Tag Archives: India

Chess: A Game Full of Foreign Languages

I’ve never been good at chess. It’s one of the most challenging & mentally taxing games in history. The amount of strategy & it takes a lot of hard thinking to outsmart your opponent. Some people are very good at it.

Games can take hours or days & those who play professionally take it extremely seriously. They have every right & whether you’re good at it or not, the game deserves the recognition & respect.  Putting strategy aside, it’s extremely old. “How old? The Dark Ages?” you might ask. Nope. It’s way older. Reports of a Japanese version of chess date back five thousand years, but for the purpose of this entry, we’re going to stick with the variant we know.

Chess as Westerns play it, is believed to have been invented in the Second Century in the middle of the Gupta Empire in India. The game consisted of the same basic principle, with a few different pieces & rules, reflecting life in India, rather than the West. The pieces were:

Raja: King
Mantri: General (later the Queen)
Ratha: Chariot (later the Rook)
Gaja: Elephant (later the Bishop)
Ashva: Horse or Knight
Padati: Foot Soldier (now known as the Pawn)

By the Sixth Century, the game was being called chaturanga, which is Sanskrit for “having four limbs.” As you can assume from the name, it was a four player game. After spending a good chunck of time circulating around the Indian nobility, merchants who did business with the high classes picked it up. Any history buff can tell you that trade & the spread of culture go hand in hand & chaturanga was no different. Chess had begun its global popularization.


The layout of a four player Chaturanga board. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user MSouza)

By 1000 AD, chess had split into two branches. The first, known as Asiatic chess, spread North & East, through Asia, no doubt lending influence to the ancient Japanese game I mentioned before. The other version is the one we know, & it’s called Occidental or European chess.

As awareness of the game traveled through Western Asia & the Middle East, cultures accepted it very quickly. The original Indian words were absorbed into the hundreds of new languages they were meeting & rules were added. For example, two fundamental changes, which made European chess unique, have their origins in Persia. The first is that chess started to be a two-player game, instead of requiring four. Players also started to warn their opponents of their king’s danger. The changes stuck & once people in England started playing, they began using the word “check” to make the other player aware of the king’s jeopardized safety. In the Middle Ages, the word referred to a temporary stoppage, as nothing can be done until the king is moved out of harm’s way.


The two person Chaturanga board. It resembles European chess quite a bit. (Photo released into public domain by Wikipedia user Adhe)

Now for everyone’s favorite part: victory. Upon realizing that the rival player had no moves left, the winner would say, “shah mat.” Though the common though among the general public is that this means, “The king is dead,” that’s not true. It’s understandable, though because, upon hearing the words, the loser lays the king piece on its side. The death allusion is just coincidence, though; shah mat’s literal translation is, “The king is stumped/helpless/ambushed.” Coupled with the fact that the word “check” was already being used, English ears heard an Anglicized version of the phrase, & adopted “checkmate.”


An illustration showing Moorish nobility playing European chess. (image is in public domain)

The name chess, itself, comes from the old French word for the game, “echecs.” The French used this word because the board resembled an accounting table called an eschequier, a word which has survived to become a term we use to describe an agency set up to collect royal revenue. Interestingly enough, it’s also where we get the term “checkered,” when we describe the color pattern & obviously the name of the game checkers.


Chess has a much more interesting complicated history than you’d expect. Its popularity & the fact that it’s held in such high esteem is a wonderful testament to the game’s rich history. It’s been around for a good portion of human civilization & I expect it to stick around for a long time in the future.

Now you know; you’re welcome.

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Back to Square One: Soccer & Children’s Games

Happy Monday, everyone. I hope you all had a good weekend & that you’ve settled well into your mondays. Let’s kick off he week with a new Bill’s Bologna post.

It’s been a long time coming, but I finally have a post about an idiom for you all. So, here it is:

“Back to square one” is a common phrase, which means starting over. Different groups of etymologists argue over how it actually started, but the general consensus is that it came from one of three places. The three explanations deal with popular sports & games, which are still played today.

Here they are:

This one’s very simple. In hopscotch, you draw numbered squares on the ground. You throw a stone & hop from square to square in numerical order. The square on which the stone landed is skipped. When you’ve reached the end, you go backwards, to square one.


Hopscotch as illustrated by Isiah Thomas in his 1767 book, A Pretty Little Pocket Book
(Image in Public Domain)

Chutes & Ladders:
I would be really surprised if anyone reading this hasn’t played Chutes & Ladders because it’s one of the most common children’s board games of all. It’s also one of the oldest.
In 1943, Milton Bradley changed the snakes to chutes, or slides, & marketed it to American children. What most people don’t know is that the game was played as far back as the Sixteenth Century. It was Indian & was called Moksha Patam.


Your journey towards your destiny in the caste system- The original version of Snakes (Chutes) & Ladders, from India
(Image in Public Domain)

The game was played on a numbered grid which vared from 8×8 to 12×12. Across the board, there were ladders & snakes connecting different squares. If you landed on the bottom of a ladder, you could bypass some squares, but if you landed on the head of a snake, you had to backtrack to the square where the snake’s tale was. Unlike most games at the time, which emphasized strategy, this one was meant to symbolize destiny. All you had to do was roll the dice & move your piece. Whether or not you landed on a ladder or snake square was where your pawn (symbolic for your soul) was desined to land. Here’s where the phrase comes in. If you landed on a snake head leading back to the first square, you had to start over because you were sent back to square one. Makes sense, right?

Another group of etymologists believe that it dates back to the BBC broadcasts of soccer.
Back in the 1930s, radio was huge. There weren’t any TVs yet, so this is how sports fans were able to experience games. Radio announcers from the British Broadcasting Corporation would divide the soccer field up a 2 x 4 grid. They’d number the squares, with 1 & 2 on one side, & 7 & 8 on the other. I was easier for someone at home to picture where the ball was if the announcer had a clear area to describe.
BBC fans adamantly argue that this is the true origin, but as the English site, The Phrase Finder, points out, there are a few problems with this one, the biggest one being the fact that just because a ball is kicked into the first square, doesn’t mean that the game started over. The site also mentions that the squares on the field are much more rectangular than square, but I think that may be nit-picking a bit.

Soccer Squares as described by BBC sports announcers

Soccer Squares as described by BBC sports announcers

Any of these seem plausible to me, but then there’s this quotation. It’s from 1952, & it pops up everywhere, as one of the first times the phrase is used in this context.

He has the problem of maintaining the interest of the reader who is always being sent back to square one in a sort of intellectual game of snakes and ladders.

The Phrase Finder claims that it is, in fact, the first time this is documented on paper & that after the 1930s, announcers stopped calling games like this. Therefore, it’s not likely that this is a true story. Again, it’s speculation.

I tend to lean towards the Chutes & Ladders origin, but again, they’re all considered plausible. Which one do you think?

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. Have a great rest of the week & I’ll see you at my next post.

Now you know; you’re welcome.

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