On the origins of chess (6/7)

by Sergio Ernesto Negri
8/17/2020 – Four theories regarding the origins of chess have been presented by Argentine researcher Sergio Negri — that the game came from India, China, Egypt and hypotheses based on myths, legends and the fictional world. Now he introduces theories that consider that chess was conceived by cultural syncretism, with different civilizations contributing to the development of the game. | Photo: Living and extinct chess variants, taken from “Chess – A living fossil” by Gerhard Josten

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Part 1: Introduction | Part 2: India | Part 3: China | Part 4: Egypt | Part 5: Myths, legends

Part 6: Cultural syncretism

A modern and convincing perspective

So far we have analyzed, if not all assumptions (one can always omit something in such a vast subject), at least a large part of the theories relating to the origins of chess. In all of them, the original act of invention is ascribed to a single entity, a person or a deity. It is notable that in none of them the idea of a shared effort is considered, so plural contributions are not verified, and even less the participation of different cultures or civilizations.

Sir William JonesThe criterion of uniqueness, which is the one that has prevailed over time, was very expressively argued by William Jones for whom chess, due to its “beautiful simplicity and extreme perfection”, could only have been invented “by one of great genius”:[1] Jones considered that from a more rudimentary version of the game — created by a single entity — a subsequent process of successive changes followed until the appearance of the current version, which turned out to be more sophisticated. On the contrary, his compatriot Hiram Cox said that complexity occurred first and only then came simplification. He inferred that a gradual process that was subsequently verified led to the creation of chess, as the result of a cooperative phenomenon.

In line with Cox’s theory, which for a good part of history was forgotten, in recent times the theory that chess emerged from diverse and complementary sources has gained strength. It is believed that it comes from a plurality of games that led to the creation of a unique and new variant of proto-chess, which served as the basis in the Eastern world to other modalities or versions of a game that, after successive mutations — in particular those that happened in the Middle Ages in Western Europe — led to the consolidation of the currently-used format.

The time interval in which this magical synthesis could have occurred can be placed between the 2nd century BC and the 3rd century AD. For its part, it is very likely that this happened at some imprecise Asian point on the Silk Road that went from China to Persia and Arabia, and beyond, and that passed through, among other nations, India. This route was a dynamic meeting place of cultures characterized by the richness of their extreme interconnectivity. 

The aforementioned practices, which would have made their respective contribution to the creation of a different game altogheter, were the games petteia, ashtāpada and liubo, respectively corresponding to the Greek, Indian and Chinese cultures. From their symbiosis, a single variant of proto-chess was created. For those who defend the theory that the game came from India, this variant is none other than chaturanga (or eventually chaturaji[2]), and for those who think the game came from China, the variant would be the xiang-qi. Although, of course, it should not be ruled out that chaturanga and xiang-qi could have appeared independently with some degree of synchronicity.

When trying to determine the geographical point where this powerful encounter took place, researches point to a wide area located northwest of India where the kingdom of Bactria (Bactriana) and the Kushan Empire (Kuṣāṇ)[3] settled successively, both characterized by a great cultural openness. It is a space that covered vast territories, with its centre located in the valley of the Indus River, in today’s Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which were under Greek influence (legacy of Alexander the Great) and had commercial bridges established with the Chinese through the Silk Route, which began to operate approximately in the 1st century BC.

In this context, it is entirely conceivable that a proto-variant of chess with contributions from different sources would be able to emerge in a territory of such cultural openness. Analysing the Indian, Chinese and Greek peoples, this hypothesis gains strength, as archaeological finds of the oldest pieces of the game were located in that territory.

This line of research, being so convincing, is nevertheless relatively new, having been fundamentally supported by the German researcher Gerhard Josten[4] who, in a way, revolutionized the study of the origin of chess, by applying an approach based on the study of the internal structure of the game and not on the contributions from the fields of history, literature of, even, archeology.

Yuri Averbakh, partially agreeing with the idea of a confluence of contributions, thinks that the game was created based on petteia and ashtāpada, which in his opinion gave way to the chaturanga, implying an evolution from two sources to a third unified strategic game. This process would have led to the elimination of the use of dice[5], and the participation of four players was reduced to two. This symbiosis, according to Averbakh, would have happened thanks to a remarkable cultural fact: Hinduism had lost, momentarily, relevance in Indian society in favour of Buddhism. In short, while admitting a possible inheritance of diverse cultures, which is not usual, the erudite Russian chess player strengthens the predominant Indian theory, without acknowledging any contribution proceeding from China.

The scholar Myron Samsin,[6] meanwhile, supports the possibility that chess is a hybrid game of Greco-Indian origin, being made up of two types of entities: pawns, which would be the Greek contribution, and pieces, which would have an Indian legacy. This symbiosis would have taken place, according to him, shortly after Alexander the Great invaded the East.

Josten makes the issue more complex by abandoning the bilateralism and considering the presence of a third source. In his view, the contribution made by the Chinese culture should not be overlooked. In his very original work, which is based on the discernment of the internal logic of the game, he identifies three types of pieces: those that are essential targets, represented by the king or general; others that have long movements in various directions, which are the main pieces; and others that merely move forward, represented by the pawns. From this distinction, he suggests that chess was based on three different games. According to him, the king would come from China, probably from the game wei-ki and, perhaps more precisely, from the more ancestral liubo; the pieces would have a Mesopotamian origin, more specifically from a Sumerian astrolabe [7]; while the pawns — typical pieces that advance after throwing dice — would come from India, from the games pachisi / gyan chauper.[8]

Thaayam and Pachisi / Chaupur

Thaayam and Pachisi / Chaupur, taken from “Chess – A living fossil” by Gerhard Josten

The first proto-variant of chess, according to Josten, which was the product of this confluence, would have had a circular board (in the style of Byzantine chess), which would later be replaced by a square board, also contributed by the Indians, from ashtāpada. At that time, a game could have emerged in India for four participants (with the use of the dice), chaturanga; while the game xiangqi appeared in China, with its special characteristics (among them the presence of a river, which it inherits from the liubo). This is also stated by Petzold[9] who, in addition to supporting this hypothesis, considers that these contributions, coming from India and China, were made independently and simultaneously.

