2011.[41] The French researcher does not lose hope that in the future more discoveries of this kind will shed light on the question. Indeed, this may become crucial in the course of research on the subject.[42]

Faced with the dearth of early evidence in their own culture, proponents of an Indian paternity of the game of chess must seek out other primordial sources. The first of these, as far as writings are concerned, corresponds to manuscripts that the American Christopher Brunner[43] places no later than the ninth century, the Wizārišn ī Čatrang ud Nihišn ī Nēw-Ardaxšīr (or Čatrang-nāmag), where it is a precise account of the entrance to Baghdad in the sixth century of a game from India:

They say that, in the reign of Xusraw of Inmortal Soul, a chess game (16 counters of emerald and 16 counters of red ruby) was sent by Dēwišarm, great ruler of the Indians, to test the intelligence and wisdom of the Iranians….

In this context, the reader is urged to discover the logic of the game, the sovereign of the country given four days to solve the challenge, not only to exempt paying tribute to visitors but also for reasons of national pride. In this scenario, the wise Bozorgmehr will solve the riddle and, at the same time, invent the nard. When taken to the neighbouring court, it will be the Persians who will receive the game from India.

One can see a classic history of evident nationalist bias. Although it leaves the culture of the empire in a better position with its capital in Baghdad, at the same time it implies a recognition that will be definitive: proto-chess is not a product of its own but is an Indian legacy. It is possible to appreciate in the story in another relevant circumstance: it was a game in the two-player version — that is to say that we would be in the presence of the chaturanga, even though no name is given.

We have already seen that nard is a practice whose cosmology is linked to destiny within the framework of the Zoroastrianism prevailing in the country. As for the game that comes from India, it is characterized by its earthly dimension, being considered as an allegory for a battle. Consequently, in this old text, the dialectical tension that exists between fate and free will is presented. It could be said that, while in the nard, particularly due to the influence of dice, a superior dimension exists, assimilable therefore to the destination, whereas in chess, in which the strategies of the players are decisive, it is freedom that prevails.

The text above belongs to the genre of Book of manners or Ēwēn nāmag,[44] which talks about the ways of behaving — the skills, customs, arts and sciences. By including proto-chess in, their relevance is recognized for the sake of the instruction of the princes to whom these writings are usually dedicated. In that context, another of the series, the Qābus-Nāma, which is from the eleventh century, recommended: "Never play with drunkards and desperate men and quarrelsome people for it leads to a brawl”.[45]

Chess was not only part of the education in the Persian court, but also it will be in the case of the Muslim caliphates and in Christian Europe so that in all geographies the game will be prominent in the formation of the members of the ruling class. Thus, sultans, emirs, kings, princes, knights will practice it. The game, then, evolves: originally a playful instrument that reflected the actions of a battle, it is now part of the educational formation. And, going one step further, it will become an instrument for the romantic encounters, being included in this new quality by the troubadours who boasted of playing the game and used it in their songs.

Returning once more to what happened in the Persian world, there are other outstanding manuscripts that collect stories corresponding to an era no later than the seventh century. On the one hand we have the Ḵusraw ī Kawādān ud rēdak-ēw (The Page of Kusraw, the son of Kawad) and the Kār-Nāmag ī Ardaxšīr ī Pābagān (The Book of the Deeds of Ardashir, the son of Pābag),[46]  in which it is stressed that the virtues of the sovereign include knowledge of čatrang.

In the first, it is said that in order to increase his lineage he must include the memorization of two sacred texts (Avesta and Zand), courses in calligraphy, philosophy, history and rhetoric, as well as the development of skills in riding, different weapons, musical training and astrology, and learning various games, in particular chess (also the nard). And in Kārnāmag ... it is assured that Ardashir:

By the help of Providence he became more victorious and warlike than them all, on the polo and the riding (ground), at Chatrang (chess) (…) and in (several) other arts[47]

It is clear that čatrang had already been imposed on society, not only in the form of a pastime but, more importantly, it had acquired a great reputation in the intellectual and axiological fields.

