The greatest chess puzzle

by ChessBase
3/4/2004 – Where and when did chess originate? This is a question that has puzzled chess historians for centuries. Aryan Argandewal was confronted by it in, of all places, a Russian train, when a colonel with a disconcertingly pretty wife asked him to think about the origin of the game. Here are Aryan's conclusions.

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The greatest chess puzzle

By Aryan Argandewal

On a hot summer day of 2001 during my placement at Moscow State University of International Relations – the MGIMO – I received a phone call from an old friend who invited me to join her in a garden party that undergraduates organized to celebrate the end of final exams at the Law faculty of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) State University.

The Moscow underground

I left my MGIMO dormitory at ‘Prospect Vernadskogo 74’ early in a nice blue-skied Moscow morning, having passed the heavily guarded MGIMO entrance (where they check your ID every time you go in and out!), walked to the nearest Metro Station. I love overcrowded streets of Moscow. There’s something very lively about them. You see people who are literally fighting for their day-to-day survival but they do it with dignity and self-awareness. You see human endurance at its best.

A Moscow metro station

I ‘dived’ into the overcrowded Prospect Vernadskogo Metro Station, which, in itself is a reminder of the Russian love affair with art. You see, Moscow Metro stations are built so beautifully they remind you of London museum of Art! Seeing Russian men and women with huge multi-coloured bags (what do they carry in them anyway?) amidst this architectural ingenuity that is called Moscow Metro is a strange visual experience. From Prospect Vernadskogo it takes about 40 minutes to get to ‘Severnyj Vokzal’ (North-bound Railway Station). On the way I made a quick stop at Park Kultury (The Victory Park) station to stuff myself with two large chilly Burritos at a Pepsi fast-food kiosk.

The Komsomolskaya metro station

The Park Kultury metro

The Plshad revolutsii station

From the “Severnyj Vokzal” it takes between 8 and 12 hours to travel from Moscow to St. Petersburg, depending on which class of trains you are lucky to get on. As someone who very much knows his way round complicated Russian reality, I managed to get on a fairly fast train.

A Russian train is not much different from any Western apart, perhaps, from the fact they are all green-coloured (or maybe it seemed to me?), usually with a huge red star stamped all over its forehead and there’s something else: eye-contact is not followed by a social smile among Russians, hence you walk through the corridors constantly reminding yourself of the possible misunderstandings. Oh, and you have to walk “half a mile” down the car to get yourself a cup of coffee as there’s no room service.

So here I am sitting across a little table from a rather imposingly built middle-aged man possibly with a military past with his very attractive wife sitting alongside. There are three of us in the car. I am desperately trying to avoid any smile-related misapprehensions. As you can imagine it was not an easy task to strike up a conversation in the circumstances. But I kept hoping.

Russian long-distance trains

Ten minutes passed, we are now well on our way to the city on the Neva River that is St. Petersburg. I am not used to reading on a train or plane (unless it is a fresh issue of F1 Racing or Top Gear or Auto Car for that matter). I usually play against Fritz when I travel. But carrying a laptop on a Russian train is to expose yourself to a possible long stay at a nearby hospital...

Anyway, so I am sitting there wishing Chess Base built a spy version of X3D Fritz hidden in my glasses! But then something happened which is not terribly uncommon in Russia: my imposingly looking travel mate asked me: do you play chess? I almost froze from excitement and then almost cried: “Da konechno!” – Yes of course! And immediately I forgot my recently acquired manners and smiled! Bad habits hah? But so did he! And his good-looking wife said: well, here we go again, and he said: “a chto tut delat’ esche?” – What else can you do on a train?

He ‘dug out’ his exotic wooden chess set from a huge plastic bag of a sort and continued: "khorosho igraite?" – Do you play well? Why do people always ask this anyway, I thought to myself. “Da tak sebe, ne chego osobennogo” – average, nothing special, I answered. Russians are very modest people, so saying what I said could’ve stirred him up even more to beat me.

We played several games. I don’t think he expected to play so many games considering his strong unusual Trompovsky line, but we played the whole way to St. Petersburg. After the third or forth game I heard his voice as if in a deep hypnotic state: by the way did you know that chess was originated in your region? Really? – thinking to myself my opponent probably wants to break my concentration. I know of a story, I said, that has been attributed to every Asian nation there is – Afghanistan, China, India etc.

The story goes that a king assigned a mathematician to come up with a challenging entertainment project. After a while the mathematician came up with the game of Chaturanga. The game had two armies each led by a king who commanded the army to defeat the other by capturing the enemy king. The king loved the game so much he offered to give the man anything he wished for. “I would like one grain of rice for the first square of the board", said the man, "two grains for the second, four grains for the third etc." It turned that all the rice in the kingdom would not have sufficed to fulfil the quest. And so, the story goes, His Majesty decided to behead the man. Of course there are a good million versions of this story.

