We humans love to play games. Most of us now have at least one game on our smartphones, ready to activate whenever we have a spare moment or need a break from whatever we are doing. But before modern technology came along with its immense convenience, we relied on classic boardgames instead.

Who plays chess?

Chess is the most popular board game of all time and is played in almost every country in the world. We can play badly and just for fun or take it seriously and go all the way to international grand-master standard competitions. Players can be as young as two or three (these are usually acknowledged prodigies, but they count, none-the-less!) and there is no upper age limit at all. The rules are simple enough, but the various pieces and their unique ranges of motion mean that the game can acquire tremendous complexity, which retains and engages the attention of the players.

Top chess tournaments

Some of the top tournaments that feature the best players in the world include:

The FIDE Grand Prix: a group of four tournaments that work as qualifying stages for the following year’s World Chess Championship, which will see an as yet unknown contender face up to 7-time world champ, Magnus Carlsen.

Tal Memorial: named for Mikhail Tal, a former world champion, this contest takes place in Moscow and attracts the strongest chess players from all over the world.

Sinquefield Cup: named for Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield, founders of the Chess Club and Scholastic Centre of St Louis, Missouri where the contest is held, this fairly new competition is by invite-only.

London Chess Classic: this is held in the heart of stylish West Kensington, which features a host of games and competitions, the most prestigious of which is the invitation-only flagship contest between the world’s acknowledged masters.

Tata Steel Chess Tournament: over its 82-year history, this tournament has been named the Hoogovens Tournament, the Corus Chess Tournament and now the Tata Steel Chess Tournament. Players of all levels are welcome to enter and play their way up the rankings, but the Master’s group is the one to watch as 14 of the world’s best players duke it out for supremacy.

But where was chess invented? And when?

Chess in its current form can be traced back at least 1,500 years, and, surprisingly, in such an old and popular game, its origins are clear and undisputed. Prior to the advent of chess in its most recognisable form, there were many games in which pieces were moved to simulate battle tactics – two-player games in which careful planning and strategy were key.

Origins of chess

Chaturanga, which was popular in India around 600AD, was a war game based on the four divisions of combat – which is what the name translates to. The four divisions are:

– Infantry: foot soldiers, represented now by pawns
– Cavalry: represented by knights
– Elephantry: the ancient counterpart of today’s tanks, represented now by the bishop – do bear in mind that pieces and their movements have changed over the years, with the bishop being perhaps the most changed over time.
– Chariotry: a reference to the rook or castle.

The king, of course, is the prize to be guarded by defenders and attacked by the opposition, while the queen was a sort of advisor figure, darting around to block gaps and keep the king safe. The original game was not an exact equal to chess, but at around this time, the existing wargame simulations began to accrete into a recognisable form of chess.

The spread of chess

Persians – then going through a phase of empire building – adopted the game, taking it to their homeland (now modern-day Iran). The Muslim advance under the Ottoman Empire adopted the game, introducing it to Europe, especially Spain where there was a strong Moorish influence.

The growth in popularity

A Spanish priest in the 1560s is arguably the first western chess master. Ruy Lopez de Segura didn’t actually invent the opening gambit that bears his name, but he did write a book about it in 1561. He also advocated ensuring a slender advantage by forcing your opponent to play with the sun in their eyes, not a tactic that has aged particularly well given that we usually play indoors now!

Bringing the game up to date

In the mid-1850s, chess pieces became regularised, finally taking on shapes that we would immediately recognise today (such as the mitre top to the bishops and the horse head for the knight). By this time, travel to most of the world was commonplace, and chess boards were light, portable and offered hours of entertainment, and so the game crept into countries and regions that otherwise might never have learned of the game. It was around this time, too, that the introduction of timed chess came along. Prior to that, a player could take exactly as long as he or she liked, with some games lasting 14 hours! From that time, until the present, chess has stayed the same.