The History of Chess in Fifty Moves  – ★★★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.
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).
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.