1. Chess.

    "Jesus," you’re saying to yourself right now, "enough images there, @thedorkages?" The answer is no, not even close. I feel beholden to mention that the last picture above is out of period, from the 15th century, and I have included it entirely for the timeless expressions of (on the left) boredom and despair and (on the right) smug nerdiness on the faces of the chess players.

    If instead of “why so many illustrations” you’re saying “why does that bird seem to speak to me of the inevitable death of all things?” I can’t help you.

    The question of whether or not chess was invented in India or Persia is one of those bitchy, footnoted historical wars, like “the Russian Revolution: genuine popular movement or dragged kicking and screaming by Lenin?” or “Shakespeare: Shakespeare?” Either way, it got imported across the border almost instantly. India came up with the name, chaturanga, which literally means “four-limbed” and colloquially meant “army”. (In Persian it’s chatrang and in Arabic it’s shatranj, neither of which mean anything in particular.) The word “checkmate” comes from Persians yelling THE SHAH CAN’T MOVE at the end of the game (Shah mat). The oldest known chess piece is from Afghanistan and the oldest known chess set is from Samarkand, both of which are pretty much equidistant between the two. The oldest literary references to chess are, depending on whether you ask a Sanskrit or a Persian scholar, in Sanskrit literature of the 450s or in Persian annals of the 500s. (If you ask a Chinese scholar, they will tell you that it is from the Warring States period, circa 200 BCE. Chinese scholars like ruining it for everyone.) There are hells of elephants in it, which to the layman might indicate that the game’s from India, but ha ha! Persia actually had a war commander of elephants, who incidentally was called “Commander of the Indians”, so… Yeah, I don’t know what that means for chess either. It’s complicated. Let’s just go with “it was invented a little before our period, somewhere.”

    It quickly became apparent to everyone that chess was not only a fun and intriguing method of time-passing, as a literary device it was right up there with “evil identical twin” and “lying about foreign countries”. For example: Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. We’ll get into what exactly the Shahnameh was at some later date, but for now, think of it as 11th century historical fiction. Khosrau I, Ferdowsi tells us, was mailed a mysterious board and set of pieces, along with a note from the rajah of India reading “As your name is the King of Kings, all your emperorship over us connotes that your wise men should be wiser than ours. Either you send us an explanation of this game of chess or send revenue and tribute us." This is an actual quote; despite hours of effort, I have not been able to make it any cooler than it is.

    Khosrau had some trouble with it, considering that it is actually impossible to reverse-engineer chess from the board and pieces, but luckily he had a vizier who specialized in being impossible, due to probably being fictional. Having solved chess Khosrau was now free to go about ruling the world but since he was the same guy who had a good time ironically murdering Mazdak he was sort of not into that. Instead he had his vizier invent the game of backgammon and mail it to India without instructions, where they failed to figure out the rules and were forced to pay him tribute (HA HA HA HA!!)

    Anyway, chess spread all over the world in about twenty minutes, aided by the Arabic conquest of Persia and also the rest of Central Asia. China took it and made it xiangqi, named after another game that they’d already had called xiangqi, and then, God bless them, pretended they’d actually invented the whole thing. It showed up in Byzantium and, as with many things in Byzantium, spread to the rest of Europe as a) a courtly extravagance and b) the center of illegal gambling.

    (Sidenote on illegal gambling: remember where I said that chess was as popular a literary metaphor as lying about foreign countries? Well, I’m not sure which one this was; possibly both. Anyway, according to al-Masudi, a traveloguer of the 10th century, Indian chess players regularly gambled limbs on games of chess, especially fingers. Shockingly, Masudi is not very clear on how they kept playing chess with no fingers. End sidenote.)

    By the 700s we have blindfold chess and by the time we hit the 1000s we have French and Norman kings hitting each other over the head with chessboards with surprising regularity. And the bird up there? Well, that’s a piece originally known as the chariot: rakh/rukh. Except “rukh” sounds a hell of a lot like “roc”, and a roc is a mythological bird, apparently with mind powers. And “roc” sounds and looks a hell of a lot like “rook”, English for crow, while the standard chariot piece kind of looked like a tower, so everyone in Europe wildly misunderstood what the piece did and also, its name. So if you’ve been wondering why people call a castle a rook, there you go. It’s a multilingual misunderstanding based on a bad pun. Like so much of history.

     
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      Seriously, favorite tumblr.
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      Fun facts about the history of chess, brought to you by my new favourite blog.
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      Much, much more on the blog, but have another special bonus outtake, readers of my secret identity (“secret”): Ferdowsi...
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