Chess in Iran



The game of chess as it is known today originated in ancient Persia, but the original game came from India. Chess, known as chaturanga in India (in Persian is Shatranj) came to Persia during the reign of Khusrow I (known as Anushirvan). Chatrang was played on a board of 100 squares. The game chess familiar today evolved from this game to 64 squares. The origin of chess is a disputed issue, but evidence exists to give credence to the theory that chess originated in Persia, and later found its way into the Indian subcontinent. For example, the earliest recorded history of chess is to be found in Persian writing, and the earliest chess pieces found also being from Persia. All of this evidence lends weight to the theory that chess in Persia (Shatranj) pre-dated chess in India (Chatrang).

Chess later spread from Persia into other nations in the Islamic world. Chess is popular in Iran among women as men. Shatranj is an old form of chess, which came to the Western world by the Persians and later Greeks, and ultimately from India (chaturanga) via the Persian Empire. Modern chess gradually developed from this game. The Arabic word Shatranj is derived from the Sanskrit chaturanga (catuḥ: “four”; anga: “arm”). In Middle Persian the word appears as Chatrang, with the ‘u’ lost due to syncope and the ‘a’ lost to apocope, for example, in the title of the text Mâdayân î chatrang (“Book of chess”) from the 7th century AD. In Persian folk etymology , Persian text refers to Shah Ardashir I, who ruled from 224–241, as a master of the game: “By the help of Providence Ardeshir became more victorious and warlike than all, on the polo and the riding-ground, at Chatrang and Vine-Artakhshir, and in several other arts.” However, Karnamak contains many fables and legends, and this only establishes the popularity of chatrang at the time of its composition. During the reign of the later Sassanid king Khosrau I (531–579), a gift from an Indian king (possibly a Maukhari Dynasty king of Kannauj included a chess game with sixteen pieces of emerald and sixteen of ruby (green vs. red).

The game came with a challenge which was successfully resolved by Khosrau’s courtiers. This incident, originally referred to in the Mâdayân î chatrang (c. 620 AD), is also mentioned in Firdausi’s Shahnama. The rules of chaturanga seen in India today have enormous variation, but all involve four branches (angas) of the army: the horse, the elephant (bishop), the chariot (rook) and the foot soldier (pawn), played on an 8×8 board. Shatranj adapted much of the same rules as chaturanga, and also the basic 16-piece structure. There is also a larger 10×11 board derivative; the 14th-century Tamerlane chess, or shatranj kamil (perfect chess), with a slightly different piece structure. In some later variants the darker squares were engraved. The game spread Westwards after the Islamic conquest of Persia and a considerable body of literature on game tactics and strategy was produced from the 8th century onwards. With the spread of Islam, chess diffused into the Maghreb and then to Andalusian Spain. During the Islamic conquest of India (c. 12th century), some forms came back to India as well, as evidenced in the North Indian term māt (mate, derivative from Persian māt) or the Bengali borey (pawn, presumed derived from the Arabic baidaq). Over the following centuries, chess became popular in Europe, eventually giving rise to modern chess.

Three books written in Pahlavi; Kar-Namag i Ardashir i Pabagan, Khosrow and ridag and Wizārišn ī čhatrang (“Treatise on Chess”) also known as the Chatrang Nama (“Book of Chess”), all mention chatrang. In Kār-nāmak it is said that Ardashīr “with the help of the gods became more victorious and experienced than all others in polo, horsemanship, chess, backgammon, and other arts,” and in the small treatise on Khosrow and ridag, the latter declares that he is superior to his comrades in chess, backgammon, and hašt pāy. Bozorgmehr, the author of Wizārišn ī čhatrang, describes how the game of chess was sent as a test to Khusrow I by the “king of the Hindus Dēvsarm” with the envoy Taxtarītūs and how the test was answered by the vizier Bozorgmehr, who in his turn invented the game Backgammon as a test for the Hindus.

These three Middle Persian sources do not give any certain indication of the date when chess was introduced into Persia. The mentions of chess in Kar-Namag i Ardashir I Pabagan and Khusrow and ridag are simply conventional and may easily represent late Sasanian or even post-Sasanian redactions. According to Touraj Daryaee, Kar-Namag I Ardashir I Pabagan is from 6th century. Wizārišn ī čhatrang was written in the 6th century.

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