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Ferdowsi and world's longest epic poem created by a single poet

Although the Persian Empire had long since fallen under Muslim rule, at the end of the first millennium the renowned poet Ferdowsi, wishing to claim a culture that could not be forgotten, produced the ambitious Šhāh-nāma (Book of Kings).[48] In it, he included stories about the glories of the old Empire of Sassanid, with a specific chapter, based on the Vizārišn ī catrang ud nihišn ī nēvardašēr, 'explanati, about the subject of the entrance of the chess to Baghdad.

Given the influence of this work, this mention will be crucial in a widely known episode in which the game is protagonist: that of its entry in the time of Xusraw I from India. The chapter in question is entitled: "How the Rajah of India sent the Chess Game to Nushirwám[49]" and, leaving no doubt as to the origin of the retinue, asserts:

The envoy of the king oh Hind hath come/ With elephants, with parasols, with horsemen/ of Sind[50]

Many valuable gifts will be offered, including, “A chess-board wrought with cunning workmanship”; later it is clarified that it came from Qanuj, the capital of a kingdom of India. In this context, it will also be perfectly clear that a game for two players was present since, among the mentioned pieces of teak and ivory, the vizier (wazír) is specifically pointed out, a piece absent in the four-player variety.

Depiction in the Šhāh-nāma in Persian | Public domain

Ferdowsí's account is well known: that of the challenge to Baghdad to discover the nature of the game brought by the Indians and the reciprocal further challenge when the nard is presented to the neighbouring court, with the overall result evidence of Persian superiority — they will receive tributes from the Rajah. A relevant detail is added, since it is reported that, in India, the story of the origin of their proto-chess will be told according to the legend of Gav and Talkhand. They are brothers who aspired simultaneously to the royal throne, resulting in an armed confrontation in which the youngest dies. As the mother blamed the elder Gav, the court sages tried to demonstrate it was not the brother's fault, for which they represented the battle on a board, depicting the forces positioned in combat and the subsequent development of the events.

Thus chess is born, as the image of a battle, to model it and to serve as a consolation for a mother who, however, continued to pour out her grieving tears.

The story of chess origins as depicted in Chess, the musical

What stands out from Šhāh-nāma in reference to the entry of chess into Baghdad, then, is not so much its originality or antiquity but the inclusion of that quotation in the book that was conceived to rescue the expressions of the Persian culture during its time of imperial glory. In that order, the Indian foundational theory on the origin of this practice has an unconditional, rigorous and prestigious ally in Ferdowsi. Thanks to this, it is possible to establish uncontroversially a time and place for the game that is the oldest within this field of analysis: that in the sixth century a proto-chess enters the capital of the Sassanid Empire. No one doubts this, so there is a "before" and "after" from that initiatory moment.


The Arab Al-Masudi is another wise man who addresses the subject of chess. He lived in the tenth century and shared geography with Ferdowsi but not his culture. Perhaps a credit to his ample intellectual restlessness, he endeavoured to address the world around him scientifically. One of his main works is Kitab Murug al-dahab wa-ma'adin al-gawhar (The golden meadows and mines of precious stones)[51] where it is asserted that it was during the reign of Bahlit in India that chess was invented.

The chronological sequence that is given there is somewhat imprecise: it speaks of King Poros (Fur), who we know died at the end of the fourth century BCE; it is told that he was followed by a certain Daïsalem, who is said to be the author of the famous book Kalila wa-Dimna,[52] which would have been composed after the third century BCE, a king who ruled, according to Masudi, for 120 years. Then Bahlit (Belhith), his successor, should have reigned approximately between the 2nd and 1st century BCE and, consequently, this date would have to be when chess would have made its appearance in India — that is in times and in the space of Bactriana, a very important region to which we will return when discussing cultural syncretism thesis in a subsequent article.

