A Game of Thrones - How Chess Conquered the World

By Salar Jung Museum

The game of chess was born in India during the Gupta dynasty in the 6th century. Today, more than 1500 years later, it is played in 172 countries. In this exhibit, curators from Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad take us on a tour of the story of chess.

Arabs Playing Chess (20th century)Salar Jung Museum

Two men in 19th century Awadh in North India are engrossed over a chequered board. Two hands are seen moving over the board, one after the other. This is a scene in the 1977 Hindi film ‘Shatranj ke Khiladi’ directed by Satyajit Ray. The film is based on a short story by Premchand. The characters Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Raushan Ali are playing and discussing the nuances of Chess, an ancient game with its origins in India.

Emperor Jahangir and Queen Noorjahan playing chess (20th century)Salar Jung Museum

A Peek into the Past

The game of chess was born in India during the Gupta dynasty in the 6th century. Today, more than 1500 years later, it is played in 172 countries. Chess is one of India’s contribution to world culture, with games played in the court of kings, to those played in villages, and now, is a professional sport. In this exhibit, curators from Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad take us on a tour of the story of chess.

Terracotta Dice (Indus Civilization), -2600/-1900, From the collection of: Lahore Museum
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The human child starts his life with lots of play. Play and gaming is a very basic human tendency and is found in every society of the world. Dice, gamesmen and remnants of brick game boards have been found at Indus Valley civilisation (2500-1750 B.C) sites.

Chess, Hansel Mieth, 1939-12, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Chess or the precursors to chess were both a pastime and a part of learning. Chess pieces were originally arranged in the chaturanga like an army in battle: infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariots. This evolved into the modern pawn, knight, bishop and rook.

Prince and princess playing chess (19th century)Salar Jung Museum

Playing chaturanga helped young princes to learn military strategy!

Chess Tournament, Hansel Mieth, 1939-12, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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The equipment needed to play the game led to the fashioning of interesting and beautiful artefact-like boards, dice and chessmen in different media.

India has sculptures where gods and goddesses like Shiva-Parvati are seen playing a chess-like game and miniatures depicting Radha-Krishna enjoying a game of chaturanga.

De partij chaturanga (ca. 1805 - ca. 1815) by anoniemRijksmuseum

Women playing ''chaturanga'', miniature painting from early 19th century.

Chess Tournament, Hansel Mieth, 1939, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Here is an old stylised elephant or bishop piece.

Women Playing a Game of Chess, Unknown, circa 1700, From the collection of: Los Angeles County Museum of Art
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India has had other games like dice games, the pachisi or chaupar and ganjifa card games throughout its long history.

Notice the grid structure on the floor in this view.

The chaupar or pachisi boards were drawn on stone pavements. The game found mention in Bhakti (devotional) literature of India.

The Mughal court society was very fond of the game. Emperor Akbar built Fatehpur Sikri near Agra, India which had an exterior pachisi board and the game pieces were beautiful women!

Notice another checkered pattern on the floor outside the Buland Darwaza at the same fort at Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, India.

Emperor Jahangir and Queen Noorjahan playing chess (20th century)Salar Jung Museum

In this modern time painting done in miniature style, are seen Emperor Jahangir and Queen Noorjahan playing a game of chess in their courts.

"Buzurjmihr Masters the Hindu Game of Chess", Folio 639v from the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp "Buzurjmihr Masters the Hindu Game of Chess", Folio 639v from the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp (ca. 1530–35) by 'Abd al-Vahhab|Abu'l Qasim FirdausiThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Journey of the Game 

Chess is a game of strategy made up of different elements played on a chequered board. The game travelled to Persia from India, and there have been references to the game as early as 600 A.D in a Persian manuscript. Persia is from where the Arabs took it to the Islamic world. The game became 'Chatrang' in Persian and 'Shatranj' in Arabic.

Chess players, 19th century, From the collection of: Salar Jung Museum
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Through the Moorish conquest of Spain it spread to Europe around 800 A.D. The game became popular all over Europe including Russia and was mentioned in stories by 1300 A.D.

The game being patronised by the nobility was called the ‘’royal game’’.

Chesspiece, King, 20th century, From the collection of: Salar Jung Museum
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Here is a chessman, King, in painted wood from England, from the 20th century.

鈴木春信画 将棋・三十六歌仙 「中納言兼輔」|A Young Woman and Man Playing Shōgi (Japanese Chess); Chūnagon Kanesuke, from a series alluding to the Thirty-Six Poetic Immortals (Sanjūrokkasen), Suzuki Harunobu, ca. 1767–69, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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The chess–pieces acquired different names as it moved across the world. The game reached the Far East through the Silk route and Buddhist pilgrims where it got its Oriental version where is its played on the intersection of lines with inscribed disks, than within squares. This variation is seen in Chinese chess and 'Shogi', which is Japanese chess known as the Game of Generals.

