It was an Iranian who invented modern chess


by Ari Siletz

First of all, it’s not chess it’s shatranj. And yes the rules are different. In chess, the queen is the terror of the board. In shatranj nothing is more powerful than the rook. The humble piece that sits next to the king is the farzin, a wretched civil servant that can move only one square diagonally. There are more differences, but this isn’t about modern chess versus authentic shatranj, it’s a confession. We Iranians cheated in the very first game of shatranj ever played.

In our defense, we didn’t start the whole affair, the Indians did. We were minding our own business when they showed up with thousands of camels, elephants and horses laden with treasure for our king Kesra Nushin Ravan. The Indians could have just paid our tribute and left us alone until next year’s extortion money was due. As I said we liked to mind our own business. But the Indians had come up with an imaginative way of saying, “We’re not happy paying you.

Their creative and non-violent protest came in the form of a fetching eight by eight square board populated by little figurines that looked like horses, elephants, chariots, kings and such. If the sages in the Iranian court could fathom the rules of this game then the Indian maharajah would keep paying us protection money. If our best and brightest failed, then this showed we weren’t as smart as the Indians. And who’d want to pay tribute to dummies.

Of course the Indians knew the score. If Iranians couldn’t figure it out, they’d just say, “Pay us or else” and the maharajah would quickly pay, nothing lost. But at least he would have the satisfaction of proving we were less refined than they. For a nation who values culture as much as India, that’s worth a few high fives.

Kesra Nushin Ravan called his genius grand vizier, Bozorjmehr, and showed him the game. Bojorjmehr could see right away that the rules of the game cannot be inferred from just the pieces and the board. We can see this because modern chess and shatranj have different rules, yet they can be played with exactly the same board and pieces. So Bozorjmehr cheated by making up his own rules. I’m sure he also sent spies out to find the real rules, which he kept in mind. But in proper imperialist fashion he thought to himself, “I don’t care how they’ve been playing the game so far; this is the way they’re going to be playing it from now on. Serves them right for getting uppity.” Naturally the Indians had to fake amazement at how the king’s grand vizier had “figured out” their game.

So while it is true that the chessboard and chess pieces were invented in India for the purpose of playing an Indian game called chaturanga, it was an Iranian who invented shatranj, the immediate ancestor of modern chess. Bozorjmehr’s rule changes were backed by Persian military power, and at the time nobody dared call that cheating. Iranian shatranj rules later spread to Europe, and just about the time when Spain was to become the first modern global empire, they (along with the Italians) changed the rules again to pretty much what we see today. In fact the rook, knight, and king move in exactly the same way. The only difference in pawn move is that in shatranj the piece is not ever allowed to move two squares, and there is no en passant. The puny farzin was replaced by a domineering queen, and the elephantine feal (Peal if you’re a Parsi-not-Farsi activist) traded its ability to leap over pieces for longer-range action, in the process being ordained a bishop.

This story about shatranj relies on myth and speculation. There’s no historical proof that Bozorjmehr invented the rules of shatranj. But encoded in those rules is an intriguing peculiarity that may be a sign from him. Unlike others in the Persian court, Bozorjmehr was probably not born into nobility. In the Sassanian dynasty’s quasi-caste system he must have defied astounding odds to make it all the way to the top to become vizier. Which rule of chess does this remind you of?


1. Here are the original rules of shatranj.

2. Here’s a Java script that plays authentic shatranj. If you succeed in loading and running it (big hassle), you will see that it is a very poor player. But it gives you an idea of the delicate feel of shatranj as compared with modern chess.

3. Here is a shatranj puzzle, which for some reason remained unsolved for a thousand years. It has reportedly been solved in the last couple of decades.

4. The name spellings of king and vizier are taken from Dick Davis’ Shahnameh. Ferdowsi tells this story differently with a sanitized narrative.


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more from Ari Siletz

Chess History

by C. Chaqueri (not verified) on

There are excellent histories of Chess. True, many Iranians attribute to their nation any invention worth speaking about, but the historians have, on the basis of historical evidence, established that Chess was invented in India and spread through Iran, after the establishment of the Islamic empire, to the rest of the world.
Interested readers may wish to consult the following work (chap. 7) on this issue, a book that deals with the Iranian historical mentality -- an idea that most Iranians would hardly wish to discuss.
C. Chaqueri, Beginning Politics in the Reproductive Cycle of Children's Tales and Games in Iran, Lewiston (NY), 1992; new revised edition by the author printed at Harvard U. Printing House, Cambridge (MASS), 1996, available at some Iranian bookstores in the US and also in London.