Nevertheless, Ferdowsi assures us that Balhít is a contemporary king to the Persian Ardashir I, one reason why his reign — and the invention of the chess — should be located later in the third century CE.[53]

Ferdowsi and Al Masudi statues

Left: Statue of Ferdowsi by Abolhassan Sedighi in Ferdowsi Sq., Tehran, Iran | Photo: Seyed Emad Karimifard CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
Right: Roof figure of Al Masudi by Emmerich Alexius Swoboda, Vienna Natural History Museum | Photo: Hubertl CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

In Al-Masudi's work, the king, administrator and the officer pieces (representing the movements of the light or heavy troops in a battle) are mentioned, and it is assured that each one of them is consecrated to a different star; it is considered that the game serves to preserve the empire since it enables the practice of strategies of war. On a qualitative level, he recommends the game over backgammon (which according to the author was also invented in India and not in Persia, even before chess), since the best mind wins, not the idiot.[54] In addition, with his mention in this text, he will become one of the first to convey the well-known legend of the wise Sissa and the sidereal reward in grains,[55] which we will also talk about later.

It is reported in the text that the son of the third Abbasid caliph Muhammad al-Mahdi, Prince Ibrahim (779-839), who was a singer, composer and poet, also played chess; he did it with Harun al-Rashid (786-809), the fifth ruler of the dynasty, so it is understood that this became the first caliph to practice it. He also mentions three great Arab players of his time: al-Súli; al-Mawardi and al-Adli.

To Al-Suli, whose nickname was “al-Shitranji” or "The Chess Player" — perhaps the first person in history to be directly defined by his fondness for the game he devotes two works: one called "Nougat and fritters"; and another in which, in addition to mentioning that he was the player who dethroned al-Mawardi as the best of all in the kingdom in the early tenth century, he records that the caliph al-Muqtafi, amazed by his abilities, exclaimed: "... delights me more that these flowers and all that you describe!”. In other words, playing chess could be considered, on this account, the height pleasure.

Zodiacal chessAl-Masudi identifies six types of chess that were known in their time. In addition to the traditional, which came from India played on an 8x8 board, he mentions a variant of four rows wide by 16 long with horses and pawns; another in 10x10 layout where the piece called dababba (that moved like the king although it could be captured) is included; Byzantine chess practiced on a circular board of 64 squares (formed by four rings of 16 squares in each one of them); a second — also circular and somewhat more complex — called zodiacal chess [pictured] which has 12 divisions (correspond to each of the signs) and seven pieces (refer to the five planets then known plus the sun and the moon); and finally, organic chess, which was invented at the time of the author, which is for two contestants, played on a board of 7x8, with 12 pieces, each of which represented the organs or members that allow men feeling, speaking, listening, looking, touching and moving.

With these references of Masudi, and several others that existed concordantly on the part of other authors of the Muslim culture, in any case it is clear that they will embrace with passion a game that will become one of the main pastimes and that will be part of the formation of its leaders, despite some religious prejudices that were held from extremely orthodox perspectives that, preoccupied with their imagery and their possible association with money and betting, came to propose its prohibition. It is possible that its time of splendor is located during the Umayyad dynasty, which reigned from 7th to 11th century, based first in Damascus and then in Cordoba, a move that evidently favoured the spread of the game across Europe.

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Final thoughts

It could be assured that chess is of Indian origin, not so much by probative contributions of its own records, but by the recognition made from Old Persian and Muslim sources, that are convincing, consistent and conclusive, based on quality literature.

From a more contemporary and well-diverse approach, the reasonableness of the predominant paradigm is further confirmed by phylogenetic analysis of Alex Kraaijeveld.[56] This Dutch researcher, by extending to the field of chess the use of a methodology that is typical when studying the evolution of biological species, raises several alternative hypotheses as to the original source of the game, comparing forty modalities that are related (including two that come from the field of the fiction), constructing the respective evolutionary trees. After the work is concluded, in a highly probabilistic tone it is assured that the first ancestor of chess would be no other than chaturanga.

In summary, chess would have an Indian origin according to Persian and Muslim literary sources, which were then articulated and disseminated vigorously by European scholars, mainly British. The same would be evidenced after applying the methodology of phylogenetic analysis that focuses on the internal structure of related games.

Under these conditions, it is clear the reasons why the origin paradigm that continues to prevail is the Indian. It is that we are in the presence of a foundational explanation that remains quite unshakeable despite the fact that, especially in recent times, it has been the object of interpellation.

Moreover, the explanation of a source of chess with shared civilization contributions, at most could take away the exclusivity of India, but not remove its central role. This could only happen with another paradigm that has been garnering adherents, which recognize paternity to Chinese culture, a subject to which we will analyse next time.


