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

Ari and Hajminator

by farrad02 on

Thanks to both of you.
Very nice.




by AnonymousIAM (not verified) on

That was a very enjoyable little read. Thanks.


Clever Thievery

by Eski (not verified) on

For some reason what came to mind as I read your "Shatranj" was the "Kobayashi Maru", a no win situational training exercise for Starfleet cadets of Star Trek fame, a thought provoking piece of script writing in the Wrath of Khan, my all time favorite Star Trek film. In the film we discover that only one Starfleet cadet has ever succeeded in beating the no win exercise, and it is because he changed the computer program that administered the simulated test, an act that wins him a commendation for original thinking. I have always been puzzled by the ethical values presented by the hero's actions in the Kobayashi Maru exercise re-design. Wasn't it cheating to change the parameters of the program to guarantee a happy ending? The script writers apparently did not think so or perhaps they understood the currents in American culture all too well.

Wrath of Khan was released in 1982 just as Reaganomics was being plotted. Reaganomics represented an economic philosophy of the liberalization of markets, but in rhetoric only. In reality Reaganomics was nothing less than the creation of the ultimate welfare state for anyone with over a billion dollars. I suspect that at that time Bernie Madoff like other schemers on Wall Street was probably just starting to re-design the parameters of the Wall Street game from one of an exercise in the creation of capital pools for legitimate investment to one of an exercise in the theft of other people’s savings.

You will note that many Hollywood movies until very recently glorified clever thievery as virtuous. Ocean’s Eleven was unique in this context only in that a sizeable group of such individuals cooperated in theft whereas previously a single thief/hero would generally do, going all the way back to Steve McQueen’s The Thomas Crown Affair .

Ari Siletz

More on Ferdowsi backgammon

by Ari Siletz on

Here’s how Ferdowsi describes Bozorgmehr’s game of nard:

He had two dice made of ivoy

He made a board similar to a chessboard and set the combatants on either side

The two armies were distributed in eight stations

The battlefield was divided into four sections

And there were two noble and magnanimous kings…obliged not to harm one another.

If two pieces came on a solitary piece, that piece would be lost.
The last two rules are interesting. Here they are in the original:

زمین تاز و لشکرگهی چارسوی
دو شاه گرانمایه نیکخو
که دارند رفتار هردو بهم
یکی از دگر بر نگیرد ستم
یکی را چو تنها بگیرد دو تن
بر آن یکتن آید شکن

Is this variant still played?


Rad Lanjani

A Reference Article

by Rad Lanjani on

Here is a link to a Reference Article about the various aspects of Backgammon. Possibly it may be the origin of what Hajminator in his comment has referred to.  It is also interesting that in that reference article it is suggested that the term Backgammon should have been derived from the Persian term of BakhtAzmoon. Rad

Ari Siletz

Hajminator, beautiful story

by Ari Siletz on

Thanks for sharing. One more item for your falsafeh e peydayesh list:

7= sum of the oppsing sides of dice= number of days in the week, etc. 




Did you know

by Hajminator on

that Bozorghmehr, in response had also invented the game takhtehnard (backgammon) and asked the indian king to find what it was about? I received this email today telling the story that I had also heard once younger.