Great Title Mr. Ari Siletz

by Abol Hassan Danesh, Sociologist (not verified) on

The most important thng about this article is its title: It was an IRANIAN who INVENTED ...

Why am I saying this?

Because particularly after the end of world War I whenever Iranians adopted the foreign invention for doemstic use in large scale the result was more a less disasterous--

The best example is automobile: Once invented by the Americans and then latter on was imported to Iran, the beautiful Iranian citiess turned into a smokey noisyl polluted huge garage (using Winston Churchill's metaphore when he attended the tehran conference at the end of WWII)making the car fulled urban sprawl an unliveable place--

And now currently that the AHmadinejad is trying to bring nuclear energy to Iran one should better pray by saying: O Lord Save the Iranians from the Iranians whenever they bring foreign stuff inside in blindfoldedness of envy and rapid moidernization.

Yes We can! ;)

King is dead! Long live the King!

"Har Dam Beel"


Have to add

by Hajminator on

that the ambassador doesn't seem to have learned such things in his school yard. He is an educated man. Give him the credit he deserves.


The trafic is dense

by Hajminator on

I pressed once the Post button and my comment was tripled, sorry



by Hajminator on

I'm not saying that we have done it all by ourselves. The Indian nation is a great nation of science from the beginning and that starting by astronomy.

But, give to Caesar the things which are Caesar's. In my chess club in France, there were a complete history of chess in which the modern chess was said to be derived from Bozorghmehr's rules.

the Indian game was played with dices in which there was a chance factor which does not exist in modern chess.

In other terms, you gave us the board and the pieces and we invented the game as it is almost played now.


How many angels can dance on the tip of a pin

by Hassan Danesh (not verified) on

Instead of that ...

Come on to my little hut with ocean view, chat, eat, drink, dance, watch fire, and play chess or backgammon or cards...

You want to stay over? stay! More than one night? be my guest the entire week...

All there is is love! Before we close our eyes say good bye! Good bye my darling good be=ye!

Generous the generousity... I wish I had a better to accomodate you for games...




by shobhit (not verified) on

One Indian who probably flunked history in high school mouth's off something and its supposed to be the official position of the country? Please even ferdowsi hints at chaturanga preceeding shatranj as to several persian sources.
That's one thing I have always liked about your ancestors they always gave us complete credit for something they took from us like the decimal number system(0,1,2..)introduced to the wider world by a persian named Al-Khwarizmi, in his book 'On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals'.



by Hajminator on

Indians admit themselves that Persians invented Shatranj.

For example, Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar who did a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service says:

Persians, who invented chess, would have mastery over zwischenzug.
Now, what have you to say?

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

1. Modern Iranians are unlikely to go looking for historical evidence that their ancestors exacted tribute from other nations. As the above modern retelling of the story reflects, some of us are not proud of this practice.

2. Persians regard the Seleucids as a Greek occupying force left over from Alexander's armies. Thank you for helping us push them out. And we appreicate the wonderful Buddhas.

3.Tragic about chaturanga's original rules being lost, I am curious to know whether authentic chaturanga included pawn promotion. It does these days, but what evidence for back then?   The rule seems odd in a caste society.Any insights, poems, stories that in any way address this rule in Indian culture would be most appreciated.


enough of this legend

by shobhit (not verified) on

This story about Indians paying tribute to the Persians is lifted from the shahnama if I am not mistaken a quasi factual poem.

ok lets get the historical facts straight Indians only paid tribute to Darius 1 and that too only the border regions for about 100 odd years.this was before there was a united India as such there were 16 states known as the mahajanapadas(Kind of like Greece only larger)

the subsequent period mauryan empire etc the Indians defeated selecuid persia and took over AFGHANISTAN From the persians hence the bamiyan buddhas etc in Afghanistan and short of Nader Shah's sacking of Delhi,Indians have never paid the persians regular tribute as is fantasized in the shahnama,plz try to find an authentic source saying Indians paid Persians tribute in the post Achamanid period.

This exchange happened during sassanian times please show me one single credible link of Indians paying any tribute to the sassanians.

As for the game chaturanga was invented in India which went to Persia and with a few minor changes became shatranj.Feel free to look up the rules of chaturanga and see if they vary that dramatically from Shatranj.Ofcourse the complete rulebook of chaturanga doesn't survive but what is known corresponds very closely to shatranj.