Notes and references

[1] Successively, this thesis was supported by the British Thomas Hyde, at the end of the seventeenth century; Hiram Cox and Duncan Forbes, in the eighteenth and early the next; the Dutchman Antonious Van der Linde, the Frenchman Nicolas Fréret, and the Germans Hans Maßmann, Tassilo Von der Lasa and Albrecht Weber, in the 19th century. Their developments will be collected and deepened by another great English historian, Harold Murray, as early as the twentieth century, who established the prevailing canon in the field. In the eighteenth century another inhabitant of the island, William Jones, in addition to ascribing to this current, more poetically will assign to the game a mythical origin, when creating a specific goddess: Caissa. In that same century there will be another writer, who is usually ignored, who also sustained the Indian precedence: the Austrian friar Pauline of St. Bartholomew.

[2] The German researcher Gerhard Josten, perhaps jokingly, wondered what would have happened to theories of chess sources if the British, instead of colonizing India, would have done the same with China.

[3] The ashtāpada in so much game could be similar to pachisi (derived from the chaupar) very popular in India and Pakistan. It is the type of racing game, the dice are used and the objective of each competitor is to move all the four pieces completely around the board, to the left, before his opponents do it. Its probable rules, as well as those corresponding to different versions of chess from the East, are presented in the work of the Lebanese Nader Daoud Daou.

[5] There is no exactness at what time the die stopped being present in these board games. Cox assures the existence of a Burmese chess in the second century BC in which it had already been left aside. It is very reasonable to suppose, however, that during a good time the chaturanga (or the chaturaji) coexisted in its two modalities, with and without dice, in a process of transition. According to some opinions the die was suppressed in Indian culture; according to others, this happened in Persia.

[6] The bets were not limited to money or material goods: women could also be offered, such as in the case of the famous legend of Princess Dilaram in the Arab world and, in the Indian experience, it is even known that it could be offered as a reward parts of its own body (the fingers, for example), which implied horrendous consequences due to auto-mutilations that had to be provoked by those who lost a game.

[7] When the Indian king Porus confronted Macedonian Alexander the Great in 326 BC at the Battle of Hidaspes, he fought with 20,000 using 300 chariots, 200 elephants and 2,000 horses, that is, the four anga required by the Indian chess. The correspondence is very clear: the soldiers of infantry represent the pawns; the artillery and cavalry forces refer to the mighty chariots and to the graceful horses of proto-chess, and the elephants appear as a typical element of the country's warlike forces and also as part of the game.

[8] The chariots could be transformed into ships (nauka) since, being India a very floodable territory, those pieces had to acquire a nautical profile that corresponds to the battles that were disputed fundamentally to the side of zones adjacent to the great rivers (like the Indus).

[9] That is sixteen per player or group of players (in the modality of four, two of the armies operate coalition). In Cabalistic, it should be noted that this number, sixteen, coincides with the rites of Hinduism, the samskaras. It is the third religion in the world nowadays, can be itself seen as such or like culture, their sacred writings go back to the fifteenth century BC. The samskaras, which are also followed in Jainism and in some Buddhist lines, are fulfilled throughout existence, beginning with the ritual of fecundation (of the parents) and ending with the funeral of the own person . Although their number sometimes may vary, there are sixteen sacraments, according to the Grija-sutra, as many as the chess ´pieces of each player.

[10] While it is not the theory that prevails today, it has been argued that it could have evolved from a game of four contenders to another of two. If it had been so, it could have a historical explanation: in India originally there were numerous kingdoms, so there could be multiple clashes between them in search of domination (in these conditions a game of four participants is more reasonable than one of merely two). When the country is unified, there is already only one enemy, the external, so that the struggle is circumscribed against the others. The first empire in the subcontinent, the Maurya, lasted little more than 100 years, collapsing towards the second century BC. After the dismemberment in various kingdoms, the country will be reunited under the great Gupta Empire, which will begin to reign from the fourth century AD, time when Buddhism will spread, including in China. This era could coincide with the validity of a proto-historic version of the chess that was already played exclusively to two players. The chaturanga had therefore the appropriate context for its appearance.

