History of Chess: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Suzanne Rose

Suzanne has taught all levels PK-graduate school and has a PhD in Instructional Systems Design. She currently teachers literacy courses to preservice and inservice teachers.

Have you ever wondered why there are so many pawns in a chess set? Read this lesson to find out about the history of chess, how it moved through the world, and why there are so many pawns!

Oldest Game in the World

Did you know that chess is the oldest game in the world and has been played in many countries around the globe? The oldest written record of chess is from 600 A.D., which was over 1,400 years ago! Some people believe the game is even older than that. One of the oldest chess sets that has ever been found is about 800 years old!

Where Did It Start?

No one knows for sure where the game of chess first started. There is evidence that chess was played in China, Persia, and India, but no proof about which one was first.

Chess Illustration from 1283 AD

Through many invasions and wars over the centuries, chess gradually made its way through the Muslim world and then to Europe. It was the Europeans who gave the chess pieces the names that we recognize from today's chess games.


The Islamic version of chess was called shatranj, which was played on a board that was similar to today's chess board. The pieces were also similar. Shatranj had a king who moved the same way as today's king. The piece we call a 'rook' was called a 'rukh' which meant 'chariot.' It had the same movement as today's rook. Both the knight and the pawns from shatranj are also the same as today's pieces, although the pawn could only move 1 space, even on its first move.

In shatranj, the bishop wasn't a religious figure, but was an elephant! It moved differently, too. There was no queen in the game of shatranj; instead the king had an advisor who could only move one square, on a diagonal, at a time.

Chess and Medieval Society

Shatranj was changed when it spread through Europe so that it more closely reflected European society. The version of chess that we know today is based on the Middle Ages in Europe. This time period ended about 600 years ago. Each chess piece represents a role in that society. For example, there are 8 pawns on each side of the chess board, while there's only 1 or 2 of each of the other chess pieces. Why is this?

Chess Book from 1624

Pawns represent the peasants, or poor people. In medieval times, peasants were not important; they couldn't own property and had few rights. In chess, the pawn is the piece that is the least important. They're limited in their moves and are often sacrificed to save the other more important pieces.

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