Earliest Chess Books and References

by Bill Wall

Allusions to chess first began to appear in Sanskrit literature in the 7th century. Sometimes the only reference is not to chess but to the chess board, or ashtapada. This could be a chess board or an older Indian race game played by dice on an 8x8 board. Ashtapada in Sanskrit means having 8 legs. The term was used for a spider, a legendery bing with 8 legs, and a game board.

Perhaps the first reference to game pieces that could be chess or a similar game is found in Vasavadatta by Subandhu (550-620). It was written in Sanskrit around 600 AD. This was a romantic story which tells the story of Princess Vasavadatta (daugher of King Pradyota) of Ujjaini falling in love with King Udayana of Vatsa. There is a description for chessmen (nayadyutair) and chess squares (koshthika) on a two-colored chess board. The game itself was probably Chaturanga (not mentioned by Subandhu), the earliest precursor of modern chess. Chaturanga in Sanskrit means four parts. In India, an army platoon had four parts - elephants, chariots, soldiers on horseback, and foot-soldiers.

Perhaps the first reference to Chatrang (later becoming shatranj), the Persian word for chess, was The Karnamak-i-Artakhshatr-i-Papakan (The Records of Ardashir, son of Papak). It was a text to honor Ardashir (Artaxerxes), the founder of the Sassanid Kingdom, who ruled Persia from 226 to 241. It was written around 600 in Pahlavi (Middle Persian). The text mentions that Ardashir was skilled at Chatrang.

Around 620 Harshacharita (memoir of Harsha) by Bana Bhatta (Bhattabana) was written in Sanskrit. It was a text to honor Harshavardhana (Harsha), an emperor in northern India from 606 to 647. There was a reference to the ashatapada board used in Chaturanga. Bana also wrote "Kadambari" which may have had several other references to chess.

Around 700 AD Xusraw Kawadan ud redag (Khosro, son of Kavad, and his page) was wrtten in Pahlavi. It mentions chess, ashtapada, and nard. Xusraw I (Khosro) was king of Persia from 531 to 579 AD. He was also known as King Chosroe I Anushiravan. In all likelihood, he was the man who received the first Indian chess set.

Perhaps the first reference to chess in arabic is Naqa'id Jarir wa-al-Farazdaq, a poem by al-Farazdaq (641-728). It mentions Baidaq, the pawn (foot-soldier) of shatranj. It was written around 728 AD.

Around 800 Chatrang-namak (Matigan-i-chatrang) was written in Pahlavi about the history of chatrang and the introduction of the game into Persia during the time of Khusraw I, who ruled from 531 to 578.

Around 840 al-Adli ar Rumi (800-870) wrote Kitab ash-shatranj (Book of the chess) in Arabic. This is a lost manuscript, but referenced in later works. It was considered the first comprehensive book dealing with chess. We know of it through referring manuscripts that preserved some of its texts and chess problems. The text included chess history, openings, endings and mansubat (chess problems). The collection had hundreds of chess problems. He also classified chess players into five distinct classes. He also found a system for sorting out the openings into positions, which he called Tabiya. His lost work may have also been the first to describe the knight's tour.

An Arabic book of Shatranj problems was written by ar-Razi, called Latif fi-sh shatranj (Elegance in Chess), written around 845. ar-Razi defeated al-Adli to become the strongest chess player in the world. He also wrote Kitab ash-shatranj, which has since been lost. All that has survived ar-Razi's book is a few opinions on the endgame and a couple of chess problems.

Around 850 Haravijaya (the Victory of Siva) by Rajanaka Ratnakara Vagisvara, was written in Sanskrit. The book is an epic which describes the defeat of demon Andhaka by Siva. It explained the four units of the old Indian army and the ashtapada, referring to chess. The four units were patti (foot-soldiers), ashwa (horses), ratha (chariots), and dwipa (elephants).

Around 875 Kavyalankara (A work on poetics) by the Kashmir poet Rudrata, written in Sanskrit, alludes to the knight's tour problem. It used a half-chessboard to cover all squares by a chariot (rat-ha or rook),elephant (gaja), and knight (turaga or horse).

