Earliest Chess References and Books

Earliest reference to chess first began to appear in Sanskrit literature in the 7th century. Sometimes the only reference is not to chess but to ashtapada, an uncheckered 8x8 board. This could be a chess board or an older Indian race game played by dice on an 8x8 board. Ashtapada in Sanskrit means having 8 legs. The term was used for a spider, a legendery being with 8 legs, and a game board.   The board was first recorded by Patanjali in a Mahabhashya book written in the 2nd century A.D.

Perhaps the first reference to game pieces that could be chess or a similar game is found in Vasavadatta by Subandhu (550-620). It was written in Sanskrit around 600 AD. This was a romantic story which tells the story of Princess Vasavadatta (daugher of King Pradyota) of Ujjaini falling in love with King Udayana of Vatsa. There is a description for chessmen (nayadyutair) and chess squares (koshthika) on a two-colored chess board. The game itself was probably Chaturanga (not mentioned by Subandhu), the earliest precursor of modern chess. Chaturanga in Sanskrit means four parts. In India, an army platoon had four parts - elephants, chariots, soldiers on horseback, and foot-soldiers.   A passage describes the rainy season as follows: “The time of the rains played its game with frogs for nayadyutair [chessmen] which, yellow and green in color, as if mottled by lac, leapt up on the black field squares”

The first surviving reference to Chatrang (later becoming shatranj), the Persian word for chess, is the Karnamak-i-Artakhshatr-i-Papakan (The Records of Ardashir, son of Papak). It was a text to honor Ardashir (Artaxerxes), the founder of the Sassanid Kingdom, who ruled Persia from 226 to 241. The original was written around 600 in Pahlavi (Middle Persian). The earliest existing manuscript dates to the 14th century.  The text mentions that Ardashir was skilled at Chatrang.  A line reads, “Artakhshir did this, and by God's help he became doughtier and more skilled than them all in ball-play, in horsemanship, in shatranj [chess], in hunting and in all other accomplishments

Around 620 Harshacharita (memoir of Harsha) by Bana Bhatta (Bhattabana) was written in Sanskrit. It was a text to honor King Harshavardhana Siladitya (Harsha), an emperor in northern India from 606 to 647. He ruled in the Indian city of Kanyakubja or Kananj.  There was a reference to the ashatapada board used in Chaturanga.  A line reads, “Under this king only bees quarrel in collecting dews, the only feet cut off are those in meter, only ashtapadas [chess boards] teach the positions of the chaturanga [four members], there is no cutting off the four principal limbs of condemned criminals.”  Bana also wrote "Kadambari" which may have had several other references to chess.

Around 700 AD Husraw i Kawadan ud redag-e (Khosrow, son of Kawad, and his page) was written in Pahlavi. It mentions chess, ashtapada, and nard.  Xusraw I (Khosrow I) was king of Persia from 531 to 579 AD. He was also known as King Chosroe I Anushiravan. In all likelihood, he was the man who received the first Indian chess set.

Around 720 AD, Abd al-Hamid ibn Yalya al-Katib (686-750) was the secretary to the last Umayyad Caliph, Marwan II.  He wrote official letters for the Ummayad caliphs.  One of the letters mentions chess.

Perhaps the first reference to chess in Arabic is Naqa'id bayna Jarir wa-al-Farazdaq, a poem by al-Farazdaq (641-728). It mentions Baidaq, the pawn (foot-soldier) of shatranj. It was written around 728 AD.

