One can trace the origins of chess to India’s “Chaturanga” or “Ashtapada,” two Sanskrit names for the game. “Chaturanga” means “four parts,” referring to the four divisions of the army represented by the chess pieces: five foot soldiers, three cavalry, one chariot, and an elephant. “Ashtapada” means “spider,” and refers to the number of squares on the board — eight on each side, like spiders’ eight legs.
Chess had spread to Persia by 600 CE, where it was popular among the upper classes. The game was used to educate princes and noblemen in strategy, as a safe way to learn about war and tactics without actually having to fight. Via trade, chess also spread to Africa.
Around 800 CE, Buddhist missionaries from India spread chess to China. In China, the board was organized in a rectangle, 9-by-10 squares instead of 8-by-8. A river was added to the middle of the board, as well as two counselors on either side of the King, who was called the General. Apparently, the emperor was enraged that a piece in such a lowly game should be named after him, and had several players beheaded before “King” was changed to “General.” The counselors are comparable to European bishops. The Chinese also added two cannons in front of the knights.
From China, chess spread to Korea and from there to Japan, where it was called “Shogi,” the “Generals’ Game.”
With the conquest of Spain by Muslims from northern Africa, Europe was introduced to chess. In the 14th century, chess was one of the many goods, items, and ideas exchanged through war and trade during the Crusades. Trade from the Middle East to Russia and from Russia to the rest of Europe was also influential in spreading the game.