African Origins of Chess?

Exhibit at U.S. Chess Hall of Fame on the ancient Egyptian game, Senet. Copyright © 2001, Daaim Shabazz.

Exhibit at U.S. Chess Hall of Fame on the ancient Egyptian game, Senet.
Copyright © 2001, Daaim Shabazz.

Dr. Joseph Bailey, II has recently penned an article titled, “Chess Originated in Africa.” We have all heard this before, but let us be specific! For example, Bailey states in his essay,

But Western literature admits that the origin of Chess is uncertain. Whenever such a statement is made, experience has taught me that the uncertainty most likely indicates it originated in Africa.

The game of Shatranj!

First, we know that Western literature is not always the most reliable source for many reasons. Asian literature records the existence of ancient forms of chess, but I will agree that the origins of chess (as a concept) are unclear. Most accept the notion that the ancestor to chess (that we play today) was created in India and was called “chataranga.” It then traveled westward to Persia where it became “chatrang.” It was then recorded that the Arabs learned if from the Persians after which the name took the Arabized form of “shatranj.” The name of the pieces were: shah, firzan, faras, fil, rukhkh and baidaq. (see this link!) Bill Wall, who is based in the U.S., cites Asian literature discussing the orgins of chess (see his catalog here).

Second, we cannot always assume that all art forms were created in Africa unless we are very specific about the claims we are making. Dr. Bailey makes reference to the ancient Egyptian game of “Senet.” Senet does bear a striking resemblance to “modern-day” chess, but appears to come from a different lineage. As I understand it, Senet was more of a “race” game with the moves determined by randomization. Below is a painting of Queen Nefertari (1295-1255BC) playing Senet. When traveling to Egypt, I did not see this painting of the famous African Queen, but it is quite revealing.

Queen Nefertari of Egypt playing chess.

Queen Nefertari of Egypt playing Senet.

Third, the game played today most likely traveled across the Sahara in caravans and finally taken into Spain by the African Moors during their 800-year rule. A better question would be whether the Moors took a different form of game into Spain than the version that came from the Indian subcontinent. All literature seems to state that it was indeed, “shatranj.” The shatranj board can see below. Some versions probably had less defined features (due to religious restrictions) as pictured here.

Moors playing Shatranj in Castile, 1283AD

Moors playing Shatranj in Castile, 1283AD.

I actually own a set up books on chess set collections and author Dr. Ned Munger gives some history of ancient sets. There would be an interesting history to be learned by how chess sets evolved as the game traveled from region to region. I saw the board game “Senet” in Cairo’s Museum of Ancient Egyptian Antiquities years ago and took a picture of it. The game is also featured in the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame (see top picture). However, there were many different forms of “chess” created in many different lands and many have similarities. Of course there are the Chinese form of chess called “Xiang Qi” and the Japanese form of “Shogi.”

There were other forms played with dice and thus condemned by Muslim clerics as a “game of chance.” Of course, clerics have revised their opinions of this over the years and chess is not considered “haram.” Around 700 AD, Sa’id bin Jubair was a famed African player who gave up his judgeship to pursue blindfold exhibitions. Besides the versions coming from the Arabian penisula, there are also the African chess game of “warri” played with beads. “Chess” is actually a generic name for strategic board games, but it has become associated with the game we play. Note the picture below:

Algiers-Moors playing Chess.

This photo was from an 19th century postcard with a French caption reading “Algers–Negres jouant aux Echecs” meaning “Algiers–Moors playing Chess.”

I wrote in a essay on this photo:

The undated postcard is loosely translated “Algers-Blacks playing chess.” Of course, in French “échecs” does not necessarily refer to “chess,” but could refer to other board games such a warri, ayò, or draughts. Pictured are four men playing what looks like a precursor to contemporary chess. However, the board men appear to be the same height, dark colored and positioned on alternating squares… likened to checkers or its precursor, “el-Quirkat.” Perhaps the game being played was a variant of “Shatranj.” More important is the point of these men showing utmost erudition at a board game requiring strategic execution.