Ze danesh Dele peer Borna Bovad

by Abol Danesh, Ph.D. From UCR (not verified) on

This summer there is a two week intensive course taught at the university of Reno in the state of Arizona in the good old usa. In this course the students will learn how to throw dices on the backgammon or any other board and get the desired numbers. The space is limited and the students upon successful completion of course will be given the certificate of authentification in "tasgere" singed by the governor and the president and the dean of the state and university.

The space is limited and the students are encouraged to go for early registeration with all the fees paid ahead of time without disappointment.

The grandmaster (Professor John Dow)is a twenty year federal prisoner who has been just released for affirmatively robbing several casinoes to the tone of several million dollars by his hidden and undisclosed superb technique and knowledge of "Dice Cntol Throwing: DCT"

The grandmaster will first shake hands with students to make sure this knowledge after being laerned just like deadly marshal art will not be used without authorization personal gains.

Professor Dow will wear ornage tie throughout the entire intensive summer course of DCT to stress that the course will be hard to learn to the boot and therefore no room for lazy students.


Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

Thank you for your kind remarks. I will lay low for a while with Indians. But what's this about Turks inventing takhte nard? The oldest takhte nard is from 5000 years ago, and it was was found (dice and all) in Iran's Sistan o Baluchestan. The Turk brother who invented backgammon was a long way from home.


Shatranj is merely what's on the other side of takhteh.

by Nar-Raad (not verified) on

Ari Jon,

yet another great piece. I especially loved how you walked in and out of some potentially hostile terrain - no matter how pacifistic Indians are, I still wouldn't advise coming between them and their claim to Chaturanga - unscathed.

I found the initial illusion that you were headed towards an origination claim quite captivating, and was worried, untill I became impressed with how you navigated through it with a cleaver concoction of fact, fiction and postulation. All the while thinking, "if you were gonna argue anyone's claims to something, why not take on the Turks and their claim on Takhte Nard?"

but I digress...

I find it also noteworthy that although your original piece did not contain any metion of backgammon, how so many of the comments refer to it. As if it's somehow implied that when we say "shatranj" what we really mean is that thing on the back of the bachgammon.

So I will follow suit and end with:

Bord dar aamade kaar ast, na dar daanesh o hoosh,
Taas agar neek neshinad, hame-kas narraad aast.

Ari Siletz

AH Danesh

by Ari Siletz on

I hear you about taas geers. Here's a website that uses atmospheric radio noise to generate fairer random numbers than even casino dice in cups (and much fairer than computer pseudo-random numbers). Just type in 1 and 6 for min and max respectively. Religious or not, the rolls literally come down from the sky.

2535? Yes, if I'm doing the setup. Will tolerate 5352.


Ari Siletz

by AH Danesh (not verified) on

:....also regarding your "jof sheesh," as you may know unlike Albert Einstein's famous saying of "God Does not Placy Dice with Universe" some backgammon players beecome so adavnce with throwing the dices that they can literally control the outcome (tas gereftan) and thus in doing it they undermine (Cheating?) the whole philosophy of backgammon that is rooted simultaneously both in experience and luck by reducing it only to experience, thus making it virtually almost identical to chess in philosophy(only experience). That is why when the stake is high and leisure is transformed into high yielding profitting business the players are asked to throw the dices in cup before throwing them on the board...

O well ...if there are some folks out there that we don't know with lazer beam emanating with their gazing eyes that help control the dices outcomes even inside the cup then this isa good news for all losers in the game that they lost for no good reason at all...




by Hassan Danesh (not verified) on

Thanks for both of your comments. On the second one, I should say I learned this expression from one of my cousins (Late Hussein: may Lord Bless his generous and kind soul), which empahsizes that with only one inmate (Almond) in the backgammon having it from the opponent as long as you can hold on to it without the temptation of going after for more inmates, you can end up winning the game with this strict regimented stratgegy--

However, your own interpretation of "badam" was an interesting one and never looked at at all in this light--

Thanks for the perspective--

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

In backgammon, the good player (reeyazat kash) with a bad dice roll (baadaam) can hang in there just fine. An irritating line when your opponent lays it on you just after rolling a joft sheesh.  Also, note the ominous psy-ops syllable daam in baadam. As in chess, daami besazad.