Living and extinct chess variants Gerhard Josten

Living and extinct chess variants, taken from “Chess – A living fossil” by Gerhard Josten

In short, these contributions support the theory that chess originated from an action typical of cultural syncretism, locating the initial event somewhere in Central Asia between 50 BC and 200 AD, during the period of the Kushan Empire.[10]

According to Cazaux, strenghtening the idea that the game originated in Central Asia:

There is no doubt that chess is... an Asian game. Three regions may claim to be their birthplace: Northern India; Central Asia, from Iran to Turkestan; and Eastern China. No one can object that there is a “genetic” linkage of all forms of chess that come from those areas.

In conclusion, the theory that points to a cultural confluence as the origin of chess, which was recently conceived, is highly persuasive. However, it is very difficult to prove it for various reasons, at least from a factual point of view. First, because of its own characteristics: since it is a process, and not a punctual fact, it is more difficult to “catch” it, and consequently explain it in a given moment of time; the same difficulty arises regarding the place where it happened. Secondly, due to the impossibility of finding literary sources that could have included the mention of a collective construction: generally speaking, stories have a strong nationalist bias; in this context, it is difficult to find claims for an invention that is not of one’s own exclusive heritage.[11]

However, there is the possibility that archeological findings — chess pieces or boards — will support this syncretic theory, as long as they coincide with the places of the Silk Route in which the games would have converged, provided that they are dated within the lifespan of the Kingdom of Bactria or the Kushán Empire.

Therefore, and as it happens with regard to the possible findings that could arise supporting the other hypotheses about the origin of chess, nothing is set in stone yet. There is a wide field still to be explored. The historical search necessarily continues. We find ourselves following a path whose goal, being somewhat closer, cannot yet be clearly seen.

Part 1: Introduction | Part 2: India | Part 3: China | Part 4: Egypt Part 5: Myths, legends

Notes and references

[2] There is no agreement about the sequence that was given regarding the order of precedence of these Indian games. For Cox the chaturaji was first, while for Jones that place was occupied by chaturanga. From Murray onwards this last theory has been imposed. Forbes even speculated that the chaturaji, rather than a game, could only be a chaturanga position, in its four-person mode, which is verified when one of the participants captures two of the three rival kings. In Theory of the Games it is usually discussed, without conclusive answer, which sequence should be more probable: if the evolution goes from simplification or instead if goes in the search of a greater complexity. In the first case the chaturaji should be prior; on the contrary it would be chaturanga. An analysis of this kind has been made about the order in which conventional chess and Tamerlane´s chess (or big chess) appeared. In the search for the correct explanation, we should not forget the existence of a four-handed chess, aided by two dice, with the known pieces (chariot, horse, elephant, king and pawns) on a 64-square board which is mentioned by the Arabic sage al-Bīrūnī in Ta'rikh al-Hind (Chronicles of India), a classic book dated in the year 1030, at http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/digital/collections/cul/texts/ldpd_5949073_001/ldpd_5949073_001.pdf

[3] The Kushan Empire was based ethnically on a tribe that came from China which, in a test of the prevailing syncretism, took for itself the Hellenistic cultural legacy and also incorporated concepts of Indian Shivaism.

[4] This author's position can be read in Chess – A living fossil, Colonia, 2001, at http://history.chess.free.fr/papers/Josten%202001.pdf.

[5] It has also been said that this elimination of the dice occurred in India itself when Hinduism (which had a more rigid view of the bets associated with dice) takes over cultural control with the Gupta Empire, which ruled the Indian subcontinent between the fourth and sixth centuries of the Christian era.

[6] Source: Pawns And Pieces: Towards the Prehistory of Chess, 2002, at http://history.chess.free.fr/papers/Samsin%202002.pdf.

[7] Because of this astrological connection, it is believed that many board games, including old versions of chess, were used as oracles.

[8] We have already seen that for Samsin the pawns are a Greek contribution, specifically of petteia. In his opinion, gyan chauper (chaupur), which would proceed from the Sacred Game of Ur, is the one that contributes the pieces. But there is a problem in this regard: pachisi is not such an old game, as it is usually located only starting from the fourth century of the Christian era, so that the time frame in which it could have been a predecessort of the game that was born on the silk route, although it exists, is too narrow. This is not the case of gyan chauper, which could have existed in prehistoric times.

[9] Source: Das königliche Spie, Leipzig edition, 1987, p. 19, quote taken from Josten's work.

[10] Always within the path of the Silk Route, it has been claimed that the meeting point of the games could have been an oasis in the current Chinese location of Kashgar (where the Kushán people once established a Kingdom); as Horst Remus speculates. Source: The origin of chess and the silk road, at http://silkroadfoundation.org/newsletter/volumeonenumberone/origin.html.

[11] There is a classical exception to this assertion: Persians recognizing the Indian paternity of chess. But this actually occurred in the context of proving their intellectual superiority and in the understanding that nard was superior to the game coming from India.

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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