[11] Source: Traditional Cosmological Symbolism in Ancient Board Games, Gaspar Pujol Nicolau, Catalan academic of the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya, Barcelona, 2009.

[14] Source: Ninth Lecture, called The Law, in Sūtrakṛtāṅga. In other texts of this belief, however, his practice should be recommended to young princes, as Bock-Raming points out.

[15] As the board was used to throw the dice, the explanation of a movement that could be given in the sense of the clockwise or otherwise, denotes the appearance of differentiated pieces. This could be the pattern of the existence of a game that is practiced on the surface (the chaturanga?).

Source: Chess and Backgammon in Sanskrit Literature, in Indological Studies in Honor of W. Norman Brown, American Oriental Series, Volume 47, New Haven, Connecticut, 1962.

[16] At Does Patañjali on Pāṇini 5.2.9 refer to Chess? Included in the book of Deshpande y Hook quoted in the bibliography. The German Orientalist Heinrich Lüders, meanwhile, in the nineteenth century had also speculated that the game could be backgammon.

[17] Due to its monumentality, this story was written in a great space of time, without the precision of authorship. For some corresponds to a temporary environment located in the 3rd century BC. For others, it goes back to much older times. As it is written in modern Sanskrit (unlike the Vedas that are in ancient Sanskrit), its dating is less distant in time although, as the text contains testimonies of the oral tradition, they correspond to histories that are in any case very ancestral.

[18] After all, the god Kṛṣṇa will come to his aid, will lead him to victory and, ultimately, to the opening of a new era.

[19] At http://www.holybooks.com/wp-content/uploads/Mahabharata-VOL-4.pdf. As it is appreciated, this source indicates that the boards are of chess which in any case is a license of the translator of the text: Pratap Chandra Roy. In the version of Labaté, on the other hand, it is spoken more correctly of “game- boards” and not “chess-boards”.

[20] In the chaturanga four colours are also appreciated for the different armies: red, in the east; Green in the south; Yellow, in the west; Black, in the north. The alliances were marked between the green and black rows, on the one hand, and the red and yellow, on the other. One particularity of the board is that the squares were not coloured. As for the pieces, the chariot (equivalent to the tower), the horse and the king moved as at present, the elephant (which will evolve into a bishop) did so with restrictive movement diagonally. If it is accepted that the passage was from four armies to two (which is controversial), the incorporation of a new piece, the one of the royal councilor (vizier for Persians and Arabs, is generated, from which later in Europe will arise the Queen, which originally retained the original much-reduced mobility). The coronation existed in early versions of the game (it is speculated that in the variant of four players ... could be crowned king!). The rules of chaturanga are not precisely known, in the absence of texts that study and present from a technical perspective.

[21] The respective passage in Sanskrit reads as follows: “citram astapadakaram varanariganair yutam”.

[22] It is interesting to note that in other Indian texts, including some corresponding to the Vedic period, such as the Kåêhakam, which dates from the 9th century BC, it is said that the dice were thrown on surfaces conformed by cloths and not yet on boards which that will be of diverse materials. Source: The Gaming Board in Indian Chess and Related Board Games: A Terminological Investigation, by Andreas Bock-Raming.

[23]As royal Indra, throned on high,/ Rules his fair city in the sky./ She seems a painted city, fair/ With chess-board line and even square./ And cool boughs shade the lovely lake", is other specific reference to the chessboard according a Griffith's version of this passage. However for Goldman it is understood that in using the expression ashtāpada in rigor could be referring to the gold ornamentation of the beautiful city. It is that word is ambiguous as it connotes such the board and the game as the precious metal.

[24] At https://www.chess.com/article/view/where-was-chess-invented. We have not been able, from consulting the translations of the Rāmāyaṇa to which we had access, to verify the inclusion of this story. But, beyond its pertinence, it is to imagine the great influence of this familiar story in the mind of who, in time, will have to transform itself into one of the best chess players of all time.

[26] It is a reference to a collection context.

[29] Source: The Indian Games of chess, ZDMG, 1899.

