A critical review of:

"The Beginnings of Chess"

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Histoire des échecs



 In the long-awaited, finally and recently edited, "Ancient Board Games in perspective" (Edited by I.L.Finkel), there is a remarkable paper untitled "The Beginnings of Chess", written by Michael Mark.

Particularly well written, well informed, I do think that this article is the best that has been written upon Chess history for many years and I strongly recommend its reading for all those who are interested by the subject.

The paper can be downloaded here: "The Beginnings of Chess" (see remark at the bottom of this page).

Due to its high quality, I believe that it will make authority. Therefore, I think that it can be useful that I publish here my personal comments on this work. In the following lines I'm going to insist on the points where I disagree or where I take some distance: this is the very nature of a critical review, but on the overall my feelings are very positive.

An other reason why I've made this page, and I will start with that, is that Mark referred to me:

p151-r (means right column): "A similar approach is adopted in Cazaux 2001, where it is argued that an eastern form of chess was developed from material in the Chinese game liubo, and that ‘several elements were later borrowed by Persians or Indians to complete their own form of harmless battle game, from an existing substrate fertilised by a stable Hellenistic influence and Roman contacts’. Unfortunately, this is all pure speculation".

Some could think this is an harsh attack. Not me because ... I agree. In the referred paper (available here) I had written as a conclusion the following remark: "The argument which is developed in this paper is highly subjective. It aims at raising open discussions with researchers and enthusiast amateurs passionate by Chess history. Since my opinion has evolved and changed directions several times in the past last years, fluctuating with the rich and numerous contacts I had got, it is possible that I revise these views in future." Then, I can only regret if the mere ideas I developed in this paper have been taken as a theory, which they are not at all. This being said, I can get back to Mark's paper with my comments.

As a last foreword, I want to stress that English is not my mother tongue and I am commenting a work written in a perfect English. I beg the readers to forgive me and to be able to catch what I want to say and not simply reject my sayings because of the weird way they are said.

Also, my language has not all necessary nuances to avoid upsetting the people with whom I would disagree. I don't want to offence anybody.



p138-l: "The names and the moves of the pieces when we first encounter them (in Persia, in the Chatrang-namak, around ad 750–850)"

The Chatrang-namak does not give any indication about the moves. The names, yes, the moves no. Or I missed something. The moves which are given at this point of the paper are those of Shatranj, known by much later Arabic sources.

It is regretful that Panaino which made a very complete study of this fundamental text ("La novella degli scacchi e della tavole reale", Mimesis, Milano, 1999) is ignored. (But Mark apologizes with his postscript). With good arguments, Panaino dates this text to the period just before the fall of the Sassanian Empire, therefore 600-640. If this is true - and I believe it is - it will change a lot the conclusions drawn by Mark.

p138-l: "The Chatrang-namak offers no description of the rukh, although it describes every other piece".

No. The Persian text does describe every piece.

p139-l: "As will appear below, there is real evidence in favour of India which, while not conclusive, is stronger than that against it, and stronger than the case for any other place of origin".

The preference is clearly shown. The "real" evidence will not appear so real to me.

p139-r: "Bock-Raming 1993 and 1996 also points out that the inviolability of the king in chess reflects the position of the king in Indian warfare as early as the last centuries of the first millennium bc [...]. On the battlefield, this rule may have been more honoured in the breach than its observance, but the same temptations to disregard it are not present in a game."

There are several kings who die in epic or ancient Indian literature (ex: Chandragupta conquers Magadha in 313 A.D. by seizing Pâtaliputra and killing the last Nandâ king. Or, the last Maurya, Brihadratha was killed in 180 B.C. on the order of his chief general Pushyamitra, etc. - Jacques Dupuis 2005). So, although I have no authority on this matter, I prefer to keep some caution on this argument which does not seems so strong for me. There are other Chess variants in India where the King is killed. Chaturaji, i.e. Four-Handed chess, is a good example as it will be difficult to deny that it is Indian. Also, if that character were Indian only, how to explain that Persian, Arabs and Europeans have kept it? As far as I know the King was not sacrosanct in those three civilisations and that did not affect the rules of the game.

p139-r: "The name of the game in adjoining countries appears to be derived from chaturanga – chatrang in Persian, shatranj in Arabic, chanderaki in Tibetan are examples. This suggests that the game, as well as its name, came from India."

We can accept that chatrang comes from chaturanga. Shatranj comes from chatrang and its indirect link with chaturanga adds nothing to the argument here. For what concerns chanderaki, it is very much doubtful, see later.

p140-r: "The first clear literary reference to chess, and the only one which definitely antedates ad 850, is a passage in the Harshacharita, a contemporary account of the life of Harsha, the ruler of most of Northern India between ad 606 and 648."

