Place of Chess in Culture – History of Chess as a Culture

Have you ever wondered what the place of chess in Culture has been in ancient times? Chess culture played a large role in the early cultural development of Iran and East Asia. Online chess culture is a recent phenomenon that only took place centuries later.

The Place of Chess in the Culture of Iran

A Pahlavi epical treatise about the founder of the Sassanid Persian Empire, mentions the chess like game of chatrang as one of the many accomplishments of the legend and hero, Ardashir I. Ardashir was also the founder of the Empire. The oldest record of chess culture is a recorded game that took place in the 10th century. The game was played between a pupil and a historian from Baghdad.

It seems that the role that chess played in culture is that it, like art, imitated life. Chess cultures, like literature helped historians’ reenacts battles and sharpen minds. In the eleventh century, Ferdowsi describes a Raja (who visited from India) that re-enacted their past battles on the chessboard. There is an English translation in the British Museum of this event.

The translation states:

“One day an ambassador from the king of Hind arrived at the Persian court of Chosroes, and after an oriental exchange of courtesies, the ambassador produced rich presents from his sovereign and amongst them was an elaborate board with curiously carved pieces of ebony and ivory…. The courtiers were shown the board, and after a day and a night in deep thought one of them, Bozorgmehr, solved the mystery and was richly rewarded by his delighted sovereign.”

The history of chess culture, just like all other cultural trends, has altered greatly since the times of chaturanga. The chess pieces used to be ornate pieces of art depicting animals. The Islamic sets were normally made of simple clay and carved stone. Later Islamic trends led to abstract shaped chess pieces with assigned names as Islam forbids human beings and animals being depicted in art.

The Place of Chess in the Culture of East Asia

The object of the Chinese chess culture history variation is similar to Chaturanga, for example to capture your opponent's king or ‘general’. Chinese chess in culture also borrows elements from the board game ‘Go’. Owing to the influence of Go as part of Chinese chess is played on the board line intersections, rather than in the squares. Chinese chess pieces look more like checkers pieces, as they are usually flat and round.

Joseph Needham says that "image-chess," was developed in China and spread to India, where it grew and evolved into the form of modern military chess. Image chess as culture is a recreational game associated with divination. Needham states that dice were transmitted to China from India, and were used as part of the game of "image-chess."

Another opposing theory contends that chess culture arose from Xiangqi or one of its predecessors, existing as part of Chinese culture since the second century BC. A retired accountant called David H. Li, who is a professor of accounting and translator of ancient Chinese texts, states that, in his opinion, General Han Xin was inspired by the earlier game of Liubo, and used it to develop an early variety of Chinese chess in the year 204 BC.

It seems that chess is so interwoven with the culture and history of many countries that it is rather difficult to say where it originated. Just as it will also probably be difficult to determine exactly when and where online chess culture started in the twentieth century.