On the history of appearance of chess in the territory of modern Uzbekistan

It is known that sports intellectuals, masters of one of the most ancient and mysterious games began to celebrate the International Day of Chess since July 20, 1966. The initiative of establishing the date belongs to the World Chess Federation (FIDE), which was founded on that day in 1924. On Chess Day, under the auspices of FIDE, various thematic events and competitions are held annually.

At the same time, every year, more and more chess players of the world and even more historians and archeologists become interested in the history of the chess origin.

According to the classical canons, it was believed that chess was originated in India about at least 1,500 years ago. It was believed that chess invented in India in the V-VI centuries and spread almost all over the world becoming an integral part of human culture. Even the Uzbek scholar Abu Rayhan al-Biruni in his treatise “Hindustan” mentions an ancient legend attributing the creation of chess to a certain Brahmin. For his invention, he asked the raja for an insignificant, at first glance, reward: as many wheat grains as it appears on the chessboard, if one grain is put on the first cage, two grains on the second, on the third – four grains, etc. It turned out that there is no such quantity of grain on the whole planet (it is equal to 264 – 1 ≈1.845×1019 grains, which is enough to fill the storage capacity of 180 cubic km). It is hard to say whether it was true or not, but until 1990 it was believed that India is homeland of chess.

The most sensational find that turned our classical idea about the history of chess was made by Professor Yury Buryakov, an archaeologist and historian-orientalist of Uzbekistan, not far from Samarkand in 1990 when excavating the ruins of the ancient part of the city – Afrasiab. He found a truly unique set of seven delicately carved ivory miniature chess pieces that compiled the world’s most complete collection of that nature: the shah (king), chariot, warrior on horseback, elephant rider, rider with the lion mask on his face and infantrymen.

More than six years later, in 1996, Japanese archaeologists, during the excavations of the ancient site of Dalverzintepa, found two unique chess pieces – an elephant and a zebu bull. This made it possible to establish that proto-chess was played on the ancient land of Uzbekistan already in the beginning of the II century AD. These pieces date back to the time of the Kushan Empire, which at that time included the territories of present Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

This historic find in the south of Uzbekistan made to reconsider the classic view of the time and place of origin of chess. According to the classic “A History of Chess” by the English orientalist H.Murray, published in Oxford in 1913, chess as a game originated in India not later than the V century and came to Iran in the VI century and from there to Europe.

In Uzbekistan, chess pieces are often found during excavations under the ruins of houses, in the courtyards of artisans and even in baths. This is a convincing evidence of the popularity of chess in the broadest layers of the population.

Another fact that confirms the origin of chess in Uzbekistan is the meaning of the word “chess”.

From history, it is known that there were no shahs and padishahs in India from the II to the beginning of the XVI century in India. They appeared during the reign of the Boburids, who created the Great Empire in the territory of India.

Prior to that, India was ruled by the rajas. Therefore, one cannot even assume that the word “shahmaty” (chess) can be of Indian origin. The second part of this word – “mat” is used in modern Uzbek as a “desperate situation” or “dead end” where the “shah” is being driven to. Hence the origin of the word from the Uzbek word “shohmot”, i.e. “Shah driven to a dead end”.

It should be noted that everyone played chess, from a high-ranking nobleman to artisan. It is pertinent to note that Amir Timur was an outstanding chess player and introduced his improvements to the game of intellectuals. In his biography, an event is described when he was informed on joyful news that his son was born, who was fascinated by another magnificent combination attack of the opponent, in which the rook was involved. Timur, without raising his head from the board, said: “I give him the name Shohrukh! (Royal rook).

The competition of minds in the East was not accidentally called “a game of palaces and tea-houses”. This is confirmed by finds of pieces made not only of ivory but also of the simplest materials: bones of domestic animals, ceramics, glass and metal.

