You might not have played chess in a very long time if you don’t already play it–maybe you learned how to play as a child but haven’t touched a piece since. But for some reason, the rules of chess probably still live in the back of your mind. Maybe you just play chess online through your phone. Anyway, you might be wondering why each piece works the way it does. How did we decide how each chess piece works? What are the origins behind chess pieces? What the heck is a rook?
Depending on what chess book you’re reading, sometimes what constitutes a “piece” is not “the stuff that sits on the black and white squares.” Because why not make it confusing?
For example, some books don’t count pawns as pieces, and divide the rest of the pieces into major and minor categories with a special category explicitly reserved for the king. Queens and rooks make up the major pieces while the minor pieces are bishops and knights. Sometimes when people say a piece has been “won,” “lost,” or “sacrificed,” they are only referring to bishops and knights. Otherwise they might say you just “won a queen/rook/pawn.”
Also if you have a fancy, artsy chess set sitting on your coffee table, it’s not legal for competition. Only the Staunton pattern is legal, and it was established in 1849. This was done, in part, because everyone had their own chess pieces and nobody knew what anything meant anymore. They were actually designed by a guy named Nathaniel Cooke, though–Staunton is the name of an English chess master.
Pawns are the most numerous pieces fielded on the board; each player begins with eight. You can find a lot of artsy descriptions of the symbolism here, but honestly it’s exactly what it sounds like. Chess likely originated in India as far back as 6th Century BC before spreading to Persia and later Europe. The common thread with chess is how often it was used as a tool for educating nobility; ergo chess is informed largely by feudalism. Quite literally, pawns are either peasants or cannon-fodder level soldiers (who were often among the conscripted peasantry anyway).
Kings and Queens
In the same way that pawns have always been a product of nobility, the symbolism of the king and queen has largely remained unchanged. Like the pawn, they’ve remained relatively unchanged in the modern game, besides the queen being able to only move diagonally one space at a time.
You may be wondering “hey, wasn’t feudal Europe still astoundingly sexist? Why is the queen more powerful than the king in the modern game?” Which is a fair question–considering that humans haven’t really solved the problem of sexism (or feudalism if you think about it). The queen didn’t gain its contemporary value as the most important piece on the board until the 15th century–in chess’ predecessors the closest analogue to the queen was the “advisor,” which was significantly weaker being able to only move one space at a time.
Historian Marilyn Yalom points out the paradox of the contemporary queen–she is the most powerful piece of the board where every other piece is assumed male. She has the most free reign to move, but yet is still completely subservient to her king as without him, there is no victory. At the same time one of the queen’s most noble fates in chess is to be sacrificed so her king may secure victory. But around the late 15th century when the queen gained its power, Yalom points to many female monarchs who were revered by their people; like Matilda of Tuscany or Margaret of Denmark. This forms the crux of her thesis; women in the seat of power also changed the rules of the queen.
The knight in the Staunton chess pattern has always been the most intricate–it has remained unchanged since the earliest precursors of chess, and was even often denoted with a horse. Its movement has remained unchanged too, thanks to chaturanga (one of the earliest precursors to chess) broadly referring to the “four limbs of the army.” These limbs back then were the elephantry, chariotry, infantry, and the horseback cavalry.
Also known as knights and the horsehead are and probably always have been symbolic of the cavalry.
In the Staunton chess set, bishops look a lot like those bishop mitres and stand next to the king and queen. Which makes sense linearly–Archbishops would crown royalty at coronation ceremonies in feudal Europe (as well as the modern British coronation). At least in the Staunton pattern they represent the Church, which should not have been a big stretch considering their name.
Comparing the modern bishop to chaturanga, its use has changed. While moving diagonally has been a common thread, some old rules have the pieve not moving more than just one or two spaces–since the modern bishop’s roots lie in the elephantry.
Moving as much as they want in a straight line has always been a thing for rooks–whose origins lie with the chariot “arm” of the army in chaturanga. When chess made its way to Persia, so did the chariot. Turns out, if you transliterate “رخ,” you get “rukh.”
Rooks are used in castling–a move that was added by Europeans when they started developing on chess. Asian versions and precursors to chess do not have such a maneuver.
Castling is a move that broadly moves the king into a safer position by repositioning both the king and rook–quite literally putting the king behind the castle. Explanations for the European chess piece looking like a tower may be because “rukh” was confused with the Italian “rocca,” which translates to fortress and not chariot.
See if you know more chess trivia here.