The Origin of Chess: from the texts

L'origine des échecs : d'après les textes


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At first sight, texts are much more reliable than tradition for historians. However, the most extreme caution is necessary, here too. Ancient texts are known to us only from copies, or even quotes, made sometimes several centuries after their composition. The risk that the copyist had tried to "improve" the original source is high. Then, any copy, any manuscript should be compared with other copies. If some exists of course, and this is often a problem.

However, this is true for many chapters of History, not only for Chess, and we should work with that.

Ancient Persian texts

The oldest known texts evoking Chess are Persians. No less than 3 different texts, written in pahlavi (medium Persian) indicate that the game was in favor at the Sassanian court.

The oldest of them is the Wizârîshn î chatrang ud nîhishn î nêw-ardakhshîr (The explanation of Chatrang and the invention of nard), writtenaround year 600 AD (according to Panaino's study). This texts tells the arrival of Chatrang at Khusraw 1st (531-579) Anôsharwân, immortal soul, with a rich embassy from Dêwisharm, king of Hind.

The next one is the Kârnâmag î Ardakhshîr î Pâbagân (The book of the achievements of Ardakhshîr, son of Pâbag), certainly composed under Khusraw 2nd Parwêz (590-628). The third one is the Khusraw î Kawâdân ud Rêdag (Khusraw son of Kâwâd, and his page), also written at the beginning of the 7th century under the Sassanian rule. All these sources demonstrate that Chatrang game was known and familiar, at least for the aristocratic class, as soon as the beginning of the 7th century and maybe even at the end of the 6th.

Soon after, the Arabs seized the Persian empire. They also adopted what became Shatranj. The first Arabian text evoking it was an al-Farazdaq's poem published in 728. Then, full treatise with rules and science of play appeared in the 9th century.

Ancient Indian texts

The Vinayapitaka is a Buddhist text composed between the 4th and the 3rd century BC which evokes ashtâpada. However, that term is not related to Chess here. It means a 8x8 board used for a dice game and we don't even know if gaming pieces are used (not even a spiral race game as affirmed by Murray as there is no evidence at all for that either). Another famous work composed before our era, the Râmâyana, mentions the word chaturanga. But, here it has a military meaning, referring to the army composed of four members (infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariots). There is no relation with Chess yet.

That situation with pahlavi texts before the 7th century contrasts with sanskrit sources which, since their discovery, have been refuted one by one. Since Murray's time (i.e. 1913), one could expect that more texts would be available ... as a matter of fact, nope, it is just the opposite.

Murray was citing the Vâsavadattâ of Subandhu written around 620, but the reference to a game is much too vague to recognize Chess there. Modern historians generally do not count this text as a valid source for Chess.

The, there is only one sanskrit text in that period associated with Chess, the Harshacharita, but it is now controversed as well. This text is the official history of king Harsha Vardhana of Kânyakubja, modern Kannauj. Written by the court poet Bâna who expressed his satisfaction with the king "Under this monarch, only the bees quarreled to collect the dew;  the only feet cut off were those of measurements, and only from ashtâpada one could learn how to draw up a chaturanga, there were no cutting off the four limbs of condemned criminals...". All the text plays with puns. If there is little doubt that ashtâpada is the gaming-board of 8x8 squares, the double meaning of chaturanga, as the four folded army, is controversed. Some believe that the ancestor of Chess was mentioned there. However, others disagree and see in this text an allusion to the giant Purusha, often represented with his limbs folded or cut on a square 8x8 or 9x9 diagram. The vedic mythology says the Gods caught him with a net, and with his sacrifice, the World was created. Here could lie the explanation of the pun. It is impossible to be conclusive with this text only.

The giant Purusha

It is remarkable that despite India possesses a very rich litterature where mentions of games are quite frequent, the first firm allusion to Chess is found around 850 only (Two texts as a matter of fact and both from Kashmir, the Haravijaya (The Victory of Shiva) by Ratnâkara and the Kâvyâlamkâra (The ornaments of poetry) by Rudrata). And they were short mentions only. This long silence is troubling.

The first technical and comprehensive description of Chaturanga is the Mânasollâsa, or "Joy of the mind", from the Somesvara. He was a South Indian prince in the beginning of the 12th century. This is a quite late date if India is the country were Chess began.

Ancient Chinese texts

Associated ideograms xiang and qi are found in the sense of game in very old texts like the Zhaohun (Summons of the soul), a poem by Song Yu figuring in the famous Chuci an anthology from 3rd or 2nd century BC. Another example is the Shuo yüan of Liu Xiang from 1st century BC. However, the game which they are about is not known. It can not be proved that it is Chess and maybe it is something else such as Liubo. Part of the problem comes from the Chinese writing system. There are always several interpretations for an obscure verse of an ancient text.  Also, several ideograms have different meanings. Thus, xiang means elephant, portrait, image, phenomena, ivory, (see Banaschak, 1997)... Therefore, it is difficult to be sure that the read word is really that one which is looked for.

Another candidate is the Xiangjing (Classic of game of symbols), dated 569 and attributed to emperor Wu from Northern Zhou dynasty. This book is lost but its preface written by Wang Bao (died in 576) is extant. It can be seen that it is about an astronomical game named Xiangxi. At the same date, an other poem from General Yu Xin, the Xiangxifu, affirmed that the game had been invented by emperor Wudi (561-578). Was that astronomical game Chess or something else? Liubo again? It has not been proved it was Chess. But, honestly, it has not be proven that it was not Chess either. The question is not solved and remains open.

The first firm reference to Xiangqi as Chinese Chess is the Xuanguai lu (Book of marvels), written by Niu Sengru, state minister during the Tang dynasty around 805-808 and died in 847. This one presents no doubt as the move of several pieces is described. Some believes it evokes 3D figurative pieces, but this opinion is largely extrapolated, the text is not explicit at all about that. Another contemporary reference is a poem by Bo Juyi in 829 also evoking Chess. But, they are appearing at a rather late date in comparison with Persian texts.


As far as texts are concerned, Persia is ahead, China and India have few arguments but not with the same strength, at the present state of our knowledge.

Let's share the points:

  • Persia: 3 points
  • China: 1 point
  • India: 1 point.



 Les arguments présentés sur cette page sont développés dans L'Odyssée des jeux d'échecs, (Praxeo Editions, 2010).