As you can see, there are African origins in forms of chess. The Moors in the above photo are perhaps playing a variant, or it may be related to shatranj, the form taken into Spain by the Moors. Once the Moors (also “maure,” “moro,” “morisco” translated as “black,” or “very dark”) were driven from Spain, the game was remade.

More research has to be done, but of course much of the Moorish literature was burned after the Moors were driven from Spain. In this literature could have been found the origins of modern-day chess. In all, I believe we have to be clear and specific about making claims of African origins of “chess” unless we are talking about a specific version. Hopefully this will clarify some of the issues and begin a discussion.

Daaim Shabazz

Dr. Daaim Shabazz is the creator and webmaster of The Chess Drum. He serves as a tenured faculty member of Global Business & Marketing at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, USA. He holds an MBA in Marketing and a doctorate in International Affairs & Development. He has served the journalist community for more than 30 years and still competes in tournaments occasionally.


  1. Perhaps the various forms discovered in separate parts of the world are merely a reflection of how diverse cultures manifests the spirit or essence of the struggle, which is a universal condition. Chess then may simply be another way of representing the philosophical ideas of Hegel and Nietzsche in regards to the “will to power.”

  2. “First, we know that Western literature is not always the most reliable source for many reasons.” This is an ignornant and racist statement, which you neglect to back up. Can the same be said about Asian literature? Or African literature? Of course, you don’t persue these lines of questioning. It seems to me that you’re mostly concerned with taking a swipe at whitey. Real classy, sir.

    Also, how can you bash “Western Literature” when pretty much all western chess historians ascribe the origins of chess to the Indians (e.g, Henry Davidson) or the Chinese (e.g., Sam Sloan)? Isn’t this an indication that western chess historians may be speaking the truth on this matter?

    Finally, chess didn’t just make its way to Europe through north Africa. The Russians learned chess from their central Asian neighbors. The Russian word for the bishop is pronounced ‘slon’, which means elephant. And we all know that the original sanskrit designation for that piece was the elephant as well.

    So much for any theory claiming that chess originated anywhere except for Asia. Q.E.D.

  3. fasterplease,

    That’s interesting… the Central Asian/Russian connection. That actually makes some sense since Persians probably had contact with the Central Asians through trading routes. I remember Uzbekistan’s Rustam Kasimjanov making mention of the similarities between Arab countries and Central Asian (which are predominantly Muslim). I have also found history of chess getting to Russia through Baghdad, but Persia through Central Asia sounds more accurate.

    I believe we can agree that there were many types of chess from many regions. Dr. Bailey made the mistake of not specifiying which version he was talking about. Apparently he was referring to the chess we play today. I believe Russia learned the game around 1100-1150AD, but Moors entered Spain in 711AD (and brought shatranj with them), some 400 years beforehand. That means chess had to take 100 years to come across the Indian subcontinent through Persia, through the Arabian penisula and then across the Sahara into Northwest Africa. From Morocco, Gibril Tariq entered across the strait and landed on the rock that would later bear his name… Gibraltar.

    The first prominent player in Russia was Alexander Petrov (1794-1867) Europe was François-André Danican Philidor (1726-1795) of France. Both had classical defenses named after them, but Philidor was considered the first noted player in Europe.

    (P.S. I’m not sure how the statement you quoted can be construed to be racist. It is in fact true if we are discussing chess. It is a fact that there are more original sources about chess in languages we (you) do not read and do not know about. Determining the best sources will depend on the subject. For the origins of chess, I believe there are more authentic sources. Full stop.)

  4. Actually, the first prominent European player that we all are probably aware of is Ruy López de Segura (c1540 –1580), a Spanish priest. He wrote a book outlining chess strategy. He is predated by Pedro Damiano from Portugal (1480-1544), who also wrote a comprehensive book on the game.

    What’s fascinating about the Russian-Asian connection is that until they adopted the Western variants of chess in the 18th century, the Russians accepted the Asian rule that black always wins in stalemate. This was opposite to the Arab rule (taken from the Sanskrit) that white always wins in stalemate.

    Also, the Russian word for rook is ‘lodya’ which means ship. The rook is called a ship in some east Asian cultures (Javanese, Siamese) as well. According to Davidson, there is much mystery surrounding this since the original Russian game was clearly given to them from the Persians or Arabs, who referred to the ‘rukh’ as a chariot. Davidson’s Short History of Chess was published over 50 years ago and is my source apart from the internet, so my source may very well be dated.