Around 800 Chatrang-namak (Matigan-i-chatrang) was written in Pahlavi about the history of chatrang and the introduction of the game into Persia from India during the time of Khusru  I Nurshiwan, who ruled from 531 to 578.   It describes the names of the pieces in chatrang, but not the moves.  The earliest surviving copy is a manuscript dated 1323.  From the manuscript, the game is said to be devised by ‘Dewasarm, the great ruler of India.’  The pieces consisted of 16 emerald and 16 ruby-red men.  The text reads, “Dewasarm has fashioned this chatrang after the likeness of a battle, and in its likeness are two supreme rulers after the likeness of Kings (shah), with the essentials of rooks (rukh) to right and to left, with Counsellor (farzin) in the likeness of a commander of the champions, with the Elephant (pil) in the likeness of the rearguard, with Horse (asp) in the likeness of the commander of the cavalry, with the Foot-soldier (piyadak) in the likeness of so many infantry in the vanguard of the battle.  Chatrang-namak may have originated in oral form in the 6th century AD.

Around 840 al-Adli ar Rumi (800-870) wrote Kitab ash-shatranj (Book of the chess) in Arabic. This is a lost manuscript, but referenced in later works. It was considered the first comprehensive book dealing with chess. We know of it through referring manuscripts that preserved some of its texts and chess problems. The text included chess history, openings, endings and mansubat (chess problems). The collection had hundreds of chess problems. He also classified chess players into five distinct classes. He also found a system for sorting out the openings into positions, which he called Tabiya. His lost work may have also been the first to describe the knight's tour.

An Arabic book of Shatranj problems was written by ar-Razi, called Latif fi-sh shatranj (Elegance in Chess), written around 845. ar-Razi defeated al-Adli to become the strongest chess player in the world. He also wrote Kitab ash-shatranj, which has since been lost. All that has survived ar-Razi's book is a few opinions on the endgame and a couple of chess problems.

Around 850 Haravijaya (the Victory of Siva) by the Kashmir poet Rajanaka Ratnakara Vagisvara, was written in Sanskrit. The book is an epic which describes the defeat of demon Andhaka by Siva. It explained the four units of the old Indian army and the ashtapada, referring to chess. The four units were patti (foot-soldiers), ashwa (horses), ratha (chariots), and dwipa (elephants).

Around 875 Kavyalankara (A work on poetics) by the Kashmir poet Rudrata, written in Sanskrit, alludes to the knight's tour problem. It used a half-chessboard to cover all squares by a chariot (ratha or rook), elephant (gaja), and knight (turaga or horse).

Around 890 Abu-Bakr Muhammad ibn Yahya as-Suli (854-946) co-authored a book of problems (mansubat) and a book of openings (ta-biyat) for Shatranj, called Kitab-ash-shatranj (Book of Chess), volume one and two. He was assisted by Abu l-Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad as-Sarakhsi, a physician. One of his books contained the knight's tour on an 8x8 chessboard. as-Suli was the strongest player of his time, the world champion. One of as-Suli's book was a critique on al-Adli's book.

Around 920, the historian Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Jarir at-Tabari (838-923) wrote Kitab akhbar ar-rusul wal-muluk. Included was a chess incident in 802 between Nicephorus, Emperor of Byzantium and the Caliph Huran ar-Rashid. He described another incident of how the caliph al-Mutazz was playing a game of chess when a messenger brought the head of his rival, al-Musta'in to him. The caliph paid no attention until the chess game was over.

Around 930 Abu'l-Faraj ibn al-Muzaffar ibn Sa'id al-Lajlaj (900-970) wrote Kitab mansubat ash-shatranj (book of chess problems). It is another lost chess book. Manuscripts containing some of its contents have survived. He may have been the first person to analyze and publish chess openings. al-Lajlaj means the stammerer. The oldest chess game comes from a match between as-Suli and al-Lajlaj.

In 947 Muraj adh-dhahab (Fields of Gold) by the Arabic historian Abu al-Hassan Ali ibn al-Husain ibn Ali ibn Ali ibn Abdullah al-Masudi (888-956) was written in Arabic. It was a history of chess in India and Persia. al-Masudi is known as the Herodotus of the Arabs. He was the first to combine history and scientific geography in a large-scale work. He wrote a 30-volume history of the world. He described 6 different variants of chess, including Astrological Chess, Byzantine round chess, Circular Chess and Cylinder Chess. He wrote about chess wagers in India, with the loser losing money or a finger or hand or more. He described the use of ivory in India to make chess pieces.