Ari Siletz

Hassan Danesh

by Ari Siletz on

Your take on the archetypal symbolism of chess and backgammon is creative. At the very least the boards do represent territory, though possibly more than just arable land. In Monopoly for instance the board is very explicit in the kind of territory it represents: the urban-industrial variety. In any case, your inferrence of of leisure (and therefore civilization) in board games is insightful.

Speaking of civilization and in the context of your eariler chess/math story, if all of the Earth's arable land was dedicated to modern cultivation of wheat, by one estimate it would take eighty years to pay off the inventor of chess. 

This historic paper (1950) by Claude Shannon is a more modern attempt to relate chess to mathematics.




by Danesh (not verified) on

Now that we have surplus then What this farsi expression means in backgammon:

"Reeyaazat Kash ra Be baadaami Besazad"


‫اری جان


تشبیه این دنیا و قضا و قدر به دو بازی شطرنج و تخته از زبان مولوی:

كاهل و ناداشت بدم كام درآورد مرا                 طوطی انديشه او همچو شكر خورد مرا
تابش خورشيد ازل پرورش جان و جهان            بر صفت گلبشكر پخت و بپرورد مرا
گفتم ای چرخ فلك مرد جفای تو نيم               گفت زبون يافت مگر ای سره اين مرد مرا
اي شه شطرنج فلك مات مرا برد تو را              ای ملك آن تخت تو را تخته اين نرد مرا
تشنه و مستسقی تو گشته‌ام ای بحر چنانك   بحر محيط ار بخورم باشد درخورد مرا
حسن غريب تو مرا كرد غريب دو جهان            فردی تو چون نكند از همگان فرد مرا
رفتم هنگام خزان سوي رزان دست گزان         نوحه گر هجر تو شد هر ورق زرد مرا
فتنه عشاق كند آن رخ چون روز تو را               شهره آفاق كند اين دل شب گرد مرا
راست چو شقه علمت رقص كنانم ز هوا         بال مرا بازگشا خوش خوش و منورد مرا
صبح دم سرد زند از پي خورشيد زند             از پي خورشيد تو است اين نفس سرد مرا
جزو ز جزوي چو بريد از تن تو درد كند             جزو من از كل ببرد چون نبود درد مرا
بنده آنم كه مرا بي‌گنه آزرده كند                   چون صفتی دارد از آن مه كه بيازرد مرا
هر كسكي را هوسی قسم قضا و قدر است   عشق وی آورد قضا هديه ره آورد مرا
اسب سخن بيش مران در ره جان گرد مكن     گر چه كه خود سرمه جان آمد آن گرد مرا


Mill, Milled, Mills, Milling

by Hassan Danesh . (not verified) on

... My ontological take of both backgammon and chess is that its existential psyche in its primary formative period of its creation was rooted in rice or wheat farm patches ... and then once there was a surplus, the mentality of rice farm patches transposed itself upon the psychology of human quest for leisure until its "Replica" was invented and recreated in form of "game" with stomach already taken care of its primary needs in Moslow's hierarchy of needs...

The Single Grain has been crushed and milled into flour!

1 ...


Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

I am delighted that you bring up the rajaz tradition of takhteh. It would be fun to sponsor a takhteh tournament using Ferdowsi rules (as far as we can fill in the gaps) where the only rajaz allowed are in Ferdowsi (or Ferdowsi immitaion) verses.                  بدو گفت که ای دیو ناسازگار
به بینی کنون گردش روزگار

There will be two prizes, one for the actual winner, and one for best rajaz

To answer your Purim question, I've started preliminary research on the play for next year. An academic friend has kindly offered to provide introductions to biblical experts. We should compare notes when we next meet. 

Nazy Kaviani

History with a twist of imagination

by Nazy Kaviani on

Thanks so much for this fun and informative piece. Whatever your imagination touches will never be the same again, Ari!

I wonder whether the whole "clever" historical background about the game has had an impact on the mood and demeanor ruling Iranians when they play chess or backgammon! All the rajaz khooni and kor-kori, and the fake bravado! Could it be to conceal the fact that there are genes (ha!, or Jinns!) in us which don't really believe we know all the game rules and try to cover up our uncertainty?!

Ari, when are we writing our play about Purim? I'm all jazzed up about the possibilities!

Ari Siletz

Rokh roughly the same as Seemorgh

by Ari Siletz on

Ramintork, keen observation about the castle being an inappropriate symbol for its action on the chessboard. In chaturanga the piece is supposed to be a charriot; in shatranj it is supposed to represent the Seemorgh-like flying creature, Rokh.