    I think we can also agree that although chess entered Europe from North Africa well before it entered Russia from central Asia, the Russians adopted the centrail Asian model before they adopted the Western European model.

  5. Interesting!!

    Of course… we know Ruy López de Segura! Players like López and François Philidor were considered pioneers in terms of organizing thoughts into a coherent format. I have read that Damiano claimed that “Xerxes” invented the game. I’m not sure if he means this literally or if he is referring to the Persian society. It is noteworthy that he did credit the Moors, who brought it into the Iberian penisula. This is understood since the Moors also ruled what today is considered Portugal.

    Of course we have lost the history of the Moorish players of Spain who were known for their prowess… including in blindfold. These names and games are lost forever, but certainly there had to be some outstanding players during their nearly 800-year rule. There is an interesting chronology from Bill Wall where he supplies names of important players. Here’s one of interest:

    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.

  6. Damani’s point gets to the heart of the matter … our search for the single inflection point from which chess sprung forth into the world may be futile. In fact, the evidence that so called “western chess” itself is the result of a multi-cultural evolution of a game that probably didn’t even originate in the west, should motivate us to continue this investigation with open minds.

    And although Daaim’s statement about the (lack of) veracity of western literature was indeed overly provocative, as called out by fasterplease, it nevertheless correctly suggests the wisdom of approaching these types of debates with a healthy dose of cultural filtering.

  7. RJT,

    I agree but my comments were referring to the fact that Dr. Bailey implied that western literature is the most reliable source to begin with. In scholarship, there is a tendency to look to the west as the cradle of knowledge. In my business, I hear it all the time and I believe it really depends on the subject. Sometimes we fall into the trap of looking at these sources when in fact there are more authentic sources for information.

    The Golden Age of the Moor, Dr. Ivan van Sertima

    I do believe most western literature put the origins of chess in the east since there is so much ancient literature in both Sanskrit and Arabic to draw from. However, when chess hit Europe is always a fierce debate. “fasterplease” poses an interesting question that chess may have entered through Central Asia. Of course we may understand that the current rules (and its Catholic symbolism), chess came from the Iberian peninsula and spread eastward… not from east Europe and westward. Perhaps in Russia, shatranj was still being played but was adapted when the new form developed wide acceptance in Europe.

    I have read many accounts (from European and African sources) that much of the Moorish literature was burned after the Moors were defeated in 1492… poetry, science, literature, religion, architecture and yes… chess. A limited amount of literature did survive when some of the Moors escaped back into Africa. However, I also understand that some chess literature may be crumbling under the sweltering heat in what remains of Moorish Africa.

    I’ll give an example of why we view history with a cultural lens. I was in Spain for the Chess Olympiad in 2004 and was given a brochure that had the famous chess painting of the Moors below. However, the difference is that the heads had superimposed faces of Europeans! I noticed that dark skin was still present in the feet and the heads were not put on squarely. Who was responsible and why did they do such a thing? While I disagree with Bailey’s assertion that chess (that we play today) originated in Africa, the continent’s contributions have not been fully noted.

    Moors playing chess in Castile, 1283AD

  8. “First, to get to the truth you can’t start with the assumption, as Dr Bailey does, that Western literary sources should serve as your foundation. The mutli-cultural evolution of chess demands that a variety of sources be considered, with the same mix of open mindedness and circumspection.”

  9. Okay, I don’t get it. Why are you guys being skeptical of Western chess historians? These are the very folks who attest that chess didn’t originate in the West but in India (or in the case of Sam Sloan, in China). They’re not making these claims because of some cultural bias or axe to grind. They make these claims because that is where the evidence leads them. Henry Davidson’s Brief History of Chess (Greenburg Publishing, 1949) has a three page bibliography with 66 entries. It is a well-researched and organized short work of history. In fact, Davidson takes pains to refute varying claims that chess originated in the West. And if you don’t believe him, you can check his sources or evaluate his arguments. There are no secrets. As a result, he shouldn’t be mistrusted in any way because he is Western.

