How chess has changed

Think of a chess board and you think of a place governed by the strictest of rules. Pieces are always laid out in a particular way, and move in particular ways. You simply can't change the way chess works.

Which is odd, because it's changed a lot in the past. Ancient Arab or Indian chess boards had a Vizier instead of a Queen, an Elephant instead of a Bishop. (See also: Chess pieces and sets; Medieval and Renaissance Games and Gaming Equipment.)

Only when chess arrived in southern Europe, coming into Spain along with Islam, did there begin the process of transformation to make the game more comprehensible to European players, who had never heard of viziers and never seen an elephant.

At the time, queens were important figures in most European countries. When not ruling directly, they were often powers-behind-the-throne for their kingly husbands. Hence the transformation of the Queen into the most powerful figure on the board.

Chess pieces remain different in different parts of the world. Arab boards still have Viziers and Elephants. In Scandinavia, Bishops ride on horseback, like European Knights.

I learned this all from this morning's Start the Week, in which guest Marilyn Yalom talked about her new book, which examines the history of the Queen on the chess board. (She's written other interesting-looking books before.)

It made me wonder: what scope is there today for further changes to the chess board? What do Grand Masters think of the idea of changing how the board looks, how the pieces move, or even the names and roles of the pieces themselves? Would a sufficiently radical change bring about an entirely new game? Or is it still possible for chess to evolve?

(14th June 2004)