It is not so clear. The full passage read: "only ashtapadas teach the positions of the four 'members,'  there is no cutting off the four principal limbs of condemned criminals". Some sees here an other allusion than the game chaturanga/chess. They see an allusion to the Purusha's pattern which are common in Indian mythology. Again, I am not an authority on Indian civilisation, but I think that this counter-argument deserves further investigation.

p140-r: "... or that Indians independently devised army manoeuvres or some other non-game called chaturanga on an 8 × 8 board, which subsequently turned into a game similar to that which had, hypothetically, developed independently in some other part of Asia. This last possibility seems implausible in the extreme, and one can therefore assume that the reference by Bana is to some form of the game".

If one remembers that the prime sense of chaturanga is "four members" and if Purusha's pattern were used at Bana's time, that possibility would be very plausible I fear.

p143-r: "She also shows how the two kings could easily have exchanged delegations"

As we have no proof of that exchange, it remains a speculation. I have nothing against speculation because emitting an idea is indeed a way to progress in understanding. I just note with a smile that some are allowed to speculate while others are not.

p145-r: "1. That there are very early references to chess in Indian literature, antedating references in other languages". See above (p140-r) what can be said about this. There is a possibility that this is not true.

p145-r: "1. Earliest references" It seems ignored that there are 3 and not 2 extant Sassanian texts about Chatrang. The missing one is the Xusraw î Kavâtân ud rêdak (Xusraw, son of Kavad, and his page). So 3 Persian texts (and Panaino does not agree that 1 can be significantly later), in front of 1 Indian text which is controversed.

p145-r: "It seems wholly unclear even to Persian scholars what the rukh originally was. Explanations have been put forward which, if correct, indicate that the piece has nothing to do with an army."

It is too bad that Panaino is ignored. For him that piece is the "cheek", the flank of the army. It is an officer who supervise the battle. My Italian knowledge is may be too limited to understand Panaino's long explanation between the Persian word Rox, which led to Rukh, with the Sanskrit Ratha. Whatever, I am not sure that the idea of Chariot was really absent in Persian and then muslim chess. There is a Chariot in the Afrasiab set which is the oldest known and Afrasiab was in a Persian land at that time. The idea of Chariot was also present when the famous Charlemagne set was carved in South of Italy with certainly some Muslim influence. Also, a Chariot is present in most of shatar, Mongolian chess, sets and shatar is most probably influenced by Muslim/Persian shatranj.

p145-r: "It is also to be remarked that even in the Chatrang-namak, where descriptions are included of all the other pieces, no description is given of the appearance of the rukh".

See p138-l above. I think this sentence is wrong. The Chatrang-namak describes the 6 types of piece. As Marks shows when he cites Murray p142-r!

p146-l: "There does not seem to be any Persian tradition that chess originated in Persia, which suggests that it did not begin there."

The difference between suggestion and speculation is not that big.

One could also say (ironically) that the long silence in Indian tradition before year 850, or at best between 600 and 850, suggests that chess was not played there. (I'm not thinking that)

p146-l: "In the contest between India and Persia as the original home of chess, therefore, one is left with the choice between an army game with pieces (all of which are associated with Indian armies) and a square or four-sided game, or a game called after a mandrake root, where one of the pieces, the rukh, appears to have no military significance"

Alas, this severe sentence spoils the objectivity of the paper. It could be rather said that we have the choice between either an army game with military pieces or a mythological pattern without relationship with a game, or an army game called after a borrowed foreign word, where all the piece have a military significance as well. The impact on the reader is not the same.

p146-r: "... xianqi. In the form in which it has existed in recent centuries, this is a version of chess played on an 8 × 8 board"

This point is made to insist that xiangqi may derive from the 8x8 board. I just want to point out that xiangqi is played over a 9x10 intersections board, which corresponds to a 8x9 squares board. Not 8x8. One will object that the river could be a later addition. But this will be a speculation (again) as no xiangqi board without river has been found. And even if it is true (because it is plausible), no one can assess that the river has been added, the river may have been just drawn by erasing some bit of lines. For instance, the board used in Korea which has no river, has ... 8x9 squares. Whatever, it can not be said that xiangqi was played over a 8x8 board.

p146-r: "In this work the pieces are identified as generals, horses, commanders, baggage-wagons, cannons and six pawns."

To be precise, the presence of cannons in this text is not well asserted, they are not named. It is only suggested by a sentence saying "On both sides stuff was unpacked, stones and arrows flew across". The fact that they were 6 pawns is not sure either because "six men in armour" can be also read "the men armed with six weapons". Prudence.

p146-r: "The name for chess in Tibet, chanderaki, and the Tibetan rules clearly derive from the Indian name and rules, and not the Chinese ones, indicating that the game reached Tibet from India, not China."

I personally spent a lot of time in tracking Tibetan chess. The article cites Murray (on p147r). But Murray has very poor information on that. So far, I even doubt that any indigenous chess is/was played in Tibet. See here my arguments. (I'll be glad to get any additional information). But, for the time being, I see this argument of Tibetan chess supporting an Indian origin as void.

