The History of Chess Variants
Since Chess, as it is currently played, is not the original game, the history of Chess variants starts with the history of Chess. As H. J. R. Murray puts it after calling the majority of Asian people chess players in A History of Chess,
It is in the wider sense, in which I have just used the word, that I propose to use chess in this book. I include under it all the games which I traced back to the Indian chaturanga, and all the freak modifications that have been attempted from time to time. (Kindle Loc 649)
From Chaturanga to Chess
The name of Chess most strictly refers to a game that took its present shape in Europe and has its rules codified by the World Chess Federation (known by its French acronym of FIDE). This game can be traced back to an Indian game called Chaturanga, whose name meant "the four arms of the military." It comes from chatur, meaning four, and from anga, meaning arms, used in reference to the military, just as the English word "army" is. This game was played on an 8x8 uncheckered board called the ashṭāpada. Although there is no historical documentation of the game from its earliest days, the most trustworthy accounts describe it as being very similar to Chess, differing mainly by having weaker pieces and a few differences in rules. Some have claimed that Chaturanga was originally a four-player game, Chaturanga for four players, but this seems less likely, because the four player game has not had the influence or spread of the two player game. But since the Indians did not keep any extensive writings on the game, we may never know for sure what the original form of Chaturanga was.
The Persians picked up the two player game from contact with India, calling it Chatrang, which was a Persian corruption of the Sanskrit name. According to Henry Davidson, Persians began the practice of informing the opponent when his King was attacked by saying the Persian word for king, shaw. Later, to avoid disputes over whether someone had said shaw, they made it illegal to move the King to an attacked space. This changed the object of the game from capture of the King to checkmate. While our words check, checkmate, and chess do derive from the Persian shaw, Davison's claim that the Persians introduced check and checkmate into the game lacks adequate documentation, and other Chess historians claim that checkmate was the rule in the Indian game.
Muslims picked up Chatrang during their conquest of Persia (633-654 CE), calling it Shatranj, which was an Arabic approximation of the Persian name. Unlike the Indians and the Persians, the Muslims took up an active interest in the game, and they started to produce lots of literature on it. It is mainly thanks to Muslim writings that we have knowledge of early Chess. Although we are lacking original documentation on Chaturanga, we are not lacking any on the rules of Shatranj, which is the earliest form of Chess we have detailed accounts of. While Muslims did play some Chess variants, such as the large Tamerlane Chess and the circular Byzantine Chess, they did not, as best we can tell, make any changes to the rules of Shatranj itself. The main Muslim influence on Chess was on piece design. Because artistic representations of people and animals were forbidden in Islam, they adopted the practice of representing the pieces more abstractly. This influence can be seen in today's Staunton pieces, which are mostly abstract.
As with most other games, some Muslims considered Chess forbidden (haram), but this ruling was disputed by other Muslims. First of all, the Muslims did not discover Shatranj until after the death of Muhammed (632 CE). So, there was no mention of it in the Qu'ran or the Hadiths. While Islam does forbid gambling, games of chance, and idle amusements, some Muslims supported the playing of Shatranj by pointing out that it is a game of perfect information, not one of chance, and it is a simulation of war, not an idle amusement. Since people do enjoy playing games, and Shatranj was one of the few games allowed in the Muslim world, this may explain why it became more popular with the Muslims than it had been with the Indians or Persians before them. Besides that, the Muslims were unified by religion, not by geography, and they tried to spread their religion by military conquest. As they succeeded in this, they would also spread knowledge of Shatranj to other lands, and as these other lands became Muslim, Shatranj would gain the same favoritism in these lands that it already received under Islam.
Thanks to the Umayyad conquest of Hispania (711-788 CE), Islam spread to the Iberian peninsula, where Spain and Portugal are currently situated. This is the likely time when knowledge of Shatranj made it to Europe. For several centuries, Europeans played the game by essentially the same rules as the Muslims, but Europeans made various modifications to the rules, and some of these modifications eventually came together into the present European form of the game. The main changes to the game helped speed it up and make it more decisive. These included giving Pawns double moves, introducing en passant capture, allowing Kings and Rooks to castle, replacing the Alfils and Ferzes with Bishops and Queens, and providing more options for Pawn promotion. One European variant of Shatranj that may have influenced modern Chess is Courier Chess. This game expanded the width of the board and added some extra pieces, including the Courier, which moved any number of spaces diagonally, as the modern Bishop does. Chess, as we know it in the west, had generally come together in its present form by the 19th century. But it was only in the 20th century, following the formation of FIDE in 1924, that its rules were officially codified.