    Now, Daaim’s point is that the contributions of the Moors to the development of chess may be understated or to some extent ignored in Western chess literature. I don’t know if this is true, but frankly I doubt it. If there were Moorish texts available, historians of all stripes would discuss them just as they discuss early Arab chess literature. Names such as as-Suli, al-Lajlaj, Ibn an-Nadim, al-Adli, and ar-Razi are not Western but are known by all chess historians because they were important figures in chess. Race, religion and culture has got nothing to do with it.

    It seems to me that there just aren’t many Moorish chess texts available. Whether they were mostly destroyed, have yet to be found, or were in small number to begin with has yet to be determined. In the meantime, please don’t knock Western chess historians. Like most historians, they do the best they can with the little evidence they have.

  10. fasterplease,

    The Story of the Moors in Spain

    My point is not the skepticism but that there may be better sources of information. I digress… western historians are studying what is available to them and you are correct.

    I have read Stanley Lane-Poole’s (from England), “The Story of the Moors in Spain,” where he discusses in vivid detail life in Moorish Spain until their fall. It is an excellent book done by a western scholar. There is Dr. Reinhart Dozy’s (from Holland) book titled, “Spanish Islam,” a rare find. My father had to order that book from Europe. Dr. Ivan van Sertima’s (from Guyana) produced an excellent compilation of articles by scholars titled, “The Golden Age of the Moor” (book cover in my previous post).

    My issue is with comments implying that one must explore Western sources first and use that as the basis for understand the origins of chess. OK… maybe I was reacting to Dr. Bailey’s initial comment as RJT said. I suppose there is one other issue that you allude to… accessibility. It is correct that most people do not read Sanskrit and Arabic so they only study what they can understand… Latin-based language texts. If that is your argument, then I understand.

    Most literature suggests that the volumes of Moorish literature were destroyed and some have been lost due to African neglect later on. However, you may underestimate the fervor in which Europeans wanted to erase any sign of Moorish existence and their contributions. In 1492, retribution was fierce. In Jose V. Pimienta-Bey’s excellent paper on Moorish Spain, he cites author James T. Monroe (probably a western scholar):

    Monroe tells us of how the economic and political interests of the new Catholic Spanish state compelled Spaniards to destroy many Moorish manuscripts that the Conquistadores acquired after the fall of Granada in 1492. According to Pascual Gayangos, Cardinal Jimenez de Cisneros ordered the burning of nearly eight-thousand books in the public square of Granada. The Cardinal is said to have asserted that since the books were all in Arabic, they were Korans, and therefore dangerous.

    Of course, this destruction has been cited widely in European, Asian and African literature. In fact Lane-Poole’s description of Moors expulsion (on the last two pages of book) is tinged with anger. The Moorish era is truly one of the missing links of chess history. I have read a bit about the blindfold exhibitions, but there is little record of the 800-year chess history during Moorish rule. I actually learned Moorish history very early in life and it has always held some fascination with me. Maybe I’ll investigate and conduct some research on their chess contributions.

  11. When it comes down to it, I disagree with your reluctance to admit the prominence and paramount importance of Western chess historians. Without the work of Western chess historians, our knowledge of the history of the game would be quite paltry since the West has produced the greatest number of chess histories. For example. Harold Murrary spent 14 years compiling his 900 pp History of Chess nearly 100 years ago. Has any non-Western historian taken such pains to chronicle chess? And Murray was by no means the first nor the last. There may be chess texts scattered about the Hindu, Persian, Arab, and Moorish worlds, but are these true histories? Are they works of scholarship? Do they exist today in any other form but as artifacts?

    What this boils down to is that, if anyone wishes to learn about chess history, they should study mostly Western authors because Western authors comprise the majority of chess scholarship. This isn’t cultural bias. It’s fact.

    On the other hand, your fascination with the Moors of Spain and their chess seems well founded. It would be interesting to know what they were able to do before the Reconquista. It’s also a shame that the Spanish with their Inquisition did their best to destroy the remnants of such a flourishing culture. Maybe one day we’ll learn more about them.