Around 950, al-Masudi (896-956), an Arab historian and geographer, wrote, “During the reign of Nurshiwan, he had sent from India the book Kalila wa Dimma, the game of chess, and a dye called hindi…”  He mentioned that in India, ivory was mainly used for carving of chess and nard (backgammon) pieces.

Halayudha was a 10th century Indian mathematician who wrote a commentary on Pingala’s Chandah-shastra around 970 AD.  He requests his readers to draw a table of 64 corn-houses as in the game of chess (caturanga-kridayam).  It is a brief allusion to the game of chaturanga.

The library of Caliph Hakam II of Cordova (961-976) contained an Arabic manuscript on chess problems.

Nitivakyamurta mentions that in Chaturanga, one does not have a King without an Advisor.

Around 997 the first European text on chess appeared. This was the Versus de Schachis in the Einsiedeln, Switzerland manuscript. It was a 99-line Latin poem on chess. It described a chess board in two colors.  Only two known copies exist today. It was found on two manuscripts from Einsielden, Switzerland, written by a German monk at the Benedictine Einsiedeln Abbey (built in 934 AD). The poem’s 98 lines described chess (scacci), its rules, and some basic strategies. The work is considered the earliest known reference to chess in a European text. The poem mentions the chess queen (regina) for the first time ever, replacing the old vizier piece. The poem also described the 64-square chess board with two different colors for the first time. The piece that is today known as the bishop was represented by a count, or aged one.  The Einsiedeln Poem began by praising chess as a unique game that did not require dice or a gambling bet. The description was meant to counter religious opposition to games of chance and gambling. The poem then described everything one needed to know in order to play the game. The 32 pieces, 16 on each side, were colored white and red (not black). The pieces in the poem were: rex (king), regina (queen), comes or curvus (count), eques (knight), rochus or marchio (rook), and pedes (pawn).  The first English translation of the poem was made by Dr. Henry Aspinwall Howe of McGill College at Montreal in 1878. The poem was originally published by Professor Hagen in the Swiss newspaper Der Bund at Berne, with a German translation.

In 1008 a will of Count Ermengaud I (Count of Urgel in Spain) mentioned chess. He willed that his executors give his chessmen to the convent of St. Giles, for the work of the church.

The Shahnama (Book of Kings), the national epic of Persia, begun by Daqiqi (900-976) in 975 and finished by Abu'l-Qasim Mansur Firdawsi (940-1020) in 1011 was written in Pahlavi. It is similar to the Chatrang-namak. It tells how chess (satranj) was introduced into Iran from India. Ambassadors from Kanauj, India (Hind) during the reign of the Maukhari king Sarvaarman (reigned between 560-585) came to Persia during the reign of Khusru I Nushirwan (Chosroes I Anushirwan or Khusru II Parwiz (590-628)) with a chess-board and men. If the Persians could solve how the chessmen were set on a chessboard correctly, the Indians would pay the tribute to the Persians. If they could not solve this, India would no longer have to give tribute to Persia. In fact, if the Persians could not solve how the pieces were set up, Persia would pay tribute to India. The king's minister, Buzurjmihr, took the pieces home and discovered the secret in a day and a night.

In 1030 the Tarikh al-Hind (History of India) by Abu'r-Raihan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Beruni (973-1048), also known as Alberuni, was completed.  It was written in Arabic. It was a travel description which had the rules of 4-handed Chaturanga, played with dice.