Around 890 Abu-Bakr Muhammad ibn Yahya as-Suli (854-946) co-authored a book of problems (mansubat) and a book of openings (ta-biyat) for Shatranj, called Kitab-ash-shatranj (Book of Chess), volume one and two. He was assisted by Abu l-Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad as-Sarakhsi, a physician. One of his books contained the knight's tour on an 8x8 chessboard. as-Suli was the strongest player of his time, the world champion. One of as-Suli's book was a critique on al-Adli's book.

Around 920 Abu'l-Faraj ibn al-Muzaffar ibn Sa'id al-Lajlaj (900-970) wrote Kitab mansubat ash-shatranj (book of chess problems). It is another lost chess book. Manuscripts containing some of its contents have survived. He may have been the first person to analyze and publish chess openings. al-Lajlaj means the stammerer. The oldest chess game comes from a match between as-Suli and al-Lajlaj.

Around 920, the historian Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Jarir at-Tabari (838-923) wrote Kitab akhbar ar-rusul wal-muluk. Included was a chess incident in 802 between Nicephorus, Emperor of Byzantium and the Caliph Huran ar-Rashid. He described another incident of how the caliph al-Mutazz was playing a game of chess when a messenger brought the head of his rival, al-Musta'in to him. The caliph paid no attention until the chess game was over.

In 947 Muraj adh-dhahab (Fields of Gold) by the Arabic historian Abu al-Hassan Ali ibn al-Husain ibn Ali ibn Ali ibn Abdullah al-Masudi (888-956) was written in Arabic. It was a history of chess in India and Persia. al-Masudi is known as the Herodotus of the Arabs. He was the first to combine history and scientific geography in a large-scale work. He wrote a 30-volume history of the world. He described 6 different variants of chess, including Astrological Chess, Byzantine round chess, Circular Chess and Cylinder Chess. He wrote about chess wagers in India, with the loser losing money or a finger or hand or more. He described the use of ivory in India to make chess pieces.

Around 1000 the first European text on chess appeared. This was the Versus de Schachis in the Einsiedeln, Switzerland manuscript. It was a 99-line Latin poem on chess. It described a chess board in two colors.

In 1008 a will of Count Ermengaud I (Count of Urgel in Spain) mentioned chess. He willed that his executors give his chessmen to the convent of St. Giles, for the work of the church.

The Shahnama (Book of Kings), the national epic of Persia, begun by Daqiqi (900-976) in 975 and finished by Abu'l-Qasim Mansur Firdawsi (940-1020) in 1011 was written in Pahlavi. It is similar to the Chatrang-namak. It tells how chess (satranj) was introduced into Iran from India. Ambassadors from India (Hind) came to Persia during the reign of Nushirwan (Chosroes I Anushirwan) with a chess-board and men. If the Persians could solve how the chessmen were set on a chessboard correctly, the Indians would pay the tribute to the Persians. If they could not solve this, India would no longer have to give tribute to Persia. In fact, if the Persians could not solve how the pieces were set up, Persia would pay tribute to India. The king's minister, Buzurjmihr, took the pieces home and discovered the secret in a day and a night.

Around 1030 the Tarikh al-Hind (History of India) by Abu'r-Raihan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Beruni (973-1048), also known as Alberuni, was written in Arabic. It was a travel description which had the rules of 4-handed Chaturanga, played with dice.

In 1030 Ruodlieb was written. It was a German romantic poem written in Latin by a monk from the abbey in Tegernsee in Upper Bavaria. It is the first reference to chess (ludus scachorum) in German literature. A knight was in the company of an enemy king (either King Henry II or King Robert of France), which he beat at chess.

In 1058 a will of Countess Ermessind of Barcelona mentions chess. She left to St. Giles of Nimes her crystal chessmen.

In 1061 Cardinal Petrus (Pietro or Peter) Damiani (1007-1072) of Ostia wrote a letter to Pope-elect Alexander II and Archdeacon Hildebrand (later Pope Gregory VII) complaining about chess being played by the lay people. He urged the pope to forbid chess from the clergy and to punish the bishop of Florence (who later became Pope Nicholas II) who played chess at a lodging. Cardinal Damiani was later canonized and made Doctor of the Church. Damiani's efforts against chess placed chess on the list of games forbidden to the clergy.

Around 1110 the encyclopedia Manasollasa (Delight of the Spirit), by the South Indian ruler King Sovedeva, was written in Sanskrit. It was the first description of chess in South India. It gave a long list of games played, including chess.

