Chess is commonly associated with nerds and smart people, at times a bit thick at the waist line, stooping over static configurations of smalls figurines on wooden checkered boards. Eventually, after a seemingly never-ending pondering on mysterious intricate combinations, one of the players will push forward this or that piece, while keeping monastic silence all along. Here and then, you may hear someone solemnly proclaim "check". That's when the game reaches its climax.
But enough of these popular misconceptions. Aside from such commonplace appearances in movies and novels, this peaceful warlike game can reveal us some interesting things. It has been around this earth for quite some time, so there’s definitely more to the picture than meets the eye. In fact, it is one of the most popular board games ever, has been present in all five continents ever since European explorers set foot on the New World, and can boast of having a recorded history that spans more than a thousand years. Not bad for an innocent pastime, eh? Here are five tidbits about the royal game that will have you never looking at your little chess set the same way.
#1. Chess was invented in India around the 7th century CE
Thanks to the formidable research undertaken by the Oxford scholar H. J. R. Murray, we can say confidently that modern chess is the continuation in time and space of a game played in 7th century India called chaturanga ("the four members", representing the four divisions of the old Indian army: chariots, elephants, cavalry and infantry). By comparing the name of the game, its pieces and related terms across many European languages, besides learning Arabic in order to have access to medieval manuscripts from Muslim-dominated areas, Murray was able to retrace the path taken by chess in its westward march starting in India, being subsequently seized on by Sassanid Persia, then by its Muslim conquerors, going all the way through Northern Africa until finally penetrating Western Europe, being carried along with the invading Moors, by way of the Iberian Peninsula. Take, for example, the piece known as "rook". That's an odd name for a piece that looks like a castle. The reason for it being referred to like this is that "rook" entered English through Norman-French roc, which in turn derives from Arabic rukhkh, coming ultimately from Persian rukh, which meant "chariot". Indeed, the corresponding piece in the original chaturanga represented a chariot.
#2. There are more possible chess games than atoms in our universe
People tend to relate chess with math, but this? Yep. The American mathematician Claude Shannon was able to give an estimate of the number of possible different chess games as being no lower than 10^120 (ten to the one hundred and twentieth power). That means 1 followed by 120 zeros! As a comparison, the number of atoms in the observable universe would be around 10^80. That's quite decent for a game of 32 carved pieces on a 64-square board.
#3. Not even modern-day computers play perfect chess
As the Shannon number makes patent, the total possible outcomes in the game of chess are so unearthly mind-boggling that even the IBM-designed supercomputer Deep Blue, which was said to be capable of evaluating 200 million positions per second, would take, literally, an eternity to completely solve the game of chess. As a matter of fact, it took several decades for computers to be able to beat world-class chess players, until Deep Blue finally inaugurated the current era of supercomputer chess by defeating the then World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov in an encounter of 6 games by the score of 3½–2½ (2 wins, 3 draws, 1 loss) in 1997.
#4. They built chess-playing automatons in the 18th and 19th centuries
Well, kind of. The most famous chess automaton was built in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen, an Hungarian inventor, who christened his machine "the Turk". It toured Europe at the time, being presented at the court of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, and is said to have played and checkmated Napoleon! The latter story is probably apocryphal, however. The Turk was actually a hoax, with a diminutive chess master concealed in its insides. Edgar Allan Poe wrote a chronicle trying to solve the enigma of "Maelzel's Chess Player" on occasion of its exhibition in Richmond in 1836. The automaton was then in possession of his subsequent owner, Johann Nepomuk Mäelzel. The incredible story of the mechanical Turk inspired a 2007 historical novel, The Chess Machine, by the German Robert Löhr.
#5. Chess has been a central theme in world-famous novels
Long before seizing the pen of the great Allan Poe, chess was used as a moral allegory in the medieval Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium ac popularium super ludo scachorum (The Book of the Morals of Men and the Duties of Nobles and Commoners, on the Game of Chess) which managed to attain considerable popularity in the Late Middle Ages, being translated into several languages across Europe. Closer to our time, chess features prominently in Stefan Zweig's The Royal Game, and Vladimir Nabokov's The Defense. In both of these novels, the main characters are chess players who fall prey to the maddening complexities of chess, eventually being driven into a state of insanity by turning into chess-playing zombies.