The Origin of Chess
Although there is solid evidence linking modern Chess to the Indian Chaturanga, this, by itself, doesn't establish Chaturanga as the original game. Although an Indian origin is the prevailing opinion, some have claimed that the game is of Chinese origin. I don't consider a Chinese origin for Chess very credible, and I'll explain why.
From the perspective of game design, Xiangqi is superior to Shatranj, and this suggests that Shatranj is closer to the original game than Xiangqi is. Shatranj is flawed by the existence of several weak pieces, which can slow down the game and make it harder for either side to win. Xiangqi fixed this problem by weakening and confining the royal piece and some defensive pieces while also increasing the attacking power of the royal piece and adding a new piece, the Cannon, whose powers favor attack more than defense. The result of these changes weakened defense and strengthened offense, making the game more decisive.
Besides being corrected in Xiangqi, this problem has been independently corrected in both modern Chess and the Japanese game Shogi. Modern Chess fixed it by making the weakest pieces stronger. Shogi addressed the problem of slow-moving weak pieces by allowing players to drop captured pieces back onto the board. This increased the mobility of pieces without changing their basic powers. Shogi weakened defense by making more pieces than just the Pawns forward moving only, and it added power to offense by providing promotion for several piece types upon reaching the other side. These changes kept the pieces weaker where they would be used for defense and made them stronger where they would be used for offense. Given that each of these games each corrected a flaw in Shatranj yet are otherwise similar to it, it is very likely that each one of them evolved from a game similar to Shatranj, which itself is supposed to be close to the Indian Chaturanga.
Besides this, Xiangqi includes elements that are not common to other oriental Chess variants. It is the only one with a river, and it is the only one with its particular powers of movement for the General (King), Elephant, Cannon, and Pawn. It shares some of its other features only with Korea's Janggi. Among regional Chess variants, these are the only two played on intersections instead of spaces, the only two with blockable Knights and Elephants, the only two with Cannons, the only two to give each player only five Pawns, and the only two played on a 9x10 playing area. Also, both games can be played with the same equipment, but extra Pawns and some modifications to the board would be required to play other regional variants. It makes sense that Korea would learn the game from China even if the game was invented in India, because Korea is a peninsula whose only land border is with China, and it lies on the eastern end of China while India borders China in the west. Given that the influence of Xiangqi is not as evident in other oriental Chess variants, it seems unlikely that the original game was like Xiangqi. And given that Korea's Janggi is not nearly as much like Shatranj as many other Asian variants are, it seems unlikely that the original game, being much more like Shatranj, had its origins in China.
It is noteworthy, though, that Japan attributes its acquisition of Shogi to China. Nevertheless, Shogi's similarities with Xiangqi do not include most of its uncommon features. It is played on spaces, it has no Cannons, it does not confine any pieces to a particular area of the board, and it includes new features that distinguish it both from Xiangqi and other Chess variants. So it is unlikely that Shogi is based on a game like Xiangqi, as Janggi clearly was, and it is much more likely that it was based on a game like Shatranj, which the Japanese then modified into Shogi.
Among known oriental variants, the one that looks like the best candidate is Makruk, the Chess variant of Siam, now known as Thailand. It is mainly like Chaturanga, but each player's Pawns start on the third rank, as they do in Shogi, and the Elephant moves as the Silver General does in Shogi. While Thailand is further away from Japan than China and probably also had less political and cultural influence on Japan, the geographies of these two countries would have made them both more sea-faring than the more land-locked China, and this would have facilitated cultural exchanges between them. Furthermore, Makruk's differences from Chaturanga are improvements. The more advanced line of Pawns speeds up the game, and giving Elephants the Silver General's move lets them cover the whole board instead of only a fraction of it. This suggests that Chaturanga is the earlier game.