In 1148 Rajatarangini (River of Kings) by Kalhana was written in Sanskrit. It was a chronicle of the kings of Kashmir. It alluded to 4-handed Chaturanga.

In 1148 Alexiad, a 15-volume history, was written. This was the first Greek reference to chess. This was a biography of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnena (1050-1118) by his daugher, Anna Comnena, while in exile. She describes her father playing chess with friends in Book 12. She also says that chess was invented by the Assyrians. The Crusaders may have been exposed to chess from Emperor Comnena, and may have brought it back to England.

Around 1250 the Quaedam moralitas de scaccario per Innocentium papum (the Innocent Morality) was published. It may be the oldest of chess moralities. The world resembles a chessboard. Things are in black or white. The colors represent life and death, or praise and blame. It was first attributed to Pope Innocent III (1163-1216), a prolific sermon writer. Later, it was attributed to John of Wales (1220-1290), a Franciscan who taught at Paris and Oxford and was a chess player.

Around 1205 Wigalois by Wirnt von Gravenberg was written. It mentions Courier chess, played on a 12x8 board.

Around 1280, Jacobus de Cessolis (1250-1322), a Dominican from Lombardy, wrote Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium. It is one of the earliest allegories and moralities pertaining to chess and it began as a sermon. Probably no other work of medaeval times was copied so much. It rivalled the Bible in popularity and number of printings. The sermon is divided into 4 books and 24 chapters. The first book deals with the origin of chess and the fourth book deals with the moves of the chessmen. The other books explain the pieces as symbolical of the feudal society. He attributes the invention of chess to Babylon during the reign of Evil-Merodach. Chess corrected the evil manners of this king and to avoid idleness. It is a version of the original Innocent Morality.

In 1283 Libros del Axedrez dados y tablas (Book of Chess and other games) was written for King Alfonso X (1221-1284), King of Castile. It was the first encyclopeida of games in European literature. The first of the 7 parts of the Alfonso manuscript is devoted wholly to chess, and contains 103 problems. It also includes descriptions of several chess variants.

Around 1340 the Gesta Romanorum was written. It is a collection of stories and moralities. Three chapters relate to chess.

Around 1350 Nafa'is al-funun (Treasury of the Sciences), a Persian encyclopedia by Muhammad ibn Mahmud al-Amuli (1300-1352), mentions chess. The first chapter describes the invention of chess in India. The second chapter deals with the derived games of chess. This source is the first to describe Timur's Great Chess.

In 1432 Johannes Ingold (1400-1465) wrote Guldin Spil. He writes about the 7 deadly sinds, illustrating each with a game. Chess represented pride and humility.

Around 1450 Panchadandachattraprabandha mentions chess without dice. The book was a tale of king Vikramaditya (380-413 AD).

In 1474 William Caxton (142201491) published the Game and Playe of the Chesse in English. It was translated from Jehen de Vignay's French version of the Innocent Morality. It was the 3rd book printed in English, after the Bible and The Recuell of the Historyes of Troye, and the first English book published in England. It was the first printed book in English to make extensive use of woodcuts for pictures.

In 1495 Libre dels jochs partits dels schacs en nombre de 100 from Francesch Vicent was published in Valencia. It is a lost book. The last known copy was seen in 1811. It mentioned the first modern move of the Queen and Bishop and was a book of chess openings. It was the first treatise on modern chess.

In 1497 Repeticion de amores e art de axedrez con CL Juegos de partido (Discourse on Love and the Art of Chess with 150 endings) by Luis Ramirez Lucena was written. It was the first surviving book with the modern rules of chess. Only 8 copies are known to exist. The book is the first to include the old rules of chess and the new rules of chess (most notably, the movement of the Queen).

In 1512, Questo libro e da imparare giocare a scachi et de li partiti was written by the Portuguese player Pedro Damiano (1480-1544). It was the first chess book published in Italy (published in Italian in Rome). The book went through eight editions in the 16th century.  Damiano suggests that the game was invented by Xerxes because chess is known as Xadrez in Portuguese and Ajedrez in Spanish.  However, these words came from the old Persian chaturanga via Arabic xarandj. His book is the oldest that definitely states that the square on the right of the row closest to each player must be white.  His book was translated into English and published in London in 1562 by James Rowbothum.