  12. fasterplease,

    I’ve already cited important sources of western scholarship. Certainly they are important… “paramount” is stretching it. These scholars compiled information from whom? You ask if the histories of the east are true depictions of scholarship. That is a strange question. Of course they are! How would western scholars have been able to write the histories??

    These scholars I’ve mentioned (Lane-Poole and Dozy) were “Oriental/Arabic” scholars so they translated and compiled the histories from eastern scholars. There is no other way they could’ve gotten the information. As I said, if we read Arabic and other eastern languages we may be surprised at the volumes of information on chess (shatranj/chatrang/chataranga).

    You earlier stated that people should study western chess history because it is most prolific. I’m not sure how you’ve determined this, but nevertheless, proliferation does not mean “most accurate.” Western scholarship does not mean “most accurate.” Why should the west be the authority… which is my original question. If you’re only talking about post-1492 chess, then I’ll concur.

    I do like the spirit of your last paragraph.

  13. CHESS, Iranian or Indian Invention?
    By: Shapour Suren-Pahlav

    Murray and van der Linde the two chess historians were almost certain that the birthplace of chess was Indian sub-continent, but most certainly it was invented in Iran for the following reasons: (To be brief I can outline the factors).

    1- Indian literature has no early mentions of chess but Persian literature does:

    The first unmistakable reference in Sanskrit writings is in the “Harschascharita” by the court poet Bana, written between 625 and 640. On the other hand, pre-Islamic documents have solidly connected chess with the last period of the Sasanian rulers in Iran (VI-VII century). The “Kamamak”, an epical treatise about the founder of this dynasty, mentions the game of chatrang as one of the accomplishments of the legendary hero. It has a proving force that a game under this name was popular in the period of redaction of the text, supposedly the end of the 6th century or the beginning of the 7th. Closely related is a shorter poem from about the same period entitled in Pahlavi “Chatrang-Nâmag”, dealing with the introduction of chess in Iran.

    Master Ferdowsi wrote also about it in the 11th century, but his sources are solid and form a continuous chain of witnesses going back to the middle of the 6th Century in Iran. Mater describes chess as arriving from Hind. According to historical sources this name “Hind” was not used for India until after the 11th century. Here Hind means Eastern-Province of Iranian Empire including Baluchistan, and while others thers have extended Hind to Khuzistan . As some Russian chess historians claim, nobody could possibly generate the rules of chess only by studying the array position at the beginning of a game. On the other hand, such an achievement might be made by looking at Takht-I Nard (backgammon).

    2- India has no early chess pieces but Iran does:

    The presence of carved chess men in Iranian domains contrasts with the absence of such items in India. There are no chess men there from early times, and only in the 10th century appears an indirect mention from al-Mas’udi: “The use of ivory (in India) is mainly directed to the carving of chess- and nard pieces”. Some experts believe that old Indian chess pieces may be discovered one day! So far, this is mere speculation. The three oldest sets of chess pieces closely identified as such belong to Iranian domains, not to India. The most important are the Afrasiab pieces. They were found 1977 in Afrasiab, near Samarqand, and have been dated by its Soviet discoverers as early as the 7th-8th century. Western experts accept at least the year 761 because a coin so dated belongs to the same layer. These seven ivory men, questionable as all “idols” may be, are Iranian, even if the territory was under Islamic rule since 712. Next group of chess pieces (three chessmen) comes also from the Greater-Iran. The so-called Ferghana pieces include a “Rukh” in form of a giant bird, and its antiquity should be not too distant from the Afrasiab lot. In Nishapur another ivory set was discovered though belonging to later times, 9th or 10th century. These are not idols anymore and are carved following the abstract pattern which has been characterized as “Arabic”.