But how do you prove the authenticity of something as imaginary as this? The game has been around for so long that any nation can make an exclusive claim about their special relationship with the Royal Game. But my opponent – I nicknamed him Tovarisch Polkovnik (comrade colonel) – was convinced that chess in actual fact originated in the Central Asian region that covers Afghanistan and the former Southern Soviet Republics. "Well, look," he continued, "wherever you go in Asia you’ll find a bunch of guys like you and me sitting in a park or a Chai Khaneh (tea-house) with a few boards trying to prove who’s got the strongest mind among them. Isn’t that a fact?"

He was right. Chess truly represents something more than a game in that region. In Afghanistan there is no other form of board game but chess. In the Central Asian republics of the ex-USSR too, chess is very popular. But my personal account is that another game called “Shashki” which is a different sort of board game seems more popular among ordinary people in Tashkent, Dushanbe etc. That is of course not to say that chess is less of a sport there – it simply has a different and somewhat distant street audience.

Origin of chess

That was back in 2001 when I thought about the origins of chess for the first time. Until recently, that is, when my editor decided that I should explore the subject in detail.

When I began looking into the subject, at first sight it seemed a rather trivial task: all I need to do is to read a number of professional research works and cogitate on who sounds plausible and who’s trying to fish in the muddy water. This is precisely what I do when I write a report on a criminal case after a trial but here the circumstances are slightly different: if one tries to explore a subject of this complexity relying only upon one’s general knowledge of the game one may never succeed in finalizing one’s conclusions. Why? Because I am not a professional historian!

While researching for the purposes of this article I found out that there’s actually a generally accepted term: Chess Historian! Did you know that? Well, I didn’t. My understanding of this term is that there are full-time explorers of the origins of chess! This was my first shocking discovery. Furthermore, I found out that as early as 1991 an initiative group called Königstein (IGK) was founded, the sole purpose of which was to give Chess Historians the opportunity of presenting their research. The classical research on the origins of chess is essentially a study of archaeological evidence about Indian, Persian or Chinese origin of the Royal Game.

Having read an enormous variety of professional opinions I couldn’t help admitting to myself that I was most impressed with the ideas one of IGK members Gerhard Josten. In his 14 page long thesis “Chess – A Living Fossil” he presents probably the most convincing argument from a scientific perspective. The term ‘scientific’, however, is inevitably relative. The author, for quite obvious reasons, has to rely on hypothesis and circumstantial evidence. Chess, after all, has been around for a while! So any ‘scientific’ suggestion inevitably crosses the threshold of what is known as one hundred percent laboratory conditions.

I was impressed with Josten’s opinion because he sounds more chess-like. Okay, here’s what I mean by chess-like: whereas other chess historians talk more about historical ‘facts’, geography, astronomy (someone has actually come up with the idea that chess is a mathematical model of the cosmos!), Josten’s work is primarily devoted to the specific structure of chess as a game. Josten sites a number of chess historians:

  • Joseph Needham suggests that divination could be a common origin of numerous games. He believes that the developments started from Chinese divination techniques, which led to numerous variants of chess through the integration of further elements.

  • Pavle Bidev deduces that it was the Chinese game of chess that was at the beginning of all developments.

  • Yuri Averbakh shows how chess may have developed in India against a certain historical background through mutations of its own games and external cultural influences.

  • David H. Li thinks the Chinese Commander-in-Chief Hán Xin developed the prototype of all chess games during a military winter recess by combining the two old Chinese games of Liubo and Weiqi into a new game, Xiangqi.

  • Alex R. Kraaijeveld uses a biological approach. He investigates 40 variants of chess using phylogenetic methods and comes to the conclusion that it was not the Chinese game of Xiangqi, but very probably the old Indian game of Chaturanga which was the predecessor of all chess games.

Gerhard Josten concludes that these relatively modern approaches to the history of the origins of chess, however controversial they may be, justify the thesis that chess may have developed into a new game through the integration of elements of various games.

Living and extinct chess variants

The Kushan Empire has a central place in Josten’s work. The Kushans were particularly keen on merging elements of different cultures. It was the ‘liberal’ Kushan Empire where ideas could flourish, where all religions were permissible and well respected.

Here I have to say that every single professional opinion on the origins of chess that I’ve come across stresses, in one way or another the importance of the Silk Road as an undisputable merging factor. And this furthermore, makes Josten’s opinion sound plausible.

There is one thing I know for sure: we love chess whether it was invented in China, Persia or India. Chess is probably the only sport today that knows no boundaries: age, gender, race, nothing comes between chess and its followers.

So here’s to the Royal Game!


About me:

Aryan Argandewal. I am of Afghan origin. About 200 years ago Afghanistan was called Aryana. This is where my name comes from (Aryan-a, man from Aryana) My family is based in North America and Australia. I study Law at university of Surrey, England. I fluently speak: English, Russian and Persian, am able to read and write Japanese, Arabic and Pashto. Member of Guildford Chess Club, Surrey, UK.

Reports about chess: tournaments, championships, portraits, interviews, World Championships, product launches and more.


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