The Fascinating History of Chess Pieces

Chess is so ancient that its ancestor games were born around the same time as the number zero in India’s mathematical enlightenment. The game has reinvented itself countless times since then and survived many controversies. Here, we will dive into the fascinating evolution of chess pieces and their names.

The Origins of Chess Pieces

Yes, it was a humble beginning: a story goes that the inventor of the game introduced it to a great king who was so impressed he offered the inventor any reward he wished. The inventor asked for one grain of wheat to be placed on the first square, two on the second square, four on the third square, and so on, doubling each time. The king agreed, but it wasn’t long before they realized that before you even made it half-way through the board, you’d run out of wheat.

The origin of the game is somewhat controversial, and there doesn’t seem to be one sure answer. Game pieces from a number of places around the world have been found from older, related, games. One such game was chaturanga, based on an Indian war epic.

In this Indian manuscript, Krishna and Radha play chaturanga.

Chaturanga had key pieces, and just like modern chess, they each had different abilities: elephants, chariots, cavalry, and infantry. While it has been difficult for researchers to sort out the many myths from the facts surrounding chess, and there is little archaeological evidence, it is sometimes suspected that chess was a spin-off of Chaturanga (see The History of Chess from Chaturanga to the Present Day, Ancient Precursors and Related Games, and A World of Chess).

Chess caught on in Persia, where it was a hit with the nobility. New rules came into play at this point. When a king was under attack, the attacking player was supposed to shout “King!” – and when the king couldn’t escape: “the king is helpless.”

A Persian manuscript that shows two chess players. The faces make it obvious who’s losing.

Doesn’t this make a lot more sense than the modern exclamations of “check” and “checkmate”? The only reason English speakers say these things, actually, is because of a strange mistranslation from Persian. In the West, the Persian “”Shāh!” sounded like “check!” and “Shāh Māt!” sounded like “checkmate!”

Chess on the Move: New Names and Rules in Europe

A few other things got lost in translation too. One theory suggests that the elephant piece confused people. Few Europeans even knew what elephants were, let alone a representation of a carved elephant tusk. The elephant turned into a bishop, and its range of motion was increased.

Chess was a changing game. Not only the names, but the rules and pieces themselves varied from place to place. If anyone started to lose, they could just say they were playing by different rules that were standard in their village, and it would be hard to respond to that.

Noble chess players, Germany, c. 1320 Source: Wikipedia/Public Domain
“Hey, you can’t just take a piece off the board when I’m about to win!” “My town, my rules.”

One of the more controversial versions of chess in the Middle Ages involved dice, which made the game look a too similar to gambling. The Church took a stand. Bishops were punished when caught playing chess, bans were passed, and priests were excommunicated. The element of chance in chess died out fast – and if it hadn’t, chess itself might have died out.

There’s a lot we don’t know about what those old chess pieces looked like, or what rules the clergy and aristocrats secretly played the game by. But there are a few surviving sets, including the Charlemagne Chessmen.

The Charlemagne Chessmen

Along with dice, the elephants were always an endangered species on the Western chessboard. Sometimes they turned up, and other times knights took their places.

The Charlemagne chessmen set is an example of one set that includes elephants. This might be a sign of its Kufric influences, though its history is largely unknown. You can see another difference from modern chess in its “pawns.” They are literally foot soldiers, complete with outfits and serious faces.

Echiquier de Charlemagne éléphant=fou CdM.jpg

Sadly, many of these pieces were destroyed in the French Revolution, so today we can only see 16. The surviving pieces point to a very different game from the one played today. It was a game not just about strategy, but about the beautiful stories and personalities of the pieces used in that strategy.

But that game was in for a change…

The Staunton Chess Set

Chess pieces threw off their hats, sent the remaining elephants to zoos, and wiped the expressions off their faces in 1849. The Staunton chess set had been patented. It probably looks familiar:

In this chess set, the names are mostly the same as in the Charlemagne chess set, but the look is completely new. Modern, clean, and simple, they were based on designs for architectural columns.

You can see why these chess pieces became so popular. Their simplicity means that they’re easy to recognize on the board. None of the pieces have personalities and stories the way the Charlemagne chessmen do. The Staunton set features pieces rather than chessmen.

We’re all used to the Staunton chess set now, along with the rules that have became standardized. It’s easy to take modern chess piece names and rules for granted – to forget that a few centuries ago, chess was still in the wilderness.

But even though unique looks and personalities in chess pieces became rarer after the Staunton chess set, their history is very much alive. Researchers make new breakthroughs all the time. In July 2019, they discovered a “warder” piece in an ancient chess set. And four other major pieces from this set – the Lewis Chessmen – remain to be found. It’s a fascinating field of history that continues to turn up surprises year after year.

The History of Chess Players

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