در زمان پادشاهی انوشیروان خسرو پسر قباد، پادشاه هند ( دیورسام بزرگ ) برای سنجش خرد و دانایی ایرانیان و اثبات برتری خود شطرنجی را که مهره‌های آن از زمرد و یاقوت سرخ بود، به همراه هدایایی نفیس به دربار ایران فرستاد و ( تخت ریتوس ) دانا را نیز گمارده انجام این کار ساخت. او در نامه‌ای به پادشاه ایران نوشت: از آنجا که شما شاهنشاه ما هستید، دانایان شما نیز باید از دانایان ما برتر باشند. پس یا روش و شیوه آنچه را که به نزد شما فرستاده‌ایم ( شطرنج ) باز گویید و یا پس از این ساو و باج برای ما بفرستید.
شاه ایران پس از خواندن نامه چهل روز زمان خواست و هیچ یک از دانایان در این چند روز چاره و روش آن را نیافت، تا اینکه روز چهلم بزرگمهر كه جوانترین وزیر انوشیروان بود به پا خاست و گفت: این شطرنج را چون میدان جنگ ساخته‌اند كه دو طرف با مهره‌های خود با هم می‌جنگند و هر كدام خرد و دوراندیشی بیشتری داشته باشد، پیروز می‌شود، و رازهای کامل بازی شطرنج و روش چیدن مهره‌ها را گفت. شاهنشاه سه بار بر او درود فرستاد و دوازده هزار سکه به او پاداش داد .
پس از آن ( تخت ریتوس ) با بزرگمهر به بازی پرداخت. بزرگمهر سه بار بر تخت ریتوس پیروز شد. روز بعد بزرگمهر تخت ریتوس را به نزد خود خواند و وسیله بازی دیگری را نشان داد و گفت: اگر شما این را پاسخ دادید ما باجگزار شما می شویم و اگر نتوانستید باید باجگزار ما باشید.
دیورسام چهل روز زمان خواست، اما هیچ یک از دانایان آن سرزمین نتوانستند ( وین اردشیر ) را چاره گشایی کنند و به این ترتیب شاه هندوستان پذیرفت كه باجگزار ایران باشد.
فلسفه پیدایش
30 مهره: نشان گر 30 شبانه روز یک ماه
24 خانه: نشان گر 24 ساعت شبانه روز
4 قسمت زمین: 4 فصل سال
5 دست بازی: 5 وقت یک شبانه روز
2 رنگ سیاه و سپید: شب و روز
هر طرف زمین 12 خانه دارد: 12 ماه سال
تخته نرد: کره زمین
زمین بازی: آسمان
تاس: ستاره بخت و اقبال
گردش تاس‌ها: گردش ایام
مهره‌ها: انسان‌ها
گردش مهره در زمین: حرکت انسان‌ها ( زندگی )
برداشتن مهره در پایان هر بازی: مرگ انسان‌ها


persian or iranian shatranj/chess

by bj (not verified) on

well i congradulate you that like anybody else spent time and effort just to prove certain invention are not iranian and to prove that we are bunch of liers/cheaters.I do not see that with any other people or culture to deny their own existence.Yes chess is a persian game and also bagkgmoon and polo.and i do not care what anybody thinks.



by ABol Danesh (not verified) on

Great fictional_factual story Mr. Siletz!

By the way it is reported that the indian guy who invented the chess game was also a shrewed but thoughtful mathematician as well.

Once he was done with the invention of the game, the king was so excited about game that asked the inventor what is that he wants so he would give it to him as reward-- gold? diamond? etc., Etc.., Etc....,?

In response he asked for one grain to be put in the place where the "rock" stands and he said double it for the next spot, and then square that for the third spot and square that for the fourth spot... until you reach the 64th spot the lost spot on the chess board-- That is how much grain I want as my reward--

At first the king thought he was joking and was putting him on for being stingy and asked for his beheading ... but after he was asked to simply calculate the amount of grains who owes to the man ... the king realized that he needs to put several years of good harvest of entire nation together to be able to pay him off...

1, 2, 4, 16, .... 64 Log 2

From there on the king throw out his proverbial "LOANG" before the chess mind master to say... when it comes to screwing... king must always have the upper hand even if all the mathematical calculation shows the opposite direction....

--ghatreh ghatreh jam gardad vangahee darya shavad---

O well... now let me figure why my computer mouse likes this soft pat so much so that does want to roll on anything else despite all the concentrated energy it has mustered...

khaleh mosheh

Cast system

by khaleh mosheh on

Firstly thank you for a delightful piece.


The rule is of course a pawn becoming a queen if it reaches the other side.