The Extraordinary Origins of Chess: Irving Finkel & Sushma Jansari, The Portico Library, 2021

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During their 2021 exhibition ‘Fun & Games: playtime, past and present’, The Portico Library hosted this online event on the Indian, Persian and Arab roots of the world’s most famous game of strategy, chess. This was a pay-what-you-can event in association with MACFEST Festival of Muslim Arts & Culture supporting The Portico Library’s free public arts and education programmes.

Dr Sushma Jansari is the Tabor Foundation Curator: South Asia, at the British Museum. She was instrumental in the redevelopment of the British Museum’s Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia which opened in 2017 and is currently lead curator in the team developing the Manchester Museum South Asia Gallery in partnership with the British Museum (opening 2022). Sushma is also writing a book for UCL Press titled ‘Chandragupta Maurya: the creation of a national hero in India’.

Irving Finkel is a Senior Curator in the Middle East Department at the British Museum, where he is in charge of the cuneiform tablet collection. He is also a specialist in the history of ancient board games and edited ‘Board Games in Perspective’. He deciphered the rules for the Royal Game of Ur, the national board game of Ancient Mesopotamia.

‘Opening Moves: The Extraordinary Origins of Chess’ was hosted by The Portico Library’s Exhibitions and Programmes Curator James Moss.

You can enjoy the online version of the full ‘Fun & Games’ exhibition at .

121 Comments

  1. Alternate versions of chess in my youth were 1. Quick Take (winner is the player who gives away all their pieces), 2. Rifles (taking a piece does not involve moving the taking piece), and 3. Double chess (two moves each -first cannot be a check-).

  2. 9:25
    couldn't resist, and calculated a rough estimation on that:
    rice grain: ~ 2mm x 5 mm.
    British Islands: ~ 250k km sq
    foot = 0.3048 m
    br. islands area * 7 feet / rice grain vol. : ~ 27 * 10^9 grains of rice
    the number of rice grains mentioned is (2^65) – 1
    ~ 3.7 * 10 ^ 19

    which is over a billion times more…

    You welcome.

  3. I would agree with Mr. Finkel is correct that knight can jump. I would also imagine that the speed and ability with which Calvary can out flank it’s enemies would explain the change in direction of the piece.

  4. I have been married to a wonderful lady for 36 years now. It very nearly never happened because we once, foolishly, played a game of Monopoly.

  5. Elaborate pieces have little relevance to the game, which is about visualizing abstract possibilties.

  6. We always learn loads when Irving gives a talk. He's an absolute goldmine.

  7. I wonder if the black/white pieces became popular because of a manufacturing factor. Did piano manufacturing companies start a sideline turning ebony and ivory?

  8. 12:20 The "taste for non-figuritave pieces" was not just "an aspect of Islamic thinking". It was an act punishable by death. According to Islam man is not allowed to draw or carve anything. This is why ISIS blew up 10,000 year old statues and ransacked museums of any area the conquered. of course, instead of drawing, you may instead marry your first cousin and girls as young as 8 years old (if marriage is unappealing, you may keep them as slaves even today).. so you will have something to do to pass the time. Got to say Godly.
    Islam is a crime against humanity.

  9. If you look at the picture closely in the Queens Gambit, some of the pieces are replaced with little liqueur sample bottles, guess if captured you get to drink it down.. more staggering moves ahead in the game of chess.

  10. Do enjoy your talks Irving, you sure squired a massive amount of information, love the story telling not many people have gift to make things enjoyable at the same time learning..

  11. Hilarious to find out that a national scholar watches chess YouTube videos lol

  12. The ebony and ivory material change causing sets to become black and white makes sense. Possibly because those were also the materials used for pianos and so maybe were available for carving.

  13. its so nice ot see a master time traveling wizard pretend to be a british intelectual, all the cleaver little ways he gaslights us away from understanding his secret like 'we dont have a lot ov archelogical research but ~i~ think…'

    i see through you, your secret is safe with me but take me with you when you go back please… i have nothing else to learn here.

  14. The visage of Irving Finkle revs up my desire to learn yet humbles my present knowledge of whatever subject he speaks. Listen and learn. And laugh!

  15. This is beautiful – thank you so much to you both. The photograph of the early Persian Chess pieces possibly from Nishapur, Iran ought to remind people of the world famous multi-million selling poem – the Mystical Masterpiece… the Ruba'iya't of Omar Khayya'm as translated by Edward FitzGerald of Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK. Do see the Omar Khayyam Theatre Company – wide screen.

  16. I wonder if queens were given such movement because women traveled from one kingdom to another in order to become queen. She brought new alliances and culture to the court while having influence. Kings were limited in scope to their own realm. Of course, Finkel's explanation of the moves being simply game related is most likely the reason.

  17. I agree that Dr. Irving Finkel is an amazing (and amusing) source of knowledge, but I have to take issue with his statement that his white and red chess set was new in modern times and that no one has seen white and red pieces before: in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”, Alice is definitely encountering the Red Queen and King, and the rest of the red pieces.