    3- The Arabs introduced chess in India after taking “Shatrang” from Iran:

    Games upon the “ashtapada” board of 8×8, with dice and with two or more players may have served as “proto-chess”, but the two types of games already differ too strongly in their nature and philosophy to make the evolution of “Chaturanga” into “Shatransh” a simple question of direct parentage via the Persian “Chatrang”. Arab writers stated quite frequently that they took the game of “shatransh” from the Iranians, who called it “chatrang”. This happens in the middle of a political-cultural revolution, which has been analysed in historical texts. The ruling Umayyad dynasty was thrown out after a fierce civil war by a certain Abul Abbas, who initiated a new era, founding in Baghdad in the former Iranian territory, around the year 750 and translating there from Damascus the Islamic political centre. The Abbasid dynasty was ethnically and culturally of Iranian origin. So Iranian influences became clearly dominant in the cultural renaissance which took place inside the Arabic trunk. A lot of the previous knowledge from classical Greece, Byzantium, early Egyptian and Middle East civilizations and even “from the country of Hind” was compiled and re-translated into Arabic and absorbed in a scientific body which followed its further path towards the West. Chess was only a part of this knowledge, packaged together with earlier mathematical, astronomical, philosophical or medical achievements.

    However, we know that while chess flourished in Baghdad in the 9th century, the earliest reliable account of chess-playing in India date only from the 11th century.

    4- Etymology is unclear:

    Although, Murray shows that Pahlavi words in the game are adapted from Sanskrit, and the Arabic in turn from Pahlavi but Sanskrit closely-linked contemporary relatives such as Avestan. However, the roots of several chess terms may be so go further to India, but the fact is that the Sanskrit word “Chaturanga” means only “army”, and it is unclear whether it referred to chess, to a possible form of “protochess” with four players, or to some strategically exercise with pieces over a board with military purposes.

    In any case, to be on safer ground, we must remember the earliest solid evidences about the board game called chess belong to Iran. The Pahlavi word “Chatrang” means, even to- day, the mandrake plant, which has a root in form of a human figure. So, there is a good case in favour of a different etymological interpretation: Any game played with pieces representing figures may be compared with the “shatrang” plant.

    Another hint is the nomenclature of the pieces, persistently related to different sorts of animals rather than to components of an army: In the “Grande Acedrex” of King Alfonso of Castile (1283) lions, crocodiles, giraffes etc. play over a board of 12×12 cases with peculiar jumping moves, and the invention of it is connected to the same remote period in India as normal chess. They are very atypical in any context referring to India. (See the reference “Hasb”(War) in “The Encyclopaedia of Islam”, De Gruyter, Leyden-New York 1967). On the other hand, elephants are not at all exclusive from Indian origin (Sir William Gowers, “African Elephants and Ancient Authors”, African Affairs, 47 (1948) p.173 ff. Also Frank W. Walbank, “Die Hellenistische Welt”, DTV 1983 p. 205-6), not even in military campaigns: The Iranian were the first nation that introduced cavalry and they had also foot-soldiers, chariots and elephants as well as river and battle-ships. In Egypt, the Ptolemaic Kings obtained elephants regularly from Somalia. Strabo (16,4,5) mentions the foundation of several cities in Africa with the main purpose of hunting elephants. The hunters have even written dedications to Ptolemaios IV Philopator (221-204 BC). Polybios describes a battle with elephants between Ptolomaios IV and Antiochos III in 217 BC. Pyrrhus and Hannibal used it in the West. Modern research has confirmed all the details.

  14. re. “CHESS, Iranian or Indian Invention?”
    By: Shapour Suren-Pahlav

    AGAIN! Again I find this Shapour Suren-Pahlav passing on the work of the late Spanish chess historian Dr. Ricardo Calvo as his own! Give credit where credit is due, kind sir. The eyes of chess are everywhere and the original item is here:

    … a matter that I can vouch for personally since it has been my pleasure to meet with Dr. Calvo and actually perform English editorial services on his behalf. In fact, regardless of whatever good intent may have accompanied your submission of “some important facts” to this discussion, there exists an entire group of European chess historians who would take similar exception to your misguided appropriation of this work.

    Secondly, voluminous and badly indexed as it is, H.J.R. Murray’s “A History of Chess” has come under repeated fire from modern chess and board games historians not only on the basis of specific errors in etymological attribution, but also for having been a flattering work of British colonial propaganda. Wim van Binsbergen and many others find much of what is available in Murray lacking in several crucial areas of study and bemoan the fact that they must continually address Murray’s shortcomings in order to vault past him.