Around 1030, the Latin romance “Ruodlieb.” was written. It is the first reference to chess in German literature. Portions of the poem were discovered in the Benedictine Abbey of Tegernsee (founded in 746 AD) in Upper Bavaria, Germany. The poem was probably written by a monk named Froumunt of the Tegernsee Abbey. The poem was translated by Baron Tassilo von Heydebrand und der Lasa (1818-1899). It described the adventures of a medieval knight named Ruodlieb. He was a youth of noble birth who goes out to seek his fortune. Chess (ludus scachorum) featured in one setting when Ruodlieb was force to play for stakes with the court of a foreign king. Ruodlieb has been regarded as an ancestor of the German novel. The poem was left unfinished. The manuscript was cut up and used for binding books. Fragments of the poem were only gradually discovered and pieced together in the early 19th century. Some fragments were discovered in 1838 under the binding of some old books in the Abbey of Tegernsee. These fragments were sent to the Munich Library, which has 34 leaves of the poem.

Ruodlieb serves a powerful king. At the conclusion of a war with another king, peace was arranged by Ruodlieb. Ruodlieb spends some time in the enemy’s camp where he plays chess with the Viceroy. Ruodlieb wins most of the games, and only loses when he deliberately plays to lose. After five days of playing chess with the Viceroy, Ruodlieb is then admitted to the king’s presence. Ruodlieb then describes what happens next.

“The king, calling for the tabula (chess board), orders a chair to be placed for himself, and orders me to sit on the couch opposite to play with him. This I strongly refuse, saying: ‘It is a terrible thing for a poor man to play with a king.’ But when I see that I cannot withstand him, I agree to play, intending to be beaten by him. I say: ‘What profit is it to poor me to be beaten by a king? But I fear, Sir, that you will soon be wrath with me, if fortune help me to win.’ The king laughed and answered jestingly: ‘There is no need, my dear man, to be afraid about that: even if I never win, I shall not become more angry. But know clearly that I wish to play with you, for I wish to learn what unknown moves you will make.’ Immediately both king and I moved carefully, and, as luck would have it, I won three times, to the great surprise of many of his nobles. He lays down a wager against me, and would not let me lay down anything against him. He gives what he had wagered, so that not one coin remained. Many follow, anxious to avenge him, proposing bets and despising my bets, sure of losing nothing and trusting much to the uncertainty of fortune. They help one another, and do harm by helping too much. They are hindered while they consult variously; through their disputes I win quickly three times, for I would not play anymore. They now wished to give me what they had wagered. At first I refused, for I thought it disgraceful to enrich myself at their expense, and to impoverish them. I said: ‘I am not accustomed to win anything by play.’ They say: ‘While you are with us, live as we do; when you get home again, live there as you like.”

 In 1058 a will of Countess Ermessind of Barcelona mentions chess. She left to St. Giles of Nimes her crystal chessmen.

In 1061 Cardinal Petrus (Pietro or Peter) Damiani (1007-1072) of Ostia wrote a letter to Pope-elect Alexander II and Archdeacon Hildebrand (later Pope Gregory VII) complaining about chess being played by the lay people. He urged the pope to forbid chess from the clergy and to punish the bishop of Florence (who later became Pope Nicholas II) who played chess at a lodging. Cardinal Damiani was later canonized and made Doctor of the Church. Damiani's efforts against chess placed chess on the list of games forbidden to the clergy.

Around 1110 the encyclopedia Manasollasa (Delight of the Spirit), by the South Indian ruler King Sovedeva, was written in Sanskrit. It was the first description of chess in South India. It gave a long list of games played, including chess.

Around 1120, a poem, The Song of Chess, written by the Spanish rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) described each chess piece. The pieces still resembled the Arab style of play, which did not have the modern chess queen. The elephant did not move like today’s bishop piece, but as confined to three spaces diagonally at a time.

In 1140, the Abd al-Hamid I manuscript was written that quoted Al-Adli as saying, “It is universally acknowledged that three things were produced from India, in which no other anticipated it, and the like of which existed nowhere else: the book Kalila-wa-Dimna, the nine ciphers with which one can count to infinity (numbers), and chess.”  The incomplete manuscript called the Abdul Hamid (Abd-al-Hamid I or Abdalhamid I) Arabic collection (known as AH) was written (copied) by Abu Ishaq Ibrahim b. al-Mubarek b. Ali al-Madhahhab al Baghdadi. It is also called Risala fi’sh-shatranj by Abu’l-Abbas Ahmad al-Adli. It has nearly 200 problems. It contains problems composed by Muslim composers such as al-Aldi and as-Suli. The manuscript contains a short treatise on chess principles by al-Lajlaj.

