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The Origin of Modern Chess

modren-chessIntroduction: Near the end of the 15th century, the game of chess underwent a dramatic transformation when the powers of two of the weakest pieces were enhanced. The slow game characterized by a long opening buildup was suddenly a rapid game where checkmate was possible after only a few moves. The new game, quickly adopted wherever it was played, pushed the old game aside after only a few decades. The best players began to investigate the subtleties of the opening and of the endgame.

The Modern Queen: In the Arab game of Shatranj, the piece next to the King was called the firz (or firzan). It moved one square diagonally in any direction and a Pawn reaching the 8th rank was promoted only to a firz. The medieval piece that replaced the firz was called the fers. In addition to the same diagonal move, it could jump to to a nearby empty square. The moves of the modern chess Queen were introduced around 1475.

The Modern Bishop: In Shatranj, the piece that started the game where the Bishop now starts was called the fil (‘al fil’ = elephant). It could jump only to the square located two squares diagonally. This meant that it could never reach more than eight squares on the entire board. The piece was variously called alfil, alfin, and aufin in the medieval game. The moves of the modern chess Bishop were introduced in the 15th century and the name of the piece changed in all European languages.

Early Literature of the Modern Game: Although we don’t know exactly in which year the new moves were introduced, chess literature lets us establish the approximate period. The Catalan poem ‘Scachs d’amor’, with the moves of a complete game; Vicent’s ‘Libre dels jochs partits’, now lost; the Göttingen Manuscript; and the French allegory ‘Le jeu des eschés, moralisé’ all point to the period, 1470-1500.

Early Textbooks by Luiz Ramirez Lucena, Pedro Damiano, Ruy Lopez de Segura: Lucena (15th-16th cent.) wrote ‘Repeticion de amores e art de axedrez’ (‘Discourse on Love and the Art of Chess’, Salamanca, 1497), the first book of practical play . The 150 endgame positions were a mixture of medieval and modern chess. Damiano (d.1544) published the first chess book in Italy, ‘Questo libro e da imparare giocare a scacchi’ (Rome, 1512). Ruy Lopez (c.1530-c.1580) studied Damiano and wrote ‘Libro de la invención liberal y arte del juego del Axedrez’ (Alcala, 1561).

Early Champions – Ruy Lopez, Paolo Boi, and Giovanni Leonardo di Bona: Ruy Lopez, a Spanish priest, was known as one of the great players of his time. In 1560 he traveled to Rome on church business, where he played and beat the best players. Later the best Italian players, Boi (1528-98) and Leonardo (1542-87), traveled to Spain and defeated Ruy Lopez in matches. The exploits of the Italians — captured by pirates, presented to Philip II of Spain, and more — were recorded and embellished for posterity. See ‘The Light and Lustre’ (link box) for an account.

Other Italians – Giulio Cesare Polerio, Alessandro Salvio, and Pietro Carrera: While the deeds of Boi and Leonardo may have been less newsworthy than reported by their compatriots Salvio (c.1575-c.1640) and Carrera (1573-1647), the same writers, along with Polerio (c.1550-c.1610), contributed to an early understanding of chess theory. Polerio wrote manuscripts on many openings that started 1.e4 e5, especially the gambits. These were followed by books from Salvio (1604 & 1634) and Carrera (1617), which also dealt with topics like correct diet and counteracting magic spells.

Gioacchino [Gioachino] Greco (1600-c.1634): The greatest of the early Italian player/writers was Il Calabrese Greco. At the age of 20 he compiled a collection of openings for his patrons, wealthy officials of the Roman Church. He traveled to Nancy (France), then Paris, where he earned a small fortune by playing, and then to London, where he lost the money to thieves. His opening manuscript evolved to a collection of games, which was copied and reprinted for decades. He returned to Paris, then Madrid, and died in the West Indies.

Castling: Under the rules of Shatranj, the King moved one square in any direction. Medieval chess later let the unmoved King leap two squares in any direction. Lucena described castling in two moves: the Rook was played to its castled square on one move and the King jumped over it the next move. Later this was done in one move, but the King and Rook were allowed to finish on different combinations of squares. In 1561 Ruy Lopez described castling as we now play it, although regional variations continued.

Other Developments of Modern Chess: The development of chess skill was slower in other countries, where chess literature was not as popular as in the Italian and Iberian peninsulas.

The game continued to be popular with the royals. • Henry IV (1553-1610, reigned 1589+), first monarch of the French Bourbon dynasty (1589-1792), played. His successor Louis XIII (1601-1643, 1610+), was said to have a traveling set made of a woolen board with spiked pieces. • Elizabeth I (1533-1603, 1558+) played; James I (1566-1625, 1603+) thought it too serious: ‘where all such light plays are ordained to free mens heads for a time, chess by the contrary filleth and troubleth mens heads’; and Charles I (1600-1649, 1625+) was playing chess at the time he learned of his forces’ surrender.

The first great chess historian was Thomas Hyde (1636-1703), Oxford professor of Hebrew and Arabic. He published histories in 1689 and 1694 which traced the origin of chess from India to Persia to Arabia.

Players of note were Asperling, who published an important textbook (Lausanne, c.1690) in French; the two Alexander Cunninghams (1654-1737 and c.1655-1730) of Scotland; and Joseph Bertin (c.1690-c.1735). Bertin wrote the first real chess textbook in the English language (London, 1735).

The first German textbook, ‘Das Schach- oder König-spiel’ (Leipzig, 1616), based on the work of Ruy Lopez, was written by Gustavus Selenus (1579-1666). His real name was Duke Augustus of Lüneberg (Duke of Brunswick), and he also founded the Bibliotheca Augusta in Wolfenbüttel. Near the end of the 15th century, the game of chess underwent a dramatic transformation!

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