    Despite the canonic fervor of his modern day supporters, Murray is not the “gold standard” he was once thought to be and much wind has been taken out of his sails by researchers such as von Bimsbergen, Joseph Needham, David Li and Dr. Calvo – to name just a few. If it had been seriously concluded that Murray held all the trump, their scholarly works would have been deemed unnecessary.

    As it is, the search for a definitive “origins of chess” continues to unearth new archaeo-historical information that Murray underestimated, misunderstood or even misrepresented. While it is understandable that more recent discoveries eluded him, some items well within range of his revised study suffer from omission. For instance, his well known aversion for what Pavle Bidev’s esoteric analysis revealed about chess – indeed his wholesale disinterest in esoterica and divination principles implicit in the structure of chess and many older games thought to have contributed to the eventual formation of both two and four player dice chess and chaturanja – including discrepancies shown in Partlett’s work on chess variants – expose severe weaknesses in his theory.

    Despite or perhaps even because of Murray, the search for the origins of chess goes on. Aside from Chinese and Arabic chess lobbies, there are also contenders like J.L. Cazaux and the IGK group who approach the origins of chess from a less dogmatic point of view. Even British scholars such as the late Ken Whyld were critical of the British “chess from India” school. Overlooking a wider context, the Western view of history in general often tends towards narcissistic if not propagandistic ends and cannot be taken for granted on face value alone. No doubt the same can be said for many other versions of history – a chief factor that makes dissent is not only possible though comparative analysis but also desirable – regardless of whose icons suffer in the final analysis. As such, I am hardly taken aback when such things as Bernal’s “Black Athena” provoke a howling rage from those most deeply invested in maintaining the whitewashed fiction of Western superiority. Also significant – having endured the “Sir William Jones” syndrome long enough, Hindu nationalists are only now making a concentrated attempt to wrest their cultural heritage from the hands of Western interlopers.

    In parallel fashion, the historical background of Berber and Moorish culture did not benefit from Spanish imperialism any more than the Phoenician-Carthagenian or the Egyptian benefitted from Rome’s imperial gambits. As for the “origins of chess”, one only has to glance at the chess-like structure of the traditional Berber women’s alphabet or Dogon representational artwork appearing on the walls of tribal council quarters to get a glimpse of certain historical possibilities latent in North African and other Mediterranean strains of culture – a pathway that does not exclude Cadiz, Don Brunet y Bellet’s Egyptian thesis, or the Spanish school of chess history we find underrepresented in Murray. Unlike the Procrustean bed supplied by some theorists, it is not due to any arbitrary pruning of back of untidy details that dedicated researchers such as Ned Munger are given to suspect a significant Afro-Egyptian strain in the “genealogy” of chess. My personal inclination and that of the Goddesschess Partnership is to keep all options open in order to allow the real DNA of chess emerge from the ashes of time and timelessness. Anything less would seem to promote the same kinds of methodological insufficiencies that have resulted in so many centuries of unwarranted culture conflicts – the diffusion of chess and its historical genesis being highly symbolic – if not directly symptomatic – of perceptual fragmentation and undue historical buttressing of ethnocentric rivalries the world at large can no longer afford to sustain.

    D. McLean

  15. Perhaps an apology is due to Daaim Shabazz. The real culprit is Shapour Suren-Pahlav – who does not acknowledge his source – which is none other than Dr. Ricardo Calvo. Others might fall unsuspectingly into this Internet trap and therefore deserve the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, in this particular instance, Shapour Suren-Pahlav deserves to be exposed as a blatant plagiarist.

  16. D. McLean,

    Enjoyed reading your post. Yes… I found this link some time ago and added it as another viewpoint, not as a confirmation of the content. I should have written a prelude and then presented the article.

    “fasterplease” cited Murray and talked about the pre-eminence of European research in chess and I believe both he and Dr. Bailey should be taken to task for this notion. I did find interesting his notion that chess may have traveled from Central Asia into Russia. I’m not sure what to make of this notion, but it’s quite interesting how chess has spread. Much of the history has been lost, but what we have still gives us a great deal of appreciation for how much influence chess had in different regions. I find your mention of the Dogon to be very interesting. I have not been to Mali, but that is such an interesting society.