  18. I don't think that chess started as an instructional tool for battle. That's because in chess, both sides are equal, you start in the same place, you take turns and the goal the capture of the king. And that's nothing LIKE a battle. I think it wa a way for soldiers to relax. A way to play at battle in a very low-stakes manner.

    Also, if you think of a knight as an L-shape move, of course it makes no sense. But if you look at it another way, it's one step orthoginally and one step diagianlly. That's equivalent to the L-shape, but crucially, it's a mix of bishop and rook and the knight starts right between them.

    This is a great video I hope my rambling doesn't suggest that I think otherwise.

  19. Wow, great job, can't believe how fun this conversation was., fascinating…

  20. Wait wait.. you can't just randomly say that you need bananas if you are to have a Giraffe piece and not comment further!!

  21. I lived in Korea back in the 1970s where I learned to play janggi, the Korean descendent of Chaturanga, the Indian ancestor of chess. I liked the way guys would play it in the street, squatting down with the game between them, the board made from any old piece of plywood with lines drawn on it and the playing pieces were made from disks cut out of an old broom handle. And they never played it slowly, contemplating every move. They played like maniacs

  22. If you want to see passion in a board game, watch a bunch of Royal Navy Sailors playing Uckers (a grown up form of Ludo). Careers have depended (or ended) on the outcome!

  23. In Xiangqi we have two pieces that move, attack like the rook and it is called the chariot piece.

  24. THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS: Red Queen, White Knight. For shame…

  25. I once saw a photo in a book of a set of chess pieces made of bread by a prisoner of a Nazi concentration camp, so that he could play chess with another prisoner.

  26. The rook is the archer who shoots straight, the Bishop is shifty and goes diagonaly. The Knight to jump diagonaly to break the sheild-wall

  27. we have a Korean set — game has 2 Queens, and different movies, an King is limeted to a 9×9 area…

  28. Chess is just like the real world, us the pawns being the lowest values pieces.
    The pawns can win by not letting them play and promoting ourselves to kings.

  29. I am a bit surprised about the assumption here, that Western chess is the culmination of chess. The final one and only result of a long evolution of substeps leading to this glorious summit. I know of at least 3 other forms of chess, one of which is played by more people than Western chess.
    They can be found in East Asia. All of them are viable and stable forms of the game, with professionalism and publicity in the media in various ways. The most played form of chess is played in China: JiangJi, the elephant chess. Then there is the Korean variation on the same board, but the pieces go a bit differently. But for me at the summit of chess evolution is shogi, Japanese chess played on a 9×9 board. Positional judgement is much more important than the balance of the pieces compared to Western chess. Handicaps can be applied. Draws are very rare. It is just a better game.
    I would have liked this video to treat these other forms of chess as serious other forms of principally the same game.

  30. 26:00 Irving Finkel's roundabout way of saying "Damn Anya Taylor-Joy is so hot" lol

  31. I play chess everyday on the internet. I play against Russians and Ukrainians and have internet friends in both countries. We could get rid of war and decide things with chess.

  32. कौटिल्य धूत षडयंत्र (वास्तविक शतरंज) says:

    Lord Shiva is Dhyut Papeshwar means owner of the game. This game was known as sKhandyantra or shadyantra. It waa played on dashpaad ro vrihadpaad boards.

    Game was invented by Sage Agasthya. Kartikey played this game. But Ravan was much better and expert in this game

  33. Good evening. Last question… "What would I like to change?"
    I would like when the pawn reaches the opponents side that your opponent promotes you. Scripture says let others promote you in the gate…. let others speak of you not you yourself.
    Well done 👏

  34. Computers now play a major role in chess … sorry Irving.

  35. If you can't think of anywhere that chess hasn't taken off then you're quite a cultural chauvinist. There's no chess being played by Amazon tribes, or on Sentinel Island.

  36. That comment about changing chess to have a "speedy" version was stunningly ignorant. There already is such chess, called blitz, and it is very popular among chess players, with tournaments and ratings.

  37. Monopoly?? Shame on you: That is a "System of inequality, egoism, explotaition, etc. Call it Capitalism. At least Chess is a feudalist? approach…😄

  38. This is fantastic, I've been looking for a video just like this for months. THANK YOU. Excellent interview, excellent questions, excellent answers, excellent illustrations. Many thanks.

  39. How wonderful. Finally someone talks about the history of chess and it’s many permutations. And that someone is Dr Finkel. Thank you so much.

  40. There's a 15th century painting of death playing chess against a man in Täby church in Sweden. Apparently the inspiration for the similar scene in Bergman's "The seventh seal".

  41. I have witnessed several fist fights over chess games before. Not sure why, but it's a very egotistical game among men.

  42. What I love about the chess set from Neishapur, Iran, is that it leaves more to the imagination. I like the abstract pieces.

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