According to the academician Yury Buryakov, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Termez, Tashkent and other ancient cities were the centres for the spread of chess on the Great Silk Road, and the directions of the spread of this game of intellectuals coincide with the camel caravan routes along this way. He also came to the conclusion that the game of chess in its modern form was formed on the ancient land of Uzbekistan, that the spreaders of chess were not Buddhist monks, as the adherents of the classical history of chess think, but merchants from ancient Samarkand who founded their representations in the East, including the territory of the south of Siberia and China and in the West up to Egypt.

Yury Buryakov believes that chess was brought to Europe not by the Arabs, as it is written in the classical history of chess, but by the Bulgarians who moved from their ancestral home, the Volga region. As is known, Samarkand and Bukhara had close economic ties with this region for many centuries. The Old Bulgarian novel “Kormchiyata”, dated to the X century, serves as a confirmation. Its author uses the word “shahmaty”, borrowed from Eastern languages and translated as shah’s death. Moreover, chess appeared in the Ancient Rus from the Volga region.

It is believed that the game of chess entered the West in two ways: first, probably not before the middle of the X century by the Mediterranean route through the Arab countries, and Spain (where they are first mentioned in the Catalan text), Sicily and Southern Italy. Thus, from the very beginning, the Black and Red armies fought in the Indian and Arab game versions. In the West they were already playing with white (or gilded) and red pieces that, since the XIII century, under the influence of religion and Aristotle’s theory about two colours, the two abovementioned colour systems gave way to white and black. As for the colour of the chess board, there were the boards with alternating red-black or red-white squares or even simply vertical and horizontal lines drawn on a monochrome surface. It was possible not to use a board at all, but to draw it on a rock surface with chalk.

In addition, it is necessary to rethink the very approach to the game, because Christians and Muslims also used different approaches to conducting battles and combats, which this game represented originally. For medieval Christians, battles were conceived as a series of endless fighting among small groups, incessant raids, accidental raids. It was not the victory itself that was important to them but the battle process, so they were embarrassed by the very development of the chess game and its final goal to drive the enemy king – to “mat” and overthrow it, which was not particularly accepted. According to the Muslim tradition, the final result prevailed, based on the strategy of compulsory capture of the shah (king) into captivity. In addition, they had to redefine and transform according to familiar reality the pieces, from which they understood the king (shah), the rider and the infantryman, but the “fir” (the vizier) aroused many questions so it was turned into the queen. Nevertheless, a new embarrassment arose as pawns could become queens as they moved along the board, because a king could have several advisors but not wives, thus, pawns that passed the whole board were called “ladies”, and only one piece could be called the queen making a pair with the king. The role of the elephant, which often turned into a count, a standard-bearer, a bishop or even a jester had also changed, and the chariot, in the worldview of Christians, transformed into a tower, etc.

All this shows that chess was originated in the East and, above all, the ancestors of people of Uzbekistan contributed to the development of chess idea.

Thus, chess games were fixed in Europe and acquire a contemporary look only by the XVI century.

Reflections of scientists and representatives of chess community on the origin of chess in Uzbekistan could not even be imagined under the conditions of Soviet government. Chess was then the prerogative of the party and state policy of the country. To speak about the national peculiarities of the great history of the republics of Central Asia was brutally punished by the authorities.

The great love of the population, especially youth, for chess, and, what is most important, without age restrictions contributed to the creation in March 1996 of Uzbekistan Chess Federation, which represents chess players of our country in the International Chess Federation (FIDE), the Asian Chess Federation and other international organizations.

Currently, more than 168 thousand people are members of Uzbekistan Chess Federation.

Our chess player, international grandmaster Rustam Kasimdjanov became the World Champion according to FIDE in 2004. He is included in the cohort of the world’s strongest chess players.

Today, there are 22 international grandmasters in Uzbekistan, including the youngest international grandmaster in the world, 12-year-old Nodir Abdusattorov, 4 female international grandmasters and 24 international FIDE masters.

In accordance with ancient chess traditions of Uzbek people, the younger generation is increasingly attracted to this sport. Its representatives – children of preschool and primary school age are becoming chess champions in their age categories.

Vice President of Uzbekistan Chess Federation, 
Doctor of Economics, Professor
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