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. Dr. Finkel's presentations are always fascinating and entertaining.

  2. Concerning, the origin of the Knight move, one theory that I have read is that a very early version of the game had a 5×5 board. Place a Rook and a Bishopv(which in early forms of chess only moved in a checker-like diagonal hopping move), and these two pieces cover all the squares of the 5×5 board Except for the oblique 8 oblique squares. The knight move was (in this theory) invented to cover these 8 squares and no others.

  3. ah yes, queens gambit.👌 an excellent story about a young alien that gets adopted by jimmy page

  4. I understand that many people became excited about Chess after watching the Queen's Gambit show. But this isn't exactly a good thing. Queen's Gambit is not that good of a show.

  5. couldn't it be that bishops were totally unexceptable in protestant Germany and the Netherlands and consequently were replaced by 'Läufer' and 'lopers'?Cheers, Willem (Belgium)

  6. Irving Finkel never ceases to amaze, fascinate, educate and entertain me. What a scholar. It is very unusual to have someone who is so well read in so many different fields – and so passionate about all of them. He should really have a regular show, kind of as the (ancient) history teacher of the world.

  7. I would stop the Queen being able to move so many squares, and knights would be able to take pieces they jump over. There are variants of chess, like CrazyHouse, where you convert and place pieces you've taken.

  8. Study of games is an important anthropology.

    I believe the limited move of the king piece reflects the actual limits of a ruler in a court society. Limited by creed and law, by politics, by the need to try to cover all bases and keep all the powerful nobles on side, a monarch is nearly always handicapped and rarely absolute (some French monarchs excepted). Rank may have privileges but is also has shackles.

  9. I believe the less figurative chess pieces where designed by the owner to confuse his opponent !

  10. Irving Finkel is such a source of knowledge and understanding.

  11. YAY! Irving Finkel! Never can get enough of him.

  12. This is a treat! Thank you. And also, extremely fun to hear a shout-out for Agadmator. For anyone interested in chess (presumably anyone watching this already knows this, but still), he's a great source of fun analysis of historical and modern games.

  13. Gandalf the Grey. ?
    He certainly is an elderly wizard .

  14. I am surprised Finkel does not have 5x the amount of shared content online. The world needs way more Finkel.

  15. Donkeys for knights. This was reality.
    Rollo Ganger, who founded the Norman nation, was known as the ganger because his feet touched the ground on his horse. Shetland and Norse horses were quite small.

    R

  16. Please do a similar Irving Finkel presentation on the 'Extraordinary Origins of Backgammon' including the much lesser known history in China where it was called 'Shuanglu Qi' which translates to 'Double Land' or in another interpretation as 'Double Sixes' which theoretically would be Shuang Liu'. From what I've discovered from the scant English language materials on the subject in China, it was very popular in China for 1,500-2,000 years, but has now become completely forgotten in present-day Chinese culture. Chinese Chess, Mah Jiang, and Go being the most popular games in China these days. I'd just love to re-introduce the wonderful game of Shuanglu Qi (Backgammon, Nard, Shesh Besh,Tabula, Takhteh, Tavli, Tavla, Ban-Sugoroku, Ssang-ryuk etc.) to modern Chinese culture.

  17. I have to say Dr. Finkel, chess did not go from Persia to Europe and thence to the rest of the world. It travelled from both Persia and India into Thailand and Burma probably via Islamic merchants, thence to China, Korea and eventually Japan, mutating along the way.
    'European' chess did not arrive in the Far East until the mid 1650's at the earliest and those cultures all had their own native variations tracable back to Shatranj, if not directly from Chataranga itself.
    I would be pleased to discuss this at your pleasure.

  18. The Queen's Gambit was based on a novel. It is indeed a very good read, but what a shame people watch a television version of it.

    Chess is indeed the best game ever invented, and it will never be exhausted.

  19. Elephants, chariots, horses, you say. I played chess against an Indian opponent a couple of summers ago on a giant chess set, and he called the rooks cannons, which I thought was fantastic, because they do fire in a straight line until they hit something. I think he did call the Knights elephants, and I don't remember what he called the bishops.

  20. The tale of innumerable grains on a chess board is familiar to virtually everyone in Russia. Chess used to be big here, and our math teachers and pop-science writers used this story to illustrate very large numbers. (by the way, chess are called shahmaty in Russian, from the Persian "Shah Mat", the King's dead, as mentioned here.)

  21. To get the age the chess pieces that has only three pieces. The age of firearms first appeared in China about 14 10 which the great Mr finkle would have known

  22. In case you're interested, if you were to double the number of grains of rice on each successive square of a chessboard, starting with 1 grain on the first square, (according to the anecdote by the wonderful Mr Finkel at around 9:02), by the time you get to the 64th square you would be the proud owner of 9,223,372,036,854,780,000 grains of rice…

  23. Tip to the interviewer for improving her videos: make no commentary, just ask questions. No one cares about your family playing Monopoly.