Another possible candidate for the link between Chaturanga and Shogi is Sittuyin, the regional Chess variant of Burma, now known as Myanmar. Like Makruk, its Pawns start in a more advanced position, and its Elephant moves as a Silver General. But it also goes off in a different direction than either Shogi or Chaturanga, and the sea route from most parts of Burma to Japan would have been longer than the one from Siam to Japan. Comparing Sittuyin with Makruk, Sittuyin seems to be an improvement over Makruk, as it speeds up the game even more by allowing free placement of the pieces behind the Pawns. So, it's likely that Makruk came first, and Sittuyin is based on it. Given these considerations, it seems fairly likely that knowledge of Chaturanga spread from India to Siam by sea, and both the Burmese and the Japanese learned of the game through contact with the Siamese.
If Japan did in fact learn of Chess through contact with Siam or another neighbor in between, that would account for why Shogi does not resemble Xiangqi to nearly the same degree as Janggi does. But there are some traces of Chinese influence. The Japanese name for Shogi is written in Chinese characters, though this could be more due to Japan borrowing its writing system from China. A more telling detail is that the Chinese characters used to write the name for Shogi are exactly the same as the Chinese characters used to write the name for Janggi. This suggests that these games originated from a common source or that one influenced the other. Looking at these two characters, the first one is the 将 character for general. This reflects that the Chinese changed the name of the King to General. The second character is the 棋 character for board game, which is also used in the Chinese name for Xiangqi. Besides that, every Shogi piece with a counterpart in Xiangqi uses one of the same characters that get used for the piece in Xiangqi. Still, these similarities could just be due to Japan's use of the Chinese writing system and to the fact that the meanings of the piece names tended to remain the same across different languages. Even more significant than these linguistic similarities is that the Pawns in Shogi do not capture diagonally, a characteristic that Shogi shares in common with Xiangqi and Janggi, though not with Makruk, Sittuyin, or Chaturanga.
Assuming Japan did learn of Chess through China, there are three possible explanations for why Janggi is much closer to Xiangqi than Shogi is. One is that knowledge of Chess passed from China to Japan earlier than it did to Korea, so that the Japanese learned of a game more similar to Shatranj, while the Koreans learned of a game more similar to modern Xiangqi. The second is that China had a weaker influence on Japan than on Korea. This makes sense given that Japan is not on the mainland, while Korea is on a peninsula off of China. The Chinese were able to march right into Korea, and during its history, it was often a vassal state to the current Chinese dynasty. This ties into the third possible explanation, which is that Japan, being a sea-faring nation with several treading partners, gained knowledge of multiple regional Chess variants and synthesized elements of them into their own variants.
One last thing to look at is how culture spread between India and China, India appears to have had the greater influence. Buddhism quickly spread from India to China, then to Japan and Korea. But Confucianism and Taoism, which were of Chinese origin, did not gain footholds in India. They did, however, spread east, Taoism influencing Zen Buddhism in Japan and Confucianism becoming dominant in Korea during the Joseon period. Turning to games, Wei Qi was a hugely popular game in China, spreading to Japan, where it became known as Go, and to Korea, where it became known as Baduk. Yet Wei Qi did not spread to India. It is a very different game than Chess, and the only regional Chess variants to show any influence from it are Xiangqi and Janggi, which both place pieces on the intersections. Given this and the other considerations raised here, it seems more probable that the origins of Chess go back to India than that they go back to China.
Because of the extensive analysis that has been done on Chess and the knowledge of opening moves that is required to do well in Chess competitively, some Chess players have proposed replacing Chess with a new game that would provide more challenges and require more original thinking. Examples of this include Capablanca's Chess, Fischer Random Chess, and Twenty-First Century Chess.
Some Chess variants were not intended for actual play but were created for the sake of creating fairy chess problems. The term fairy chess was proposed in 1914 by Henry Tate. In December 1918, T. R. Dawson took up this term, published his first article on fairy chess in The Chess Amateur. In it, he mentioned that problemists had occasionally been producing unorthodox problems in a haphazard way, as editors allowed them, and this did not give them much incentive to compose many of them. So, within the pages of this magazine and later The Fairy Chess Review, Dawson provided a place for Chess problems that introduced different rules, terrains, or pieces, and these were collectively known as fairy chess problems.