A couple of asides:

1. the closeness of terminology (rook=rokh etc) is strong evidence that modern chess evolved from Persian shatranj.

2. in authentic shatranj a pawn can only be promoted to a farzin.

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

Bozorgmehr's rule to have to hit with two pieces seems a clever way to generate strategic complexity. To increase hitting ability, the player must necessarily increase the number of his/her exposed pieces.   Bullish and bearish styles could evolve.  I have the same questions as you about Ferdowsi's nard king. Curiously, it is in chess where a king cannot possibly take out another king. I have considered the possibility that Ferdowsi didn't know how to play either game and confused them, but that is extremely unlikely. Even if he got the rules wrong, folks would have revised the verses to make them right.      If I had to guess, I would put the backgammon king in the home square and have His Majesty flank the opponent's pieces to land safely in the enemy quadrant. From there the eliminating of your own pieces would go as in standard backgammon. This sorta makes sense because the practice of eliminating your own kin is in line with royal practice once the throne has been won. I would also allow for the possibility that in the case of a forced move the king could be killed by one of his own pieces.


The Chess Rules

by ramintork on

First of all, Thanks for an enjoyable article.

I think even today most people do not know the rules very well.

For instance promotion can be to a queen, knight, Bishop, Rook of the same colour, it doesn't have to be of a piece that was captured so you can have two queen or more, in theory up to nine if you manage to promote all pawns and keep the original!

En passant capture rule is also a mystery to most players i.e.

When a pawn advances two squares onto the same rank as an opposing pawn on an adjacent file, this opposing pawn may, on that player's next move only, capture the advancing pawn as though it had only moved one square (provided the move is otherwise legal). The pawn's ability to move two squares on their first move was a relatively late addition to the game of chess. En Passant was introduced to prevent abuses of the new rule.

The new game does not really capture the old spirit for instance a Rook which is a piece that looks like a very stationary Castle moves like a charging War elephant in a straight line.

The modern equiv. is a tank on  a battle field.





backgammon king?

by IRANdokht on

Ari jan

I like my backgammon pieces to be all the same, that's probably the leftist in me ;-)

As far as I know, we do not need to cover the piece after we hit another, but it's good strategy usually (bezan o khoonaro beband) especially if you are in your last quadrant of the board.

There is however one rule that is not recognized in the west (at least in the online backgammon games): if you are in the last quadrant of the board (your home), once you hit, you have to stay put. In the Iranian BG you cannot hit and run so to speak...  

I am still trying to envision the pieces of Ferdowsi's nard, where would the king reside? was it in a different shape? how difficult would it be to have to hit with two pieces every time... so many questions unanswered :o))


Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

Thanks for your appreciative remarks. The Parsi-Farsi keyboard thing messed up the text formatting of the poems. They are two separate rules.


1: A backgammon king cannot remove another backgammon king

2. To remove an opponent's mohreh you have to land two of your own mohrehs on it.

 Apparently in Ferdowsi backgammon each player has two kinds of mohreh, one king and 14 ordinary ones. Also, rule 2 is different from the backgammon we play. Whereas covering our mohreh after a kill is optional (and sometimes not good strategy), Ferdowsi backgammon requires that we cover it. Go figure!


Ari Siletz

Heroes cheating

by Ari Siletz on

Eski, what a fun modern analogy you draw between the two heroes, Captain Kirk and Bozorgmehr.  In each case changing the rules was a kind of "thinking out of the box." I think the Hollywood appeal of this type of character has to do with the hero taking on the seemingly impossible and winning. Long before Reagan, Odysseus won the Trojan war for the Greeks by cheating (the Trojan horse trick).   By the way, predating Captain Kirk's Kobayashi Maru "solution" by centuries, our own Achaemenid Darius I showed that challenging the rules of the game is what distinguishes a leader from the rest of the pack. The rule was this: whichever Persian prince's horse neighed first right after sunrise would be crowned king of the empire. Darius had his horse trained to neigh on cue. While the other princes submitted to chance, Darius reprogrammed Fate in his favor.







delightful read once again

by IRANdokht on

Ari jan 
I enjoyed reading your piece and also Hajminator's comment was very interesting. But for the life of me, I can't even figure out what move and rule Ferdowsi is talking about. Would you please translate that from Parsi to Farsi for me? is he saying that if two pieces get close to the king, the other king would eliminate one of them?

یکی را چو تنها بگیرد دو تن
بر آن یکتن آید شکن

I just love your style