    {:-:-:}

  24. When Anand was champion, there was a huge upswing in people stopping to play cricket and play chess for five minutes instead.
    Very accurate indeed

  25. The King should have been a General. Queen should have been a Commander. So on and so forth. Should have been military rankings.

  26. This was fun. Thanks for all of the history, insights and good humour.

  27. there is something very beautiful about that 12 century chess(?) set.
    you can almost see the love/passion it's creator had for the game, whatever game it may have been.

  28. 6:00 … too bloody for a boardgame! Edgar Rice Burroughs for his book The Chessmen of Mars adapted chess into the game of Jetan which is described as being very popular (in fact Martian soldiers carry with them small versions of the game to while away the hours between conflicts). The "Chessmen" had an arena sized board with actual people as pieces. When a "piece" moved into an opponent's square they would fight to the death for to determine who would occupy the square.

  29. the fact that irving has watched agadmator blows my socks off

  30. Is it true that everything came from India? Fun having friends from Iran and India and one of them discovers Aesop's Fables or Plato on your bookshelf. Listen to the argument –
    "This was stolen from Persia"
    "And where did Persia get it? From India!"
    OMG on and on hahaha. Plumbing, agriculture, domesticated dogs hahaha.

  31. I’ve always felt that the player is actually the king piece, he had to survive, would never be on the battlefield in actual battle, it’s his mind that was used.

  32. 1:09:14 The chess pieces originally all had much shorter and more restricted moves.

    Imagine a 5×5 grid, with the piece in the centre.

    It's thought that in the original rules, each square on that grid could be reached in 1 move by only 1 of the pieces (chariot, elephant, king, vizier and horsie, as they were known).

    The chariot had the orthogonal jump. The elephant had the diagonal jump. The king had the orthogonal step and the vizier had the diagonal step (afaik, the earliest recorded rules let the king take diagonal steps as well as orthogonal, but it may indeed be that he had already been upgraded).

    This horsie simply got all of the leftover squares that nobody else wanted… but this made it absurdly strong! Ultimately, every other piece had to be vastly improved to check the power of the horsie and while no longer the strongest piece, to many it remains the most feared.

    On the side, an almost nuclear escalation led to a game with 12 big strong draught horsies for each player (and no useless elephants). The board was so full of powerful beasts that the horsies' move had to be restricted to jumping only in a straight line. Luckily this game turned out to be rubbish by comparison and the escalation appears to have halted, without having caused any great excess of harm to civilisation.

    On the subject of chess as a non-gambling game: I'd (reluctantly) bet my toenail collection that chess originated not in India, but in central Asia.

    Equally in opposition to the prevailing mythology, I also think (and I suspect Dr. Finkel may share this suspicion) that the "Arabic" sets have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the fairytale notion that Islam forbade depictions of people or animals. Islamic art from this period very definitely features no such insensibility whatsoever. The abstracted pieces are simply easier to carve or mould, are more robust and have more visual clarity. In my view, the only religion that's involved is the religious dedication that's formed around the game itself.

    While the earliest confirmed example of an abstracted chess piece is from Umayyad (Islamic) Hawara, in Jordan, deposited within decades of the earliest known set (from Afrasiyab in Sogdia), it isn't entirely certain that these abstracted pieces were an Islamic innovation. There are too few pieces and too little information in general from the period to have any real idea. Once more pieces started to survive to the modern day, they would all be of roughly this type, which continued to be produced into the middle ages and beyond, well after the Lewis pieces and indeed, past the advent of early turned pieces. Being manufactured for roughly a thousand years, this is still the main type of chess set, as far as I'm concerned and I do wish it would resurge in popularity, though not to any sort of dominant position, I suppose; I'd rather if the main types (figural, turned and abstract) could share the world's patronage more equally.

    If I could change the rules, off the top of my head (which I should think the best way to condemn the future eternity of players), I'd like to see a rule where black alone can "castle" ("duel"?) with the enemy king, if ever the two kings are opposite, summoning the lout forth from his nest, but the black king also leaping hotly into the fray.

    Otherwise, a rule like he winning condition in tafl, whereby a player wins if they can get their king to an opposite corner.

  33. The origins of chess come from India. Called chaturanga. The queen had less movement and rooks were elephants.

  34. Fun fact, in spanish the elephant is still called the "Alfil" 😀

  35. What happens to the game if you make a 3 – person chess board? What new strategies and theories emerge?

  36. There is a wonderful collection of chess pieces at Maryhill Museum of Art in the Columbia Gorge, Washington State, USA

  37. "The Queen's Gambit is absolutely brilliant!"
    you might want to mind the fact that it's the story of a kid addicted to sleeping pills, who throws her life out the window to pursue a first prize in competitive chess tournaments.
    it's not a story of self-improvement or hope…. it's a story of addiction and self-destruction that just happens to end on a high note by being placed in an environment of disproportionately high rewards to the already high risk.
    you take that story and use it as a guiding example to drive the life of a person, and chances are, they gonna end up dead.
    just because Beth succeeded doing that, doesn't mean anyone else will, at the same thing, or in the same way.

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