    I remember visiting the Egyptian Museum of Ancient Antiquities in Cairo and seeing the Senet set in a glass case. I was excited, but they said we couldn’t use a flash inside, so my picture came out dark. When I went to the opening of the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame, I saw it again. Chess is such an interesting history and Dr. Munger’s books shed light on these questions. I have communicated with Dr. Munger and help promote his books at The Chess Drum.

    Thanks for all of your time in informing the audience… I encourage it!

  17. Just a quick correction –

    “Partlett’s work on chess variants” – that was DB Pritchard who wrote “The Encyclopedia of Chess Variants”. Clearly, chess is both the game we know today as well a large number of alternate “universes”. In particular, the pawn’s promotional epic and a few other standbys – such as the knight typical move – present a long term picture of successive board game permutations and a final incorporation – which, as Pritchard states, appears to have been lost in the mists of time.

    Among the more conspicuous aspects of chess and board games history, the fact that there exist few (if any) solid attributions for the design of any specific boards or their pieces – no actual personalities other than the very mythical to cite – suggests a deliberately hidden hand involved in their construction. There are probably several reasons for this noteworthy tradition of avoidance – which I would lay at the feet of the classical “vizier’s game” and the vizier’s near instinctive gift for religious and political propaganda. Modern day historians are continually being frustrated and outfoxed by the older foxes.

    a bientot


  18. I would say you’re right in terms of the evolution of chess. I believe there are so many version from so many different eras that it’s hard to say where version end and begin. I do know the Spanish made some clear changes from shatranj. Dr. Ned Munger books may connect some dots, but much of it is lost in the sands of time.

  19. Re: CHESS, Iranian or Indian Invention?
    By: Shapour Suren-Pahlav

    Unfortunately sometime ago by a simple mistake the above mentioned article (CHESS, Iranian or Indian Invention? By Shapour Suren-Pahlav) and “The Origin of Chess: SOME FACTS TO THINK ABOUT” by Ricardo Calvo were confused with each other upon publication by our website. Although both titles were correct, the body of texts were published in the wrong pages – i.e. Ricardo Cavalo’s body of text was published in Suren-Pahlav’s page, and vice-versa.

    The mistake was later rectified but unfortunately “Iran Society” and one or two other Iranian websites have obtained a copy from our site before the correction in early 2000. Iran society and others are now being informed of the mistake and asked for it to be rectified.

    Correct versions of the both mentioned articles can be accessed by visiting: and

    In addition there a very good article titled “The Games of Chess and Backgammon
    in Sasanian Persia” by Professor Touraj Daryaee, was also published by CAIS (, which would be beneficial to your discussion here.

    My Sincere apologies for any confusion.

    Kind regards
    Jennifer Schneider
    CAIS Webmaster

  20. It is my believe that the great contributions Africa gave to the world has been deliberately destroyed and or erased. As we Africans re-discover our stolen history and reclaim it, we meet the acknowledgment with fierce resistance. We know that Western scholars has been known to lie about certain findings and paid by the government to write as being trues, or facts. Same with other cultures. When Africans and people of African descent begin to write our own history, we are confronted as being Afrocentric. It is true every time these western scholars don’t want to make the connection to African they come up with “we don’t know who started it or who built it. May be aliens!!! Our history is lock up in western and Arab museum in which the Arab call their history such as in Egypt.

  21. I found this page after doing a Google search about the origin of Chess. (I was making a dumb unnecessary joke about the rule that states white pieces move first ). Right before seeing this search result, I saw that the origin was said to begun in India. Now, I am far too curious.

    Now, it isn’t an unheard of phenomenon for two separate people creating the same thing relatively at the same time.
    (Ex. “Dennis The Menace” was invented by two different artists (one in U.S. and the other in U.K.) with no relation to the other, on the same day. ).

    Could this be a just a case of minds thinking alike? What are the odds?

  22. Could this be a just a case of minds thinking alike? What are the odds?

    Very slim.

    There are many versions of “chess” around the world, but most appear to be variants. The real question is the origin. Some say that chess began in Persia. Many say India. Others say that because Africa’s Senet looks like chess, that it must be the forerunner. What is unclear is how it was dispersed.

    You’ll have to read the comments in the above discussion.

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