Chess, by any other name, is just as ad­dic­tive, im­pos­si­ble and eter­nal

China Daily (USA) - - ACROSS AMERICA - Con­tact the writer at chris­davis@chi­nadai­lyusa. com.

There seem to be some per­sis­tent ques­tions about the ori­gin of chess, this writer’s fa­vorite game. One of our re­porters re­cently at­tended a xi­angqi (or Chi­nese chess) demon­stra­tion here in New York where a world-renowned cham­pion got up and told ev­ery­one that chess was in­vented in China and dates back to the Song Dy­nasty (960-1279).

Tra­di­tion­ally, seven coun­tries have claimed the honor of in­vent­ing chess: In­dian, Egypt, Greece, Assyria, Per­sia, Ara­bia and China.

A 10th cen­tury text re­counts a list of fables about the game: it was played by Alexan­der the Great, his tu­tor Aris­to­tle, Japhet, son of Noah and even Adam to as­suage his grief over the death of his son Abel. The fa­mous rabbi Aben Ezra claimed Moses in­vented the game.

My fa­vorite legend about the ori­gin of chess is re­ally a les­son in the power of ex­po­nen­tial growth. A pow­er­ful king of In­dia named Kaid, hav­ing con­quered all his en­e­mies, grew bored with palace life and asked his wise min­is­ter Sassa to come up with some amuse­ment to bring him peace of mind.

Sassa thought of a rare game he had seen that was in­vented by an an­cient Greek sage named Her­mes and in­tro­duced by Alexan­der’s sol­diers into In­dia. Sassa got the game, which had 56 pieces and 112 squares and con­densed it to 32 pieces and 64 squares. The king was so de­lighted by the game, he told Sassa to name his re­ward — a duke­dom, a castle, gold, jew­els, horses, one of his daugh­ters, take your pick?

Sassa asked that only one grain of bar­ley corn be placed on the first square of the board, then dou­ble that, two, on the next, then dou­ble that, four, on the next, and so on for 64 squares.

The king hap­pily agreed to the ridicu­lous-sound­ing re­quest and or­dered it so, but be­fore they got half­way across the board, all of his gra­naries had been emp­tied. To reach the end of the board would take about 18.5 quin­til­lion grains. Sassa owned the king­dom — check­mate.

Adding even more mys­tery to the game’s lin­eage trail, the term “check­mate” it­self is from the two Ara­bic words shah and mat, or “the king is dead”.

The sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween in­ter­na­tional chess and Chi­nese chess, xi­angqi, leave lit­tle doubt that the two games are re­lated, one spring­ing or be­ing re­fined from the other or both shar­ing a com­mon an­ces­try.

Some his­to­ri­ans trace xi­angqi back to li­ubo,a board game mov­ing six pieces around a square and throw­ing sticks like dice that was pop­u­lar dur­ing the Han Dy­nasty (202 BC-220 AD) but swept aside by the game of Go.

The cur­rent ver­sion of xi­angqi does date back to the Song Dy­nasty, but the In­dian game of chat­u­ranga goes back 400 years ear­lier, to the sixth cen­tury Gupta Em­pire. Chat­u­ranga is also con­vinc­ingly be­lieved to be the ba­sis of Ja­panese shogi, or the Gen­eral’s Game, Burmese sit­tuyin and Thai makruk, all of which bear strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties.

One legend says that im­pris­oned Han Dy­nasty gen­eral Han Xin drew a box on the ground and fash­ioned 32 small pieces — horses, can­nons, pawns, ele­phants and ad­vis­ers — out of silk.

In the Ming Dy­nasty (1368-1644), gen­eral Yuan Chonghuan en­cour­aged his troops to play xi­angqi rather than gam­ble, and the game was cred­ited with rais­ing his army’s fight­ing spirit, lead­ing to con­tin­u­ous vic­to­ries on the bat­tle­field.

In­ter­na­tional chess with the pieces em­pow­ered as we know them to­day took shape in 15th cen­tury Spain and stuck. The first his­tor­i­cal record of a match was in 1561 be­tween Span­ish priest Ruy Lopez and two ri­vals, Ruy Lopez be­ing a name fa­mil­iar to mod­ern chess play­ers for an open­ing named for him.

Re­searchers es­ti­mate that 600 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide play chess. Ac­cord­ing to the Chi­nese Xi­angqi As­so­ci­a­tion, “hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple” play Chi­nese chess in China. Which­ever came first, it seems pretty clear that both are here to stay.

Chris Davis New York Journal

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