NEW YORK – Two armies with one objective; the total surrender of the other. One move by your opponent equals another move by yours. Centuries in the making, chess is where kings and queens are always triumphant, until they’re not. It just depends on the moves and it’s not always so black and white.
In sixth-century India a competitive board game played by two people called chaturaṅga was introduced, although its origins may predate it to the third-century B.C. This military game included pieces representing a player’s military strength and its command structure from the king, his infantry, cavalry and even its mobility in the biggest advance in military technology, the chariot. Each piece had specific strategic importance and were quite lifelike showing the visage of a king, the troops and even horses and elephants. You moved specific pieces a certain number of spaces based on throwing a die. The object, then as it is now, was to capture or isolate the king.
Within 100 years, the game of military strategy was being passed along trade routes such as the Silk Road to Persia, where it was known as shatranj, to Russia along the Volga-Caspian trade route, where it was known as shakhmaty, then along the entire Arabian Peninsula. Since Islam doesn’t allow representation of people, the pieces became less lifelike and more of an abstract design. With the conquest of Spain by the Moors in the 10th century, the board game was introduced to Europe where the abstract design became more representational once again.
Changes in play
At first, a game of chess would be played for days. By the 14th century, the queen and bishop pieces were introduced. Pawns replaced the original military troops and their moves enhanced to two spaces rather than just the one. A die that was initially intended to add a bit of gambling to the game had long been lost and now only the individual pieces and their moves mattered.
By the beginning of the 16th century, the rules that we understand them were becoming standardized, but it still took hours for players to make a move. So, with exhibition chess becoming commonplace by 1834 a timer was added in 1861 to speed decisions along and games became quicker, not lasting for days, but usually in hours. A new competitive sport was born.
The Pieces Change
The change of play over the centuries is important to collectors because of the types of pieces used throughout its evolution. Early on, the individual pieces were made of materials usually available in the area it was played. In China and India, for example, ivory was a preferred material. In Africa, carved wooden pieces of ebony and boxwood were more prevalent. Europe produced more manufactured variations after the Industrial Revolution. While the material used was indigenous, the pieces themselves were at times noticeably carved with different representations and different names for the king, queen, chariot, footman and even bishop.
By 1849, though, a more standard set of pieces was needed for international exhibitions. Nathan Cook, an architect in London, redesigned the chess pieces to imitate classical Greek, Roman and Italian architectural details such as balustrades, pediments, and columns. The horse head for the knight, for example, may have been inspired by the chariot of Selene, the Moon Goddess as part of the Parthenon, as the story is told. This is the chess set that became standard.
Curiously, this redesign of all of the chess pieces is named for Howard Staunton, an influential authority on chess who organized the first international chess tournaments beginning in 1849. Today, the Staunton Chess Set, as it is known, is the only standard allowed for international play.
Before 1849, though, there were other versions of the chess set, some more unusual than the next. The most popular sets include the Calvert English chess set that featured more of a finial design popular from 1790 to 1840 that were made and sold by chess dealer John Calvert. The English Barleycorn chess set used unique carved bone for the white pieces and colored red bone for the dark pieces and was popular from 1820 to 1850. The Northern Upright chess set was popular from 1840 to 1860 where the pieces were rather slim and considerably top heavy, but it’s design was similar and may have inspired the Staunton design.
Even after standardization, chess pieces can still be found in all manner of geometric, representational, colorful, ornamental patterns. Historic battles can be refought with Civil War-inspired sets or imaginary contests in the Harry Potter, Star Trek or even professional wrestling patterns. Regional chess variants in Asia, the Americas, India, the Russian steppes, and the foothills of the Himalayas will always fascinate and inspire the competitive spirit.
Different materials are routinely used for chess pieces, too. They are carved from stone, wood, ivory, bone, onyx, jade and mother-of-pearl, molded from ceramic, glass and colorful plastic and even brightly lit by electronics and LED lights. Gold, silver, platinum and other precious metals have been made into highly valued chess sets on occasion.
But don’t overlook the variants of the chess board itself. While the 8×8 black and white chess board predominates, there are also boards that are hexagonal, multi-level, circular, 16×16 squares, rhombic and even a masonic version. According to Wikipedia, there are about 2,000 different chess boards available to create a unique collection all by itself.
Going to “war” has never been more enlightening than a game of chess. Whatever the age, strategy and conquest never gets old. Can the king survive? That’s a question that has been answered each time chess has been played for at least the last 2,000 years.