In 1513 Scacchia Ludus (The Game of Chess) was written by Marcus Antonius Hieronymus Vida (1490-1566), Bishop of Alba, in Latin. He is the first to mention Tower and castle (rook). The poem inspired Jones's Caissa, the goddess of chess. It describes a chess game between Apollo and Hermes.

In 1524, Damiano updated his book, now entitled, Libro da imparare giocare a Scacchi: & de bellitissimi partiti revisit & recorrecti.  Com summa dilgentia emendati da molti famisissimi Giocatori.  In lingua Spagnola et Italiana.  Composto per Damiano, Poruguese.  It was printed in Rome by Antonio Bladi de Asula.  The book showed a smothered checkmate with a knight.  There were 88 games included.  The book was reprinted by D. Antonio Porto.  One edition was printed at Bologna by Gio. Rossi in 1606.  Another edition was printed in Venice by Peter Farri in 1618.

In 1555 Olaus Magnus (1490-1557) published Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (History of the Northern Peoples) in Rome. His book was the first comprehensive history of Scandinavia. He describes chess in the Scandinavian countries. It described Norse parents playing chess with the boyfriends of their daughters, and determining if they were good suitors by noting thier conduct during the game.

In 1561 Ruy Lopez (pronounced Rue-y Lopeth) de Segura (1530-1580) wrote Libro de la invencion liberal y arte del juego del Axedrez, por Ruy-Lopez de Sigura, clerigo, vezino dela villa Cafra. He wrote the book in response to Damiano's book.  It contains 66 games.  In 1584, his book was translated into Italian by Gio. Dominico Tarsia and printed at Venice by Cornelius Arrivabene.  In 1655, it was translated into French and published at Brussels.

In 1597 Orazio (Horatio) Gianutio of Mantia wrote Libro nel quale si tratta della maniera di giucar a scacchi, con alcuni sottilissimi partiti, published in Turin. It contains 6 openings and a few problems.

In 1604 Alessandro Salvio (1575-1640) published Trattato dell'inventione et arte liberale del gioco degli scacci in Naples. It contained 31 chapters with chess openings.  The last edition was printed at Naples by Felix Mosca in 1723. 

In 1614 Arthur Saul published Famous game of Chesse-play. It classified different kinds of mate, including stalemate and scholar's mate, and fool's mate.

In 1616 Augustus, Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg (Gustavus Selenus) (1579-1666), wrote Das Schach-oder Konig-Spiel (Chess of the King's Game). It was published in Leipzig. It was the first German instructive chess book. Much of it was a translation of Tarsia's Italian version of Ruy Lopez's book.

In 1620 Gioachino Greco (1600-1634) writes on chess traps.

In 1656, Greco's work was being published by F. Beale in a book called The royall Game of Chesse-play. Sometimes the recreation of the late king, with many of the nobility. It contained chess traps and almost 100 gambits.

In 1689 Thomas Hyde (1636-1702) published Historia shailudii (History of Chess). This was the first scholarly account of the history of chess.

In 1690 B. Asperling (1650-1710) wrote Traite du Ieu Royal des Echecs and published in Lausanne. Openings are classified in an orderly way for the first time. Asperling was a strong player who could also play chess blindfolded.

In 1694, Thomas Hyde publishes De Ludis Orientalibus.

In 1735 Joseph Bertin (1695-1736) wrote The Noble Game of Chess. Containing Rules and Instructions for the Use of those who have already a little Knowledge of this Game. It was the first worthwhile chessbook in the English language. It contained opening analysis, 26 games, and useful advice about the middlegame.

In 1737 Phillip Stamma (1705-1760) published Essai sur jeu des echecs in Paris. It was a book containing 100 endgames with diagrams. It was the first book to use algebraic notation.

In 1745 Phillip Stamma (1700-1760) published his Noble Game of Chess. It contained 100 endgames and 74 opening variations. He had become one of the best players in England.

In 1748, at the age of 22, Francois-Andre Danican Philidor (1726-1795) published his Analyze du Jeu des Echecs (Analysis of the Game of Chess) in London. It was one of the most popular chess books of all time and made Philidor and the publishers wealthy. His book was the first chess book to be translated into Russian. This was the first book that organized the chess openings. He was the first to number each move and its reply with the same number.

In 1913 H. J. R. Murray wrote A History of Chess, published by Oxford University Press. It is 900 pages long and the best reference to chess history.