Chess Variants in Science Fiction
Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was writing books about John Carter's adventures on Mars, centered one book, The Chessmen of Mars, on the Martian game of Jetan, which was similar to Chess in many respects. Some of the fans of his book took up an interest in the game he described therein. When Star Trek aired on TV, it showed Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock playing a three-dimensional form of Chess on a board with multiple levels. Although this was just a prop, fans of the series took up an interest in it and developed rules for Star Trek 3D Chess.
In 1960, Robert Lauzon and Jim France started an organization for correspondence play of Chess called kNights of the Round Table, abbreviated NOST. They were looking to create a friendlier organization that focused more on friendship and conversation than on winning. And over time, members of NOST began to play Chess variants with each other. In 1975, the Associazione Italiana Scacchi Eterodossi (AISE) formed. Translated into English, the name means Italian Association of Heterodox Chess. As the name indicates, it was for the play of Chess variants. Since the members of NOST and AISE were playing by postal mail, rule changes that sped up the game proved popular, and some of the more popular games played through them included Avalanche Chess Progressive Chess, and Marseillais Chess. Also, the opportunity to play Chess variants by postal mail helped encourage the creation of many new variants. In particular, Ralpha Betza, who was active in NOST, created more Chess variants than anyone before him.
Sometimes, entrepreneurs or toy companies put out commercial Chess variants. These are usually for commercial reasons, though other reasons may factor in. These include Smess, Omega Chess, and Knightmare Chess.
In 1950, Claude Shannon published a paper called Programming a Computer for Playing Chess. In 1953, Alan Turing published Digital Computer Applied to Games, which concerned itself with programming Chess. In 1956, the first program to play a Chess-like game played a variant called Los Alamos Chess. So computers were playing Chess variants before they were playing Chess. But let's now fastforward to the 1990's. By this time, programs were being written for Xiangqi, Shogi, and some other Chess variants. Then, in 1998, Zillions-of-Games appeared. This was the first computer program to provide a Chess-playing engine that could be easily adapted to a variety of puzzles and games. It supported some Chess variants out of the box, but it could also be programmed for new, original games. Still in 1998, Fergus Duniho was the first person to create and publish an original Chess variant for Zillions-of-Games, namely Cavalier Chess. He went on to create several more Chess variants with Zillions-of-Games as a development tool, and he later went on to create Game Courier, which allows people to play Chess variants against each other online. Meanwhile, many other people began using Zillions-of-Games, and some other PBM sites supporting a limited selection of Chess variants appeared on the web. This new environment for playing Chess variants against a computer or with the aid of one made it much more rewarding to people to create new Chess variants.
The Chess Variant Pages
This website was founded in 1997, and it has played an important role in fostering the creation of new Chess variants. Besides proving a place to find Zillions-of-Games scripts for playing Chess variants, and besides proving a home for Game Courier, it has been the main place on the web for people to publish the rules of Chess variants, both new and old. Through hosting design contests, this site has encouraged the development of new variants. Through providing minimal barriers to publication, it has allowed very prolific inventors to publish many more variants than they would have been allowed to in a print medium.
Perhaps the good majority of Chess variants have been created by people who have been inspired with ideas for new games. Sources of inspiration have included literature, science, science fiction, mathematics, geometry, other games, individual pieces, names for potential games, and contests. Inspiration is the source of most Chess variants, because it is the inspired creators who individually create the most Chess variants. While reformers and entrepreneurs may settle for creating just one Chess variant, those who are moved by inspiration go on to create several.
Between 1961 and 1974, Vernon Parton wrote pamphlets describing about 70 original Chess variants, many inspired by the works of Lewis Carroll. During the later part of the 20th century, Ralph Betza created numerous Chess variants. Since the creation of this site in the late 90's, several editors and contributors have each created several different variants. Editors of this site who have created several variants include Peter Aronson, Fergus Duniho, David Howe, Joe Joyce, and Jeremy Gabriel Good. The record for creating the most Chess variants currently goes to Charles Gilman. Go to Chess Variant Inventors for a ranked listing of all the inventors whose games are featured on this site. The ones at the top of the list, those who have created the most variants, are those most likely to have created games out of inspiration.
I'll also note that some Chess variants are created by game inventors who have created several games besides Chess variants. These include Robert Abbott, known for Ultima, R. Wayne Schmittberger, known for Wildebeest Chess, and Christian Freeling, known for Grand Chess and a handful of other variants.