Who Invented Modern Chess? A Closer Look At Its Creation

Updated August 30, 2021
Knight kingdom chess

Chess hasn't always looked like the elegant, intellectual game that it's considered today. Of course, given that it's taken hundreds of years to evolve into the game it currently is, it's no wonder that many people don't know who invented modern chess or what kind of transformations it went through. Yet, these historic developments can give you a better understanding of why you play the game the way that you play it today, as well as to help you better approach the strategy you're going to use at your next match.

Chess Origins and Its Early Practice

What you know as the contemporary game of chess has evolved over several centuries, first beginning as a recreational game played on an 8x8 grid board with similar pieces called chaturanga. Having various titles depending on the regions in which it was played, chaturanga appears to have had some significant differences from modern chess in the way that it was played, the types of pieces on that were on the board, and how the game was won. This early version of chess was rather popular in the East, eventually making its way across the Asian continent into Europe. Once entrenched in the strict sociopolitical nuances of the European continent, the game began its first evolution towards its modern construction.

Medieval Developments

Chess thrived in Europe during the middle and late Medieval period. However, with aristocratic players exploring the limits of the game came a series of fascinating shifts which sought to improve upon the game's rules to create more thrilling, competitive play.

Game and play of chess, 1474 (1956)

Shifting Power Dynamics

By 1500, two pieces on the board had undergone some serious alterations: the queen and bishop. Each of the pieces didn't hold any substantial power prior to the mid-15th century. Yet, by the end of the century, the queen had gained some impressive abilities to move about the board and the bishop had evolved past the knight in terms of its long-term usefulness and strength. Although there's a lot of debate over what prompted this shift, the adjustment stuck and still defines these pieces' movement capabilities to this day.

Chess Theory Appears

Evidence from the historical record indicates that modern chess began taking shape through the early publications released in the 15th and 16th centuries, postulating about different styles of chess theory. The earliest known of these is entitled the Göttingen Manuscript, published in the late 15th century, discusses twelve chess openings and several chess problems.

Another famous work of the period was penned by Spanish priest and chess master, Ruy Lopez. Lopez began commenting on early chess strategy in his publication, Libro del Ajedrez (1561) and included a lengthy discussion on the famous opening that was named after him as well as many other elements of the game. This work laid the foundation for people seeing chess as something which could be formally analyzed and not just casually played.

Classical Chess Emerges in the 19th Century

Still not quite resembling the game as it is played today, chess during the early modern period went through a few more adjustments before reaching a new height of global fame during the 19th century. Granted, the game was still viewed as a gentleman's game and often limited to those with social and intellectual privileges that much of the world was not otherwise afforded at the time. However, these burgeoning intellectuals and new masters expanded on chess--both its theory and its physical manifestation--to create a new game of modern chess.

Standardizing the Materials

Prior to 1849, there were all sorts of different types of chess sets available, which used different colors, different arrangements, and pieces altogether. However, Howard Staunton, a figure in the London chess scene of the mid-19th century, recognized that there needed to be a new standard for chess sets to ensure that everyone was playing the same game the same way. Thus, the Staunton chess set was born. Designed by architect Nathan Cook, this chess set is what most international chess tournaments use for their competitions.

Alphanumerical Board Notation

Additionally, a new market arose for printing popular chess games or tournaments for other players to review on their own. This meant that there needed to be a standardized way of presenting these games to the readers. Thus, the alphanumerical system of numbering the board and notating where pieces have moved on the board was born.

Chessboard and chess pieces

White Goes First

Just a few decades later, the Fifth American Chess Conference agreed that the game was to always be played with the white player moving first. In the 1890s, both the English and the American chess federations adopted this rule, so that by the 20th century, everyone was beginning their games in the same fashion.

Chess Strategy Explodes

Perhaps the greatest development during the 19th century for solidifying modern chess was the outpouring of intellectual discourse on the game itself. Strategists like Steinitz, Tarrasch, and Capablanca all contributed to creating the game that millions of people play today. From introducing concepts surrounding pawn structure, to developing your midgame, to learning how to attack from both the center and the sides, to approaching defense with as much care as offense, the classical minds of chess strategy took a complex game and turned it into an art form.

Hypermodernism Flourishes on the Fringes

While classical chess theory is still the dominant way chess is taught today, there are other styles of chess that have developed since then. Hypermodernism is one of these strategies which moderately flourished on the fringes. Under Hypermodernism, you attempt to control your center from a distance rather than being in the thick of it - as classical chess generally promotes. This idea arose during the Interwar period and is still employed by some prominent chess players today.

Just Like You, Chess Went Through Puberty

Chess wasn't always the international strategy game and competitive sport that it is today. Coming from relatively humble origins, chess has developed into a refined and ever-changing game that serious players dedicate their lives not only to understanding but to bettering as well. So, although chess might seem like this immortally prestigious activity, remember that it too went through puberty just like you.

Who Invented Modern Chess? A Closer Look At Its Creation