Your Chess Set – History and Variations

Although the clergy frowned on the game as being a wasteful and compulsive distraction from spiritual commitment, it became a popular pastime of the aristocracy. The game of chess increased in popularity until by the nineteenth century it was played in coffee houses in many European cities.

History and origins of Chess

The history of chess, specifically that of Western Chess, spans some 1500 years. The earliest predecessors of the game originated in India in the 6th century AD. It is no surprise to see then, that the intricate carving of some of the worlds most famous wooden chess sets are also the work of Indian Artisans.

Known in its original form as Chaturanga, Chess differentiates itself from other table or “war” board games in that, unlike Go or Checkers, the pieces do not all have equal powers.The precise rules for the game of Chaturanga are something of a mystery.

Many historians of this ancient game believe that Chaturanga had similar rules to those of its successor Shatranj. In particular, there is uncertainty as to the moves of the Gaja (elephant), the precursor of the Bishop in modern chess.

The Components of the Modern Chess Set

The modern western chess set is played by two people on a chessboard divided into 64 squares of equal size, alternately dark and light. Each player has 16 chess pieces; one king, one queen, two bishops, two knights, two rooks (or Castles) and 8 pawns.

These chess pieces are arranged in a specific pattern on the chess board and may move only according to strict rules of play.

For example, the most powerful piece, the queen, may move any distance along any unobstructed line of squares, forwards, sideways or diagonally. The knight may move two squares forwards and one square sideways or vice versa and the pawns can move forwards only one square at a time, except on the first move, when they may move two squares.

The Object of Chess

The object of the game is to place the opponent’s king in such a position that he can neither move nor remain still without being captured. When he is thus threatened, he is said to be in checkmate. The game of chess is played universally, and it is thought that it originated in India, from where it spread to China, Japan and Europe.

The earliest written reference to the game of chess was found in a Persian work, Karmanak, written in about AD 600. The modern rules of the game were formulated towards the end of the fifteenth century, Caxton wrote, “The Game and Playe of The Chesse” in 1476, and the first accounts of chess games were written in 1497 by Lucena.

Some Chess Game Variations: Modern and Ancient

Suicide Chess

Suicide chess is typically a fast paced game. The rules of play are the same as normal chess and the chess set uses all the same pieces. The variant in suicide chess is that if you can take a piece from your opponent you must.

The winner of suicide chess is the first person to have all their pieces taken.This chess variant is fun and fast, but it only takes the slightest mistake to give the game away entirely, since once you find one of your more powerful pieces drawn into conflict and lost, the game can quickly be over very quickly.

For this reason chess players who are well practised in the art of opening moves tend to have an advantage.

wooden chess set from Japan


Shogi is the chess of Japan and is the most complex of the chess forms. Modern Shogi, pronounced “show´ gee” (hard “g” as in “geese”) is thought to be as as old as modern western chess.

The game is probably derived primarily from Chinese chess, Xiangqi, but also has interesting similarities to Thai chess, Makruk.Similar to other forms of traditional chess, the object of Shogi is to checkmate the opposing king. The chess set is also set up for play in a similar fashion.

Unique to Shogi is that the opposing armies are not indicated by different colours, but by their position on the board with each piece pointing toward the opponent. Secondly, all of the pieces, except for the king and ‘gold’, may be promoted and thereby gain new powers.

The promoted value is on the flip side of the piece, and is often shown in traditional red calligraphy. But, what makes Shogi truly unique among chess variants is that on a player’s turn, he may, instead of moving one of the pieces on the board, choose to place one of the pieces he has captured back into play.

You will find detailed rules available on the Games from Everywhere blog Database of Board Game Rules.

Tandem Chess

Tandem Chess, also known as Bughouse, Requires two chess boards and four players. This chess variant is a team game played by 2 teams of two – on two separate chess boards.

Each team plays the opposite colour on each chess board. Each game starts independently of the other, following the usual rules of chess, until a piece is captured.The capturing player then passes this piece to their team mate who uses it as one of their own on the other board.

It can be put anywhere on the board, with the exception that pawns cannot be placed on the first or last row, and this counts as the player’s normal move.The team who first manages to decide a game at one board wins. This is a great way of playing amongst groups and turns chess into a social sport.

In more competitive matches access to chess clocks is essential for the game to flow, though it is often claimed to become more of a battle of time and stalling than skill.

Courier Chess

Courier chess is the chess of medieval Europe and is played in an 8 by 12 square board. Courier chess was a popular pastime in central Europe, especially in Germany, from the 12th through the 18th century.

Courier chess was played alongside the medieval form of chess brought in from the Islamic world, and continued to be very popular well into the modern era, alongside international chess.

The variant in this game was the courier, which moves like our modern bishop. Because of the importance placed on this chess piece, it was usually the tallest of the pieces, and was considered the most powerful.

Two additional chess pieces were added: the sage and the jester and the game appears in Lucas van Leyden’s famous painting of 1508, known as “The Chess Players.”

Wooden Chess Set from Poland

The rules need special attention and you can download a booklet from the Database of Board Game rules at the Games from Everywhere blog.

The Growth and Popularity of Chess

Many people and cultures have made important contributions to the theory of chess over hundreds of years and by the nineteenth century it had become a very popular pastime. Steinitz’s Modern Chess Instructor (1895) was the first publication to articulate the long term strategic aspects of modern chess.

The first international chess tournament was held in London in 1851. A World Chess Federation, set up in 1924, organises international chess tournaments, leading to the World Chess Championship, which, since World War II, has been dominated by Russian players.Today the game is no longer restricted to indoors.

In New York’s Greenwich village, tables inlaid with chess boards are placed in the parks so that passers-by can idle away an afternoon playing a friendly game of chess with their own chess set.

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