Chess Piece history

Chess was originally invented, according to Murray, about four hundred A.D., so it isn't as old as a lot of people think. The Indians who originally played it did so on the board of an existing game, and they carved rather large and ornate pieces to represent the four parts of their army which existed at the time. Chataranga, as it was called, meant four parts; and these were the cavalry, the elephant brigade, the foot soldiers and the chariots. The sides were also provided with a General and his adviser.

The cavalry were represented as horsemen, and these eventually became our Knights, and there has never been much confusion over what they were.

Their moving even showed the side- stepping gait of a horse. The elephants were originally ornate creatures with full ears, tusks and riders; they became our present-day Bishops in a manner which was very curious, as we shall see.

The chariots too have characteristic moves, capable of covering large areas of ground; they were called by the Persians Wolk, or wind or spirit, because of their speed, and they are our present-day Rooks.

The foot soldiers: well, they were mere Pawns and have ever been so. The General has always been all powerful, although he changed to a King in medieval times. His adviser used to be somewhat weaker and male, and only since the change of sex has the Queen gained her present power over the realm.

The game was carried by traveller and merchant to the East to form the basis of Japanese and Chinese varieties of Chess. It also moved to the West, to Persia, and eventually, after Persia was overrun by the Arabs, to Arabia. It was in the Arabic countries that Chess came into it's prime; it was the pride of Kings and Caliphs and they held great Tournaments and had their own Champions. The great Masters of these days, Al Sulede, Al Haudlee and Hassee were writers of Chess books on strategy and they played simultaneous matches, played blindfold, and even had a grading system. However, because of Mohammedan law images were not allowed, and some original Indian Pieces were replaced by mere representations; but at least the Arabs knew what the odd shapes were supposed to be even if the Priests didn't. Thus the King and Queen became mere ivory knobs with a small projection on top to represent the Rajah who used to sit in his Howdah on an elephant; the Queen was slightly smaller. The elephant became an ivory knob with two projections to represent either the ears or the tusks, while the horseman was an ivory knob with a single forward leaning projection which was the head. The Rooks became square pieces of ivory with a serrated top, and these seemed to have represented the edge of the chariot and the hands holding the reins.

Now when the Arab merchants took these Pieces and the Games to Europe, the locals in Italy and Spain had not known the original Indian Pieces, and did not know accurately what these ivory Pieces were meant to represent; they certainly didn't know of elephants. Thus, the elephant's two separate tusk projections were in one part of Europe interpreted as heads, and they were carved as separate heads on the Piece. In another part of Europe the name of the elephant, Al-Feul was translated as Fol or Fool and the knobs were taken to be the knobs of a jester's hat. So even today, the French Piece is La Feul, or jester. In Scandinavia, however, the nearest word to La Feul was the Latin Calvis or Churchman, and as the two knobs on the Piece looked like parts of the Bishop's Mitre, so it became a Bishop. This wasn't so silly as it sounds, as the Bishops were an integral part of the Northern armies in these times. And thus we have progressed from elephants to Bishops. The Rooks being square ivory Pieces became tower shapes with crenellations arising from the serrated tops; thus they were renamed Castles for a short time, and they are called towers in some European countries. In Southern Russia, however, the locals, not knowing the meaning of Rook, interpreted it as Ruker or their local boat, and thus in some Russian sets there are boats in the corner positions.

 Until the mid 19th century, pieces tended to come as one of two extremes.   The rich would display very ornate expensive decorate pieces with delicately crafted representations of kings, queens etc. which were often top-heavy and impractical while everyone else mostly used roughly hewn wooden lumps with only the height of the pieces to distinguish between them. 

In 1847, John Jaques of London created a new design which hit a happy medium between the two and was both practical and elegant.  On the one hand, the pieces were easily distinguishable by easily recognisable symbols atop a pedestal - the King with a crown, the Queen with a coronet and the bishop by a mitre.  The pawn is supposed to be a representation of the mason symbol for square and compasses while the piece de resistance, the knight, is an copy of the horse cut into the Elgin marble in Italy.   On the other hand, by using different heights of pedestal, the useful idea of representation by height was retained.  Howard Staunton apparently immediately realised the overall benefit of such a new design and lent his name to the new pieces which were duly launched in 1849.  These Staunton pieces were immediately popular and soon became all the rage.  At the end of the century, the design had evolved slightly - the protruberances of certain pieces were reduced or made more robust to prevent breakages and enable easier mass production.  The newly released 1890 design quickly became the de facto standard for Chess all over the world and it has stayed that way ever since.  Jaques of London, uniquely, are still owned and run by the Jaques family and their Staunton sets are still used worldwide by most National Chess organisations and tournaments.