This image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows a young woman and man playing Shōgi (Japanese Chess); by Chūnagon Kanesuke, from a series alluding to the Thirty-Six Poetic Immortals (Sanjūrokkasen).

Chesspiece, Pawn, 18th century, From the collection of: Salar Jung Museum
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A chess-piece representing a pawn, carved from ivory. From China, made in the 18th century.

Chesspiece, 18th century, From the collection of: Salar Jung Museum
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A chessman in coloured ivory from the Qing dynasty of China, made around the 17th or 18th century.

The Vizier Buzurghmihr Showing the Game of Chess to King Khusraw Anushirwan, Page from a Manuscript of the Shahnama (Book of Kings), Unknown, 1525-1575, From the collection of: Los Angeles County Museum of Art
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The original Indo-Arabic game changed in some ways with changes in the moves in the 15th century and this is when the modern version evolved.

1855, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Modern tournament games began in the second half of the 19th century. It has been a global game since then, with the first international tournament held in 1851.

Bernard Hoffman, 1868-12, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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The first World Chess Championship was held in the year 1886. During the 20th century, the World Chess Federation was established.

Chessboard Pattern with Chess-Pieces, Karen Arnold, early 21st century, Original Source: www.publicdomainpictures.net
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In the 21st century there have also evolved Internet Chess games in addition to the organised tournaments.

There is now a world governing body for Chess, Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE) with headquarters at Athens in Greece.

Rec. Game. Board. Chess. (1901)LIFE Photo Collection

Chess in the written record

Chess was written about in manuscripts and a printed book has survived dated to 1496/7, 'Arte de axedres' by Luis de Lucena from Spain. Thomas Hyde, Orientalist from Oxford, wrote a book in Latin, 'De Ludis Orientalibus', about Indian games in 1694. 

Advertisement for Chessboards, 19th century, From the collection of: Salar Jung Museum
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Chess was depicted in 'The Gentil album of drawings of Indian life and customs' in 1774. Sir William Jones, English philologist, Orientalist and jurist wrote an essay, 'On the Indian game of Chess' in 1790.

Here is an advertisement for chessboards from England, from the 19th century.

Printed Book on Chess from 1849, 19th century, From the collection of: Salar Jung Museum
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The Salar Jung Museum Library has books on chess from the 19th and 20th century.

Miniature chess table, 1901/1999, From the collection of: Salar Jung Museum
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Chess, as seen previously, has been depicted in few Mughal and Pahari miniature paintings of India.

Here is a miniature chess table from the early 20th century.

A title in Urdu published in 1900 from Delhi, 'Gunchae Nishat', by Billa Quaddas talks about chess. A manuscript titled Qawaid wa dawabet-e-shatranj by Sayyid Mostafa ‘Shatir’ in Urdu language, scribed in 1312 Hijri on chess is available at the Salar Jung Museum.

Marble Chessboard, 19th century, From the collection of: Salar Jung Museum
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As mentioned earlier, the short story 'Shatranj ke Khiladi' or The Chess-Players, by Hindi writer Premchand in 1924 is an acclaimed 1977 film of the same name, by noted film-director Satyajit Ray set against 19th century Awadh, a tale of two chess players obsessed with the game during the reign of King of Awadh Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and the backdrop of the British trying to annex his kingdom, with James Outram as the General.

Here is a 19th century chessboard in marble from India.

Registan In Samarkand, Ussr Public Square by Howard SochurekLIFE Photo Collection

A collection of chessmen called the Afrasiab collection has been found near Samarkand, Uzbekistan - a historically important city of Central Asia on the Silk Route, the old trade route between China and the Mediterranean.

This photo is of Registan public square in Samarkand, Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR, now commonly known as Uzbekistan), by Howard Sochurek.

Wooden Chessboard in a Box (20th century)Salar Jung Museum

Game of Strategy

Chess is played between two players. A chessboard, consists of 64 squares having eight rows and eight columns. The squares are alternately light and dark coloured. The collection of Salar Jung Museum & Library, Hyderabad has some unique pieces of this old, old form of strategic game. 

Chess Tournament, Hansel Mieth, 1939, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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One player plays with the light coloured pieces, the other plays with the dark coloured pieces. Each player has sixteen pieces in the beginning of the game: one king, one queen, two rooks, two bishops, two knights, and eight pawns.

Chesspiece, King, 18th century, From the collection of: Salar Jung Museum
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The Chessman King is called 'Shah' in Persian and Arabic and 'Raja' in India. The Queen is 'Rani', or 'mantri' and 'vazir' in Persian and Arabic.

