Shah Mat! The Global Origins of Chess in War and Diplomacy | History Hit

Shah Mat! The Global Origins of Chess in War and Diplomacy

Manuela Gressani

21 Feb 2022
A 14th-century illustration of the Persian chess-master Buzurgmihr beating a dejected Indian envoy at chess while the Shah watches
Image Credit: CPA Media Pte Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Today, chess is played in international tournaments, with standardised scoring systems and world-wide rankings. We all know chess, maybe from after-school clubs or maybe from TV shows and movies. Many will be familiar with the rules of the game. Fewer will know its history, and fewer still may envision how intertwined with military strategy and global diplomacy it truly is.

In fact, while we now associate it with intellect, quick thinking and mathematical skill, chess was originally linked with battle tactics, imperial leadership and martial prowess. It travelled across continents through conquests, mercantile exchange, and diplomatic missions, adapting to each new environment quickly and seamlessly.

Four branches

The earliest mentions of the game come from 6th century India, where it was known as chaturanga, (literally: ‘four limbed’). Although the exact rules remain hazy, we know it was played between two or four players, on mostly unchequered boards of 64 or 100 squares. Each player had sixteen pieces: a raja, or king; a mantri, minister or counsellor; two ratha, chariots; two gaja, elephants; two ashva, horses; and eight padati, foot soldiers.

This division of roles reflected the four branches of the ancient Indian army: chariotry, elephantry, cavalry, and infantry. Lead by the king and his main advisor, these four factions had to work as one to fight and win on the battlefield. Even the name of the game, chaturanga, points to this sense of unity and harmony: each ‘limb’ smoothly operating in unison with the rest of the body.

Prince Aurangzeb faces a maddened elephant named Sudakar, attributed to Govardhan, c.1635

Image Credit: Historic Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Contemporary ancient Indian texts on war theory reveal that this ability of armies to move and act together was considered pivotal to success in battle. Furthermore, such treatises frequently link chaturanga with military ideas and guidelines. In fact, chess was very much understood as a way for princes and kings to learn, practice, and perform martial leadership and strategy.

Often played in front of an assembled court, chaturanga was therefore an elite pastime used to educate heirs to the imperial throne, to cultivate their wartime smarts and, during periods of peace, to display the king’s prowess away from the battlefield.

The layout of the pieces, for one, was directly connected to warfare: it mirrored battle formations and manoeuvres that could be enacted on fields of war. The starting position that was popular in the 6th century (which wasn’t too dissimilar to the one we use today), corresponds with the ancient Indian ashauhini formation, which was known for its carefully balanced ratio of soldiers on horseback to war elephants to charioteers to foot soldier.

Just war

Chess also helped to develop ideas about war that remain central to our understanding of armed conflict even today. For instance, the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata, which sought to pass on dharma (Hindu moral law) as well as itihasa (historical wisdom), lays out the main principles of just war.

It condemns the use of unfair means, like poisoned or barbed arrowhead; it forbids attacks on defenceless civilians; and it directs victors to provide human treatment for all prisoners, abled and wounded alike.

Buzurjmihr masters the Hindu Game of Chess, folio 639v, Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, c.1530-1535, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Image Credit: Public Domain

These ideas stayed connected do the game of chaturanga even as it travelled out of India. Indeed, in the 7th century, chess arrived to Sassanid Persia, where is quickly became central to princely education, alongside horse riding, calligraphy, poetry, mathematics, archery, and more.

The story, narrated in the Shahnama (a Persian epic that recounts the fantastical and real history of ancient Iranian kings and heroes), goes that an Indian ambassador reaches the imperial Sassanid court bearing a gift of a chessboard. He issues a challenge to the Persian court: to figure out how the game was played and what the role of each piece was. It takes a whole day and a whole night, but the clever Persian vizier manages to come to the correct answer.

The king is in danger

From then on, chaturanga became known in Persia as shatranj; it was played widely across royal and educated circles, and a couple of rules were added. Most importantly, this is where it becomes customary to warn one’s opponent when their king is under attack. The phrase was shah mat, the king is in danger. Our English term ‘checkmate’, and even ‘chess’ itself, are directly derived from the Middle Persian language.

From Persia, chess travelled in multiple directions: it went back east, along mercantile routes, to China and then Japan; it went further west, across the Islamic empires of North Africa, and was introduced into continental Europe as they conquered the Spanish peninsula.

Chess set from Iran, 12th century

Image Credit: agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo

Therefore, by the turn of the 9th century, chess had become known across the whole Eurasian landmass. Called xiangqi in China, shogi in Japan, and ajedrez in Spain, chess adapted to its surrounding social and cultural settings.

Fortifying the game

Nevertheless, its roots in Indian military thought remain: in Europe, the counsellor piece morphed into a queen to better represent the political structures present across Medieval kingdoms. To appease the Christian church, bishops were introduced, and chariots became rooks, reflecting the role of castles and fortifications in European warfare.

Similarly, in China, kings become generals, cannon pieces are added, and the board adapts to fit a river and a castle feature, all frequent elements of local armed conflicts and military training.

Treatises on strategies and popular moves begin to circulate, and, slowly, chess starts to shed it associations with war and royal leadership to become a leisurely activity enjoyed by everyone.

Thus, the game we know today has a long and convoluted history, full of stories of conquest, of global encounters, and of strategic moves. It is surprising, therefore, to see how constant gameplay has remained. Our pieces, although a little different in appearance to those of a 6th century Indian prince, stand in to enact the same aim: to check our adversary’s king.

Manuela Gressani