[32] For this reason, the resolution of the course of the horse by the board of 8x8 without touching twice the same square is scientifically defined as "The cycle (path or problem) of Rudrata". Numerous researchers on algorithms were based on it, evidence that game has always been the subject of analysis in the field of logic and mathematics. While Rudrata in his resolution puts the accent on the vertex, Euler will do it at the edges. Source: Algorithms, S. Dasgupta, C. H. Papadimitriou y U. V. Vazirani, 2006.

[34] Source: Kalhana's Rajatarangini, a Chronicle of the Kings of Kasmir, translated by M. Stein, Vol. I and II.

[36] This is what Greenberg asserts in the book cited in the bibliography.

[38] These findings are valid according to Russian scholars who, in that way, can argue that chess was invented in the territories of that nation. As that city was part of the Greek-Bactrian Kingdom and then flourished during the Kushan Empire, in any case, its admissibility could better be an evidence of the legitimacy of the confluence theory of the games that we will soon discuss in detail.

[42] The Indian theory would be reinforced, for example, if ancient archaeological remains of the game were discovered in areas away from the silk route, which would be an unmistakable sign of the spread of the chaturanga to the interior of the country. Conversely, the sinological thesis would be enhanced if there were to be found pieces of ancient dating that referred to the xianq-qi.

[43] The author emphasizes that, as the manuscript comes from the oral tradition, its real date corresponds to previous periods, being able to be from the own century VI. However, in translations of the book of Ferdousí (subject of which we will speak) who based on this text, ensure that it is of the seventh century and in the following source: The Middle Persian Explanation of Chess and Invention of Backgammon, by Christopher Brunner, Encyclopaedia Persica, Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society, Vol. 10, 1978.

[45] Source: A Mirror for Princes: The Qābūs Nāma, by Kai Iskandar Kā'Ās Ibn (Reuben Levy, translator), E. P. Dutton, London, 1951.

[46] Strictly there it deals with three games: the chatrang; the new-ardaxšîr (nard) and the haštpay. The latter, in the interpretation of the Italian researcher Antonio Panaino, could be the adaptation of the Indian ashtāpada seen as autonomous entertainment and not as board; hence its phonetic approximation.

[47] A point that implies a certain anachronism is given by attributing to a third-century ruler of the Christian era, Ardashir, wisdom about a game which, elsewhere in the story, it is asserted that it entered its dominions only two centuries later. It could be speculated, in any case, that given his high valuation as the founder of the Sassanid Empire, this supposed knowledge of the game rather than correspond to a strictly historiographic record, must be reinterpreted in symbolic code by its reverential tone.

[49] That expression means "Immortal Soul", name with which Xusraw I it was known. In this way is perfectly determined the question on whether the chess entered under its mandate or the one of its grandson, Xusraw II.

[50] Although the name of Sindh currently belong to a province located in Pakistan, in ancient times was the denomination of a very important region of the north of the Indian Territory. In fact that expression is derived from Indo River, Sindhu in Sanskrit. The city of Kannauj (Khannajo, Qanuj or Kanyakubjade), from where the entourage left for Baghdad, is nowadays in northern India, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. In its time of splendor, during the Harsha Empire, it was the capital, during Century VII AD. When we refer to the book dedicated to the emperor of that name, founder of the dynasty, we said that it was there where for the first time the chaturanga is explicitly mentioned. So, everything converges, in time and place.

[51] An English translation of this work can be found at https://archive.org/details/historicalencycl00masrich.

[52] In fact that is the name of the Arabic translation (adaptation) that is of the year 850. The original Indian text is called Panchatranta (today its composition is not attributed to a king but to an Indian writer called Visnú Sharma) and, before to be taken by the Muslims, will first be translated into Persian during the reign of Xusraw I. In the middle Ages it will be known in Europe, more precisely in Spain, in the version of Alfonso X the Wise.

[53] In the period between a few centuries before and after Christ, India had successive periods of domination and the existence of different regimes and regencies, quite volitile, which were attributed to partial territories that only in the fourth century AD. will unify under the Gupta Empire. Thus, some references, especially in old texts such as the one analyzed, may be imprecise and should be subject to revision by historians specialized in that culture.

[54] In this line of analysis, a Muslim thinker is also alluded to who distinguishes chess from backgammon since, while in the former one can see support for the doctrine of justice, where the rule of the free will ultimately prevail ; in the other the fatalism rules, since one cannot do anything to twist fate.