Here's a chess-piece in jade representing King, from India, made in 18th century.

Chesspiece, Bishop, 19th century, From the collection of: Salar Jung Museum
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The Bishop is the 'gaja' (elephant) or 'hathi' in India and 'fil' in Persian and 'Al-fil' in Arabic.

Here is a chesspiece, Bishop, in porcelain from Austria, from the 19th century.

Chesspiece, Knight, 19th century, From the collection of: Salar Jung Museum
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The Knight is 'ghoda', 'ashva' (horse) in India, 'Asp' in Persian and 'Fars' in Arabic.

Here is a Knight in porcelain from Austria, from 19th century,

Chesspiece, Knight, 20th century, From the collection of: Salar Jung Museum
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Here is another Knight, in painted wood from England, from around 20th century.

The Knight is known for it's unique movement of two and a half squares, or the 'L' shape.

Chesspiece, Rook, 20th century, From the collection of: Salar Jung Museum
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The Rook is 'ratha' (chariot) in India, 'Rukh' in Persian and Arabic.

Here is a Rook in painted wood from England, 20th century.

Chesspiece, Pawn, 19th century, From the collection of: Salar Jung Museum
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Lastly, the Pawn is 'padati' in India and 'Piadeh' in Persian and 'Baidaq' in Arabic.

Here is a Pawn in banded stone from India, around 19th century.

Chesspiece, Pawn, 19th century, From the collection of: Salar Jung Museum
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Another Pawn, made from rock-crystal from India, 19th century.

Chesspiece, 19th century, From the collection of: Salar Jung Museum
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A chessman made in coloured ivory from England, 19th century.

Chesspiece, Pawn, From the collection of: Salar Jung Museum
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Here's another Pawn piece in coloured ivory from 17th century India.

Marble chessboard on a wooden stool, 19th century, From the collection of: Salar Jung Museum
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There are different moves for each chessman as per rules pertaining to the game. The rules of early chess were somewhat different from the modern version. The changes happened 500 years after chess reached Europe.

The journey and popularity of chess can be gleaned from these amazing images of chess boards, paintings, chessmen and chess-pieces in different media.

Do have a look through Salar Jung Museum's gallery!

Time Covers -The 80S (1983-04-18)LIFE Photo Collection

The Future of Chess

More recently, humans have trained computers to play chess against humans, and even against other computers. 

Viswanthan Anand, Chess Grandmaster, Wolfgang Jekel, 2016, Original Source: Wolfgang Jekel, Flickr
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Vishwanathan Anand is India's shining star in the world of chess. Born in 1969 at Chennai, in South India to Tamil parents, he became India's first International Grandmaster in 1988. He has learnt chess from his mother.

He has inspired many young minds to take up the challenging game!

Garry Kasparov, Ted Thai, 1997-02, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Anand's main opponents have been Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov and Vladimir Kramnik.

He won the FIDE World Championship in 2000, 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2012. He earned the name ''Lightning Kid'' for his quick moves in chess.

Gjon Mili, 1940, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Computer programs have beaten human chess players. Alan Mathison Turing from London England, born 1912, was the first to develop a computer program for playing chess in 1951. It was slow and only he used it to make the moves.

In 1988, at California's Long Beach a computer called Deep Thought developed at Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania, USA and later at IBM, beat an International master, Bent Larsen. Deep Thought was second in line to a chess computer ChipTest developed by Feng-hsiung Hsu and his team at IBM. This culminated into the Deep Blue super-computer. In 1997, IBM's Deep Blue super-computer beat Garry Kasparov.

Space Chess by Yale JoelLIFE Photo Collection

Enter modern Artificial Intelligence where computer programs are set to learn using a system called neural networks - in December 2017, unaided by humans, DeepMind's AlphaZero computer program mastered the game in just four hours of self-play and went on to defeat the best chess playing computer programs like AlphaGo, which learnt the game through a magnitude of human moves.

Only time will tell if the human element will remain in chess!

Credits: Story

Credits for exhibit:

Script, Curation, and Compilation - Soma Ghosh

Photography - M. Krishnamurthy and Bahadur Ali

Research Assistance - Dinesh Singh

Special thanks to - Dr. A. Nagender Reddy, Director, Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad.


References and image attributions

- The Art of Play: Board and Card Games of India, Topsfield,Andrew, (ed.), Mumbai: Marg Foundation, 2006.

- The new Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, London: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 2010.

- www.wikipedia.org

- Supporting images in this exhibit courtesy LIFE Photo Collection, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lahore Museum

- Panoramic view of Fatehpur Sikri in Agra courtesy Archaeological Survey of India

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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