by Janet Spencer

Chess is considered to be the most played game of all time, including modern video games. Come along with Tidbits as we play a game!


Chess is a game meant to simulate warfare: the king sits behind the ranks of the army; if he dies, all is lost. Pawns are expendable soldiers who guard and die for the king. Knights, rooks, and bishops are dangerous and powerful. But the most powerful piece on the board, capable of outmaneuvering and overpowering all others, is the queen. The queen can move as many unoccupied spaces as she wants in any direction, vertically, horizontally, or diagonally.

• The queen was not always so powerful. Original rules left her nearly helpless, able to move only one square at a time, diagonally. Her increase in power came as a result of changes on the political landscape, as female rulers came into their own. There was Spain’s Queen Isabella in the late 1400s. She financed Christopher Columbus and was one of the most powerful rulers in Europe. Then there was Margaret of Austria, Catherine de Medici in France, and Elizabeth I of England. Russia was the last to adopt the power of the queen in chess, and that didn’t happen until Catherine the Great became Russia’s longest-ruling female leader in the late 1700s. (cont)


The word “check” originated with the Persian word “shah” meaning “king” as in “the shah of Iran.” The word was mispronounced by sea merchants.    The Persians played a game that featured game pieces including a piece called the king. This game, and the mispronunciation of the word for king, ended up giving the English language many words and terms.

• The game was over when the king piece was captured by the opponent, and the opponent was required to call out “check” (“shah”) as soon as the king was put into jeopardy. If the king piece was captured, the opponent exclaimed “shah mat” meaning “the king is dead” denoting victory and the end of the game. The French mispronounced this as “eschec mat” which turned into “checkmate.”

• The French adapted the word “échec” to mean “defeat” and the plural “échecs” turned into the English word “chess.”

• The French term morphed into “exchequer” which came to mean the place where the King kept his money, possibly because if you stole all the king’s money, the king would be defeated. Then it started to mean “the government treasury” and next “the town accounting” and finally “the bank.”

• Therefore “exchequer” is the origin of the English word “check” with many meanings springing from both the game of chess and the world of banking.   

• It gave us the word checkers, which is played on the same checkered board as chess. Now we have checkered tablecloths and a checkered past.

• When you write a check (originally spelled “cheque”) you are keeping track of your banking.

• When you make a checkmark, you are ticking off accounts that have been paid.

When you check on the kids, or check on the progress, or check out the girls, you’re paying attention to the situation your king is on the game board.

• When you ask for the check in a restaurant, you’re asking for an accounting.

• When you put something in check, you’re protecting your king from damage.

• If you make sure the checks and balances are even, you’re balancing your accounting.

• A checker at a grocery store is keeping accounts straight.

• If you’ve asked for a “hat check,” a “baggage check” or a “rain check” you’re asking for an accounting of what you are owed.

• When a hockey player checks an opponent hard enough to knock him around, there’s a problem with the king on the chessboard.


The rows on a chessboard are called the ranks, and the columns on the board are called the files: rank and file.

• The lowliest piece on the board is called a pawn, from the same Latin root word that gives us “peon.” In German and Spanish, the piece is called either a peasant or a farmer rather than a pawn.

• The rook comes from the Persian “rokh” meaning chariot. Today, “rookies” are chess players in their first year, a term which now denotes other newbies in their chosen fields. Rooks are often the last pieces to be moved into play, as are rookies.

• The French word “estale” meant “standstill.” When players are locked in and cannot make a legal move, the game comes to a standstill. “Estale” turned into the English word “stalemate” (as opposed to checkmate.) Today a stalemate counts as a tie, and the word now means any sort of a deadlock.


Chess began in India around the year 500 A.D. It’s gone through many changes since. Modern rules were set down in the 1800s.

• The oldest recorded chess game in history is from the 900s AD, between a historian from Baghdad and his student.

• A rule book written in Latin around the year 997 AD was found preserved in a monastery in Switzerland.

• The oldest surviving chess sets were found in northern Scotland, dated to the 12th century.

• The first chessboard with alternating light and dark squares appeared in Europe in 1090.

• The folding chessboard was originally invented in 1125 by a chess-playing priest. Since the church forbad priests to play chess, he hid his chessboard by making one that looked simply like two books lying together.

• The move where the pawn can move two steps instead of one was introduced in Spain in 1280.

• The reason why traditional chess pieces don’t look like actual soldiers, bishops, kings, and queens is because before the game reached Europe, it passed through the Islamic world. Islam forbids making statues in the likeness of animals or people, so chess pieces became vague-looking and stayed that way when the game moved into Europe and beyond.

• Blindfold chess is an impressive skill. Each square on the board is identified by a letter plus a number. With both players blindfolded, they call out their moves and an assistant arranges the moves on the chessboard. Both players have to visualize the game in their heads, which requires a sharp memory and abundant concentration.    The record was set in 1960 in Budapest by Hungarian Janos Flesch, who played 52 opponents simultaneously while blindfolded – and won 31 of those games.