Review: The History of Chess in Fifty Moves by Bill Price

The History of Chess in Fifty Moves [2015] ★★★1/2

I got inspired to read this book because of the World Chess Championship 2021 currently held in Dubai where now the defending champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway is playing Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia. This book by Bill Price traces the history of chess from its very likely origin in northern India circa 7th century to the game’s expansion in Muslim countries, and then to it making its way to the heart of the Christian community through Islamic ports. Chess was then a game played by the royalty and was seen as “an expression of social standing, rather than an intellectual pursuit” [Price, Apple Press 2015: 56]. Certain historical and other developments then led to it being played by a wide variety of people and the game spread rapidly across Europe, played in coffeehouses across the continent in the 17th century. Though this book is more on a superficial side, it is still an entertaining journey into chess, offering some curious insights into the game, for example, into the women’s chess and into the origin of certain chess terms, such as a gambit.

Early presentation of the game of Senet (“passing”), Ancient Egypt

The prominent theory is that the modern game of chess derives from a war game of Chaturanga originating in ancient India. That game was played with Kings, Counsellors (early form of the Queen), Chariots (early Rooks), Elephants (early Bishops), Horses (early Knights) and Foot-Soldiers (early Pawns). The White had the first move of the game. There is also another, but less popular theory that chess derives from a Chinese game of Xiangqi (played similar to chess but with additional rules, including restricted areas and “cannons”) and chess has also been linked to the Ancient Egypt’s game of Senet. However, irrespective of its precise origin in the distant past, the earliest game clearly meant to represent some kind of a fight between two opposing forces: “chess…in its earliest known form was a simulation of war as it was fought in ancient India”[Price, Apple Press 2015: 84]. The curious thing here is that many countries in the world still use the Indian/Persian terminology when referring to chess pieces, including Russia, where the Queen is called Ферзь (Ferzin) or a Counsellor in Persian‎, the Knight – the War-Horse and the Bishop – the Elephant. It is also curious that some countries like France and Romania have made their Bishops/Elephants into Jesters. For example, in France the Bishop is called Le Fou (lit. The Fool).

 The Chess Game (Portrait of the artist’s sisters playing chess) (1555) by Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1532 – 1625)

Some contributions by early chess masters may now be seen as self-evident, but back then were undoubtedly “ground-breaking”. For example, French composer and chess player François-André Danican Philidor (1726 -1795) was one of the first to realise the hidden power of pawns, pieces that were previously viewed as either purely “disposable” or “promotable” (eventually) material. Philidor made it clear in his treatise on chess that pawns have a strong capability to dominate the centre of the board at the beginning of the game and into the middle-game, paving later the way to victory. The curious thing to read in this book section was that it was precisely the “emancipation” of the Queen and her gaining the power to move so freely on the board that signalled that turning point after which chess became so dynamic a game and that also even led to the “democratisation” of chess, the author writes [Apple Press 2015: 72]. Of course, the book also mentions the Charlemagne chess pieces and talks in some depth about the Lewis chess, an elaborately-crafted set dating to 1150-1200 that was first discovered in Scotland in 1832.

One of the “blunders” of the book is that it constructs its text around chapters just for the sake of sticking to the book’s title “The History of Chess in 50 Moves”. This means that there is often no rhyme or reason to the author’s “chaptering” and, incidentally, the chapter “moves” hardly presuppose “chess moves”. Also, though it was interesting to read about early grandmasters, including about Paul Morphy, Howard Staunton and even about José Raúl Capablanca, the book does become less interesting as it gets closer to our present time, when it starts talking about famous matches, tournaments and championships that figure such names as Spassky, Karpov, Kasparov, Botvinnik, Tal and Fischer (but that is probably because so much have been written on those chess tournaments and grandmasters already).

In sum, though the book lacks depth and rigour, as well as often mixes factual information with purely anecdotal, it is still an enjoyable book with nice illustrations.

19 thoughts on “Review: The History of Chess in Fifty Moves by Bill Price

  1. 2015 was a big year for chess, and this book may have been positioned to cash in on all the young people who were starting to get involved and also their parents and relatives. I know that in 2015 much of my son’s Christmas was a stack of chess books! He is a chess Master and hasn’t played much during college and grad school but still plays in the occasional tournament and is working towards his norms for International Master (the last step before Grand Master).
    Chess is still big in the U.S. but during the pandemic went almost entirely online and much of it has stayed there.

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    1. Thanks for this info, I certainly wasn’t aware of 2015 being so significant for chess! Good luck to your son, too, that’s incredible to achieve so much in this field. And, yes, I agree, online chess is so big, so amazing. I think chess.com is one of the most impressive websites I’ve come across in my living memory.

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  2. This 2021 World Championship match has set the record for longest game (Game 6: 136 moves, Magnus won. The ONLY win of the match thus far by either player) and also record for 3 of the most accurate games ever played according to Stockfish AI engines. Grandmasters like Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi are already geniuses. But The infusion of computer engine analysis into the game of chess in recent years (The ability for players to analyze their moves in real-time against a perfect computer model) effectively means their play is now approaching God-level territory.

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      1. Thank you, I am glad you liked it. I started playing chess in early childhood, but have not played in many years. I am probably pretty dreadful at chess now. Do you have a favourite chess player? I’ve got to say I find some so-called “intuitive” chess players much more fascinating than the ones that calculate one hundred moves or so in advance. I think Mikhail Tal was one of those “intuitive” ones.

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        1. I watch a lot of videos from GothamChess and Ben Finegold on youtube. Judit Polgar might be my new fav player. I recently found a game where she beat Magnus with a King’s Indian defense. And The King’s Indian is my go-to style of play right now. So I’m going to study it further! I will look up Mikhail Tal. Intuition agrees with me.

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          1. I have seen a couple of GothamChess’s videos, they’re entertaining and thorough, but Ben Finegold is new to me. I do love agadmator’s Chess Channel. He also explains very well. King’s Indian defence is interesting. It can certainly lead to very successful outcomes.

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    1. Interesting! I didn’t know these details about game 6. Sadly I didn’t watch it, but now do want to get a closer look at that. I think Carlsen is well-known for his stamina so it suited him much more than Nepo that the game turned out to be that long. I think now Nepo lost games 8 and 9 as well? The result of that 6th must have been too much for him, too and I don’t think he has any chances now to come back since Carlsen has to earn only 1 point to win? I am light years away from being a chess expert, so I may be interpreting something wrong. Computer use in chess is incredible, I agree. It both simplified the game in certain respects, players don’t have to search long for this or that variation, but I bet it also made chess so much more competitive.

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    1. Thanks! It would have been even better if those 50 moves actually corresponded to anything. The author’s 50 chapters felt like a forced structure with almost random chapters. It is only after I finished this book I found out that Price also wrote “Fifty Foods That Changed the Course of History” (2014). I guess that also explains the title.

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  3. This book is intriguing. I’m not a chess player but my husband is. I’m more interested in the historical aspects that you mentioned. Just checked and unfortunately, it’s not at my library. Perhaps still worth buying. Thanks for the review.

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