[55] The required reward gives the astronomical figure of 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 which represents grains of cereal (wheat, corn or rice, according to the different versions of the legend) from all regions in all times. That number, according to Masudi, was very important to the Hindus since it considered that they explained what would happen in future centuries and the influence that the stars have and also, thanks to him, one could predict how long the human soul would live in this world.

[56] Source: Origin of chess - a phylogenetic perspective, by Alex R. Kraaijeveld.

Topics: China, History, india, iran

Sergio was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is Master FIDE, who developed studies on the relationship of chess with culture and history.
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Sergio Negri Sergio Negri 5/30/2018 08:06
Thanks to the readers for the comments and compliments that this document received, where the fascinating question of the origin of our beloved chess is analyzed
melante melante 5/22/2018 05:04
@RayLopez: "Birth of the Chess Queen: A History [Marilyn Yalom]" is actually outdated and correct only in very general terms. The modern queen movement has been clearly traced back to Italy in the late XV century and was proposed by mathematician Luca Pacioli (a close friend of Leonardo da Vinci) at the court of Isabella d'Este (his manuscript detailing the new movement was found in 2006).
ulyssesganesh ulyssesganesh 5/21/2018 07:59
a great piece of study!
ozmatic ozmatic 5/21/2018 04:36
Model scholarship, Sergio, thank you. Quid pro quo: the sixteen marked squares indicate the four outlying corners of each of the four players' starting quadrants.
genem genem 5/21/2018 09:10
We know that the bishop was changed from an office that must move exactly 2 squares (diagonally), to its modern mobility, probably during the 1400's.
Also during the 1400's the pawn gained its increased mobility of optionally being able to move forward 2 squares, on its first move only.
But which change came first?

I would have guessed that the 2-square pawn move was a prompt reaction to the prior modernization of the bishop. The 2-square move could have seemed necessary to counter the new problem of excessive B-N5 pins.
But someone tells me that the 2-square pawn move came 50 years after the modern bishop. I wonder how certain the original sources are about that.
ChessmasterD ChessmasterD 5/21/2018 04:59
Overall great effort. The timeslines provided for Mahabharata and Ramayana are not agreed by traditional scholars and scriptural evidence.
Mahabharata was composed middle of 3rd millennium BC. Ramayana much earlier than that.
wb_munchausen wb_munchausen 5/21/2018 02:20
It will be interesting how the author considers the relationship of Chinese Chess (Xiangqi). I've played the game a lot, and it is very obviously a variation of chess. It seems likely to be a descendant of the same proto-chess which produced the Indian version.
amarpan amarpan 5/20/2018 04:24
It would be nice to bring back a four player version. Just like in racquet sports (tennis, badminton, table tennis, squash etc). It would make chess richer.
RayLopez RayLopez 5/20/2018 06:29
While chess has Indian roots, modern chess with the queen moving as she does was invented in the medieval ages, when certain monarchs were women and courtiers were trying to impress them, see Birth of the Chess Queen: A History [Marilyn Yalom]. Even more concretely, the rules of modern chess only became finalized in the 19th century (promotion of the pawn to a non-pawn for example).
lagerstein lagerstein 5/20/2018 05:03
I am sorry but I must protest. Our beloved president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, has categorically stated that chess comes from outer space and if you pair this with the BBC telling us that Chess was invented by the Gallifreyans, your article is lies and fake news! Doctor Who and the BBC would never lie!
Aighearach Aighearach 5/19/2018 07:12
So basically, although the mainstream theory (which is from the UK) is not supported by any evidence at all, and the first solid evidence of chess in India comes from around the same period of time that the Norse were carving chess pieces from walrus tusks.

Hard to read all that without concluding, "these people have no idea and are seriously grasping at straws." Where did chess come from? Consensus seems to say it was east of Gibraltar and west of Guam.

Not every leading theory is a consensus, sometimes it just means there are no good theories so none of the other experts are likely to call them out too strongly when a minority are over-stating a claim. Experts like to have something better to point to when offer a correction, of course. So it goes largely unchallenged.