Vol. 14
May Issue
Year 2013

Off the Beaten Track

in Vol. 14 - May Issue - Year 2013
The King Is Lost!

Medieval chessmen carved in walrus ivory

13th century knights playing chess

The page boys moved quietly among the chairs, carefully refilling their masters’ goblets. Although the banquet hall was packed with people, total silence reigned as all eyes were fixed on the competition taking place at the center of the room. Two knights sat at opposite sides of a small square table, motionless as they concentrated on a series of carved ivory pieces placed on a checkered board.


So simple to learn and yet so complex in its strategies, the game of chess is played by millions of people the world over. It’s not necessary to be an expert player to appreciate the beauty of the game, since matches played in family living rooms or on public park benches generate the same interest and enthusiasm as encounters at international championships.
Although there are competing hypotheses concerning the origins of the game, chess appears to have descended from a game called chaturanga developed in India in the sixth century AD. In Sanskrit chaturanga means “four parts” or “four divisions”. In epic poetry it referred to a battle formation composed of infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariotry. These military units would gradually evolve into the modern chess pieces known as pawn, knight, bishop and rook, for indeed chaturanga was a battle simulation game used by generals to develop military strategy.
In the sixth century the game spread from India to Persia, where it became known as chatrang and used to educate local nobility. Here players started calling “Shâh!” (“king!”), when attacking the opponent’s king and “Shâh Mât!” (“the king is lost!”), when declaring that the opponent’s king could not escape attack. These two exclamations were adapted as the game spread to other countries and became “check!” and “checkmate!” in the English language.
Many of the modern names for chess pieces also come from the Persian language, such as, for example, the English word rook, which comes from the Persian rukh, meaning chariot. Other piece names are simple translations from the original Persian or Sanskrit words.
At about this time in history the game appears to have spread in two directions simultaneously, carried eastwards by pilgrims and traders following the Silk Road into China and westwards with the Arab conquests of Persia, Northern Africa and parts of Southern Europe. Along the way, the rules of the game changed continuously, along with the shape and the figure of the pieces.
After the Arab conquest of Persia in the seventh century, the game became known as shatranj, since the Arabic language cannot render the final “ng” sound in chatrang.
As the game continued to spread towards the west, the development of its name took a curious turn. Due to Arab influence in the tenth century, shatranj became ajedrez in Spanish, xadrez in Portuguese and zatrikion in Greek, but in the rest of Europe the name remained faithful to the Persian word for “king” (shah) and became Schach in German, échecs in French, scacchi in Italian and similar variations in other European languages.
By the seventh century the game of chess had moved eastwards to Mongolia, from where it was introduced to Russia. At the same time, chess was transformed into a game called xiangqi in China and shogi in Japan, where an important change in the rules was introduced to allow captured pieces to be reused by the captor as part of the captor’s forces.
Chess spread as far east as the most isolated parts of Siberia, where the game has been recorded among local populations. Apparently it was carried by ancient Siberian tribes across the Bering Strait, since chess pieces have been collected from the Yakutat people in Alaska.

By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN & Sales Manager, Pometon Abrasives

Author: Giovanni Gregorat