The Meaning of Chess

The history of chess goes back a very long way. Many thousands of years ago – no one knows exactly when – people began to satisfy their need for play by fabricating primitive game boards, marking lines on them, arranging little objects like stones or pieces of wood on the squares (or on the intersections of the lines) and moving these objects around. In this way the game of draughts and many others arose. Illustrations of such games have been discovered in the ancient Egyptian pyramids. They are mentioned in old songs and sages. One Chinese game is said to date back four thousand years: the game of chess has been known in India for more than two thousand. The Indian form of chess gave rise to large number of games that are widespread across Asia.

Indian chess travelled across Persia and penetrated to Europe. The rules of game changed – they were made more rational. Chess underwent its last significant change about four hundred years ago in Italy. But it still took a long time for the new rules to gain universal acceptance in Europe. What became “European” chess is now widely disseminated in all parts of the world.

In India, chess was an image of war. The chess board figured as battlefield. The pieces were divided between two hostile camps that were distinguished from each other by their colors (black and white). The classification of pieces according to their types of weapon was modeled on the ancient Indian army. At the head of the army stood the king, and it was for his life that the battle was fought. The army consisted of fighting elephants and horsemen, distinguished by their great strength and mobility, as well as lightly armed infantry. The pieces on the chessboard were moved by the players in keeping with prescribed rules. Each player strove to eliminate his opponent’s pieces and reach the enemy king, in order finally to “put him to death”.

With the passage of time, the character of real war changed. The time when the life of one person – the king – was the prize of stake in the battle, receded into the distant past. So did the time when army elephants had taken part in hostilities. Yet the game of chess still retained the character it had had at birth. Every day, a chessplayer moving his pieces according to the established rules can view himself as a warlord in battle where success depends on how well he has devised his plan. If we wanted to represent modern warfare in chess, we would need to alter all of the rules of the game. The players, however , would gain precisely nothing from such an alternation, because what interests them is purely the execution and evaluation of cleverly conceived plans; and any rules that make this possible will serve – provided they are acknowledged by both opponents and strictly observed by them. All the better when the game possesses a very long history and a vast literature, from which advice and instruction may be gleaned.

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