On the contrary, it is strange that shatar, Mongolian chess, is never mentioned which is very well attested and documented. It seems to me rather obvious that the origin of shatar lies in shatranj, the chess game that was played by Persians among Muslims after the Arab conquest.

p147-l: "A phylogenetic approach to the origins of chess in Kraaijeveld 2000 also suggests that chaturanga is more likely to have been the origin of chess than xiangqi."

I am not sure that is a good argument. This phylogenetic approach is a scientific method which has been submitted by one single scientist (even though very respectable and serious) to a board of litterary scholars (also respectable and serious). I understand their enthousiasm, but having myself a scientif background and working daily in sciences, I would be more cautious. Without denying that the approach is interesting and can shine some light, I feel the choice of input data, the list of undertaken parameters, the way the model "plays" with them have not really been questionned. For instance, what are the characters taken into account to describe Chaturanga (which are known to have had many variants)? and for the Proto-Xiangqi? and what is the Aleut chess, the Tibetan chess, etc. I fear that by tuning differently some parameters or some weights a different conclusion could arise. I do not agree that all 109 characters taken for the analysis are of the same weight. The author of the article honestly stressed himself several limits to his approach. Finally, the absence of the Persian Chatrang among the 40 variants analysed is regretful, except if Chatrang is not distinguished from Chaturanga, and then, it would be wrong to use the result of this analysis to assess the ancestry of Chaturanga. At this point, this approach can not be a solid argument in favor of any thesis. Prudence is advised.

p148-l: "There is also some evidence for old Indian texts on chess which have not survived".

The same is true for Chinese texts. Example: Xiangjing (‘Classic of the symbol game’) dated from 569 and attributed to emperor Wu. Only the preface has survived. Mark mentions that himself later on in his paper.

p148-l: "The only surviving technical chess literature in the period up to ad 1000 is in Arabic. There can be no doubt that chess was popular in the Arab countries, and that its theory was both examined and written about, particularly in Baghdad, in a way that does not seem to have occurred either in Persia or in India."

One can object that 1) in 600 the Sassanian capital of the Persian Empire was Ctesiphon which lied few kilometres from ... Baghdad, 2) after the Arab conquest, the Persian adopted islam and were the leading contributor to the muslim civilisation. As a matter of fact many of those we call Arab writers or master of chess were Persians! Opposing Arabic and Persian literature and countries has no real sense. Arabic civilisation is the continuity of Persian.

p148-l: "It is true that no Indian chess pieces have been identified as dating from the years up to ad 1100, when the Muslim invasions began, but neither have they been identified from the period from ad 1100 to 1500."

This and what follows is true. But it is fair to note that the contrast with Central Asia and Persia is important. In addition to the Afrasiab set, many new pieces, certainly chess pieces, have been found, like in Afghanistan.

(So, in the "contest" it can be said ironically that we have the choice between India where no piece have been found prior to 1500 but were we have good reasons to think that they existed in the 10th century and Persian land (including Sogdiana and Bactria) were several have been found which dates 7th or 8th century. And China where several pieces have been found at latest from 1100. But I don't want to go on that path, it goes nowhere.)

p152-r: " it has been asserted that the original chariot move was stated by al-Adli, namely tow squares orthogonally along the ranks and files"

It may be not superfluous to precise that al-Adli was referring to the move of the Elephant, located at the corners of the board, in this case.


In the "clear evidence" that Mark wants his reader to see, one should accept that there is almost no old Indian texts because they may have not survived and no old chess piece because "there must be another reason" for their absence. One could dream of a clearer evidence.

For all the rest, I fully subscribe to what has been written. In particular that the two-handed game preceded the four-handed game. Also the bright explanations of "When and how did chess begin" and "Did chess evolve or was it invented". I strongly recommend this text to all interested readers.

As far as the question of the geographical origin is concerned, Michael Mark clearly puts himself as a supporter of the Indian origin. He does it brightly and that places him in a very honourable lineage, as a modern and valuable successor of Thomas Hyde, Sir Williams Jones, Duncan Forbes and H.J.R.Murray. It seems that every century, Britain get her zealous servant.

However, he doesn't bring any new evidence to reinforce the Indian claim. Therefore, whatever the high quality of this paper, I personally remain unconvinced that any specific Asian region is really the cradle of chess. North of India (Kashmir, Ganges valley) but also broad Persia (I mean linguistically, going as far as Sogdiana at North and Indus West bank at South) and maybe China, are still possible candidates.


if it causes any trouble to the editor or the author, I can remove the link to download Mark's paper immediately upon a single mail notice. But it is my opinion that Internet should be used to encourage the development and fertilisation of ideas and that access should be given to the largest number of people if possible.