In 1148 Rajatarangini (River of Kings) by Kalhana was written in Sanskrit. It was a chronicle of the kings of Kashmir. It alluded to 4-handed Chaturanga.

In 1148 Alexiad, a 15-volume history, was written. This was the first Greek reference to chess. This was a biography of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnena (1050-1118) by his daugher, Anna Comnena, while in exile. She describes her father playing chess with friends in Book 12. She also says that chess was invented by the Assyrians. The Crusaders may have been exposed to chess from Emperor Comnena, and may have brought it back to England.

Around 1250 the Quaedam moralitas de scaccario per Innocentium papum (the Innocent Morality) was published. It may be the oldest of chess moralities. The world resembles a chessboard. Things are in black or white. The colors represent life and death, or praise and blame. It was first attributed to Pope Innocent III (1163-1216), a prolific sermon writer. Later, it was attributed to John of Wales (1220-1290), a Franciscan who taught at Paris and Oxford and was a chess player.

Around 1205 Wigalois by Wirnt von Gravenberg was written. It mentions Courier chess, played on a 12x8 board.

Around 1280, Jacobus de Cessolis (1250-1322), a Dominican from Lombardy, wrote Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium. It is one of the earliest allegories and moralities pertaining to chess and it began as a sermon. Probably no other work of medaeval times was copied so much. It rivalled the Bible in popularity and number of printings. The sermon is divided into 4 books and 24 chapters. The first book deals with the origin of chess and the fourth book deals with the moves of the chessmen. The other books explain the pieces as symbolical of the feudal society. He attributes the invention of chess to Babylon during the reign of Evil-Merodach. Chess corrected the evil manners of this king and to avoid idleness. It is a version of the original Innocent Morality.

In 1283 Libros del Axedrez dados y tablas (Book of Chess and other games) was written for King Alfonso X (1221-1284), King of Castile. It was the first encyclopeida of games in European literature. The first of the 7 parts of the Alfonso manuscript is devoted wholly to chess, and contains 103 problems. It also includes descriptions of several chess variants.

Around 1340 the Gesta Romanorum was written. It is a collection of stories and moralities. Three chapters relate to chess.

Around 1350 Nafa'is al-funun (Treasury of the Sciences), a Persian encyclopedia by Muhammad ibn Mahmud al-Amuli (1300-1352), mentions chess. The first chapter describes the invention of chess in India. The second chapter deals with the derived games of chess. This source is the first to describe Timur's Great Chess.

In 1432 Johannes Ingold (1400-1465) wrote Guldin Spil. He writes about the 7 deadly sinds, illustrating each with a game. Chess represented pride and humility.

Around 1450 Panchadandachattraprabandha mentions chess without dice. The book was a tale of king Vikramaditya (380-413 AD).

In 1474 William Caxton (142201491) published the Game and Playe of the Chesse in English. It was translated from Jehen de Vignay's French version of the Innocent Morality. It was the 3rd book printed in English, after the Bible and The Recuell of the Historyes of Troye, and the first English book published in England. It was the first printed book in English to make extensive use of woodcuts for pictures.

In 1495 Libre dels jochs partits dels schacs en nombre de 100 from Francesch Vicent was published in Valencia. It is a lost book. The last known copy was seen in 1811. It mentioned the first modern move of the Queen and Bishop and was a book of chess openings. It was the first treatise on modern chess.

In 1497 Repeticion de amores e art de axedrez con CL Juegos de partido (Discourse on Love and the Art of Chess with 150 endings) by Luis Ramirez Lucena was written. It was the first surviving book with the modern rules of chess. Only 8 copies are known to exist. The book was so rare that it was unknown to historians until the second half of the 19th century.  The book is the first to include the old rules of chess and the new rules of chess (most notably, the movement of the Queen).

In 1512 Questo libro e da imparare giocare a scachi et de li partiti was written by the Portugese player Pedro Damiano (1480-1544). It was the first chess book published in Italy (published in Rome). Damiano suggests that the game was invented by Xerxes, which is why chess is known as Axedrez in Spanish.

In 1513 Scacchia Ludus (The Game of Chess) was written by Marcus Antonius Hieronymus Vida (1490-1566), Bishop of Alba, in Latin. He is the first to mention Tower and castle (rook). The poem inspired Jones's Caissa, the goddess of chess. It describes a chess game between Apollo and Hermes.

In 1555 Olaus Magnus (1490-1557) published Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (History of the Northern Peoples) in Rome. His book was the first comprehensive history of Scandinavia. He describes chess in the Scandinavian countries. It described Norse parents playing chess with the boyfriends of their daughters, and determining if they were good suitors by noting thier conduct during the game.

In 1561 Ruy Lopez (pronounced Rue-y Lopeth) de Segura (1530-1580) wrote Libro de la invencion liberal y arte del juego del Axedrez. He wrote the book in response to Damiano's book.

In 1597 Orazio (Horatio) Gianutio of Mantia wrote Libro nel quale si tratta della maniera di giucar a scacchi, con alcuni sottilissimi partiti, published in Turin. It contains 6 openings and a few problems.

In 1604 Alessandro Salvio (1575-1640) published Trattato dell'inventione et arte liberale del gioco degli scacci in Naples. It contained 31 chapters with chess openings.

In 1614 Arthur Saul published Famous game of Chesse-play. It classified different kinds of mate, including stalemate and scholar's mate, and fool's mate.

In 1616 Augustus, Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg (Gustavus Selenus) (1579-1666), wrote Das Schach-oder Konig-Spiel (Chess of the King's Game). It was published in Leipzig. It was the first German instructive chess book. Much of it was a translation of Tarsia's Italian version of Ruy Lopez's book.

In 1620 Gioachino Greco (1600-1634) writes on chess traps.

In 1656, Greco's work was being published by F. Beale in a book called The royall Game of Chesse-play. Sometimes the recreation of the late king, with many of the nobility. It contained chess traps and almost 100 gambits.

In 1689 Thomas Hyde (1636-1702) published Historia shailudii (History of Chess). This was the first scholarly account of the history of chess.

In 1690 B. Asperling (1650-1710) wrote Traite du Ieu Royal des Echecs and published in Lausanne. Openings are classified in an orderly way for the first time. Asperling was a strong player who could also play chess blindfolded.

In 1694, Thomas Hyde publishes De Ludis Orientalibus.

In 1735 Joseph Bertin (1695-1736) wrote The Noble Game of Chess. Containing Rules and Instructions for the Use of those who have already a little Knowledge of this Game. It was the first worthwhile chessbook in the English language. It contained opening analysis, 26 games, and useful advice about the middlegame.

In 1737 Phillip Stamma (1705-1760) published Essai sur jeu des echecs in Paris. It was a book containing 100 endgames with diagrams. It was the first book to use algebraic notation.

In 1745 Phillip Stamma (1700-1760) published his Noble Game of Chess. It contained 100 endgames and 74 opening variations. He had become one of the best players in England.

In 1748, at the age of 22, Francois-Andre Danican Philidor (1726-1795) published his Analyze du Jeu des Echecs (Analysis of the Game of Chess) in London. It was one of the most popular chess books of all time and made Philidor and the publishers wealthy. His book was the first chess book to be translated into Russian. This was the first book that organized the chess openings. He was the first to number each move and its reply with the same number.

In 1913 H. J. R. Murray wrote A History of Chess, published by Oxford University Press. It is 900 pages long and one of the the best references to chess history.