Chess Facts for Kids

A while ago, I had a job teaching chess to elementary students.  It was fun, and paid great, but it was only an hour a week so I wasn’t really worth it once I got something regular.  It was fairly challenging coming up with lessons, since I had kindergarteners who couldn’t name the pieces in the same class as 5th graders who already owned their own chess books.  I did my best, though, and ended up writing up some handouts for them.  Since I’m getting back into chess, now seemed a good time to share some of them.  Here are some interesting chess facts I wrote up for the students to try to get them a little bit more interested.

The Knight’s move has always been the same in chess, and may even predate the game!  Its move may come from a mathematical puzzle, in which the Knight must pass through every square on the chess board, and its move was then given to a piece in chess when the game was invented.

In shatranj, the predecessor to chess, the Queen was a minister or vizier, and still is in many languages.

Initially, the Queen could only move one square at a time, diagonally.  Later, she could move two squares at a time, diagonally.  It wasn’t until Reconquista Spain, with its powerful queen Isabella, that the Queen became the strongest piece on the board.

In Medieval Europe, a player could not promote a pawn to Queen while a Queen was still on the board, so that the King wouldn’t have two wives at once.

There are more possible games of chess than there are atoms in the universe!

“Checkmate” comes from the Persian shah mat, which means, “the king is dead.”

The folding chess board was originally invented in 1125 by a chess-playing priest. Since the Church forbid priests to play chess, he hid his chess board by making one that looked simply like two books lying together.

Chess began in India during the Gupta Empire, spreading to the Persian Sassanid Empire, and then to the Middle East after Muslims conquered Persia.  From there, it spread to Europe and Russia.

In English, the word Rook comes from rukh, Persian for chariot.  In Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, it’s a tower, and in Russian, it’s a ship!

The Bishop is only a bishop in Icelandic and English.  In shatranj, the predecessor to chess, it was an elephant.  In Polish and Finnish, it’s a messenger; in Czech, it’s a rifleman; in most Germanic languages, it’s a runner; and in French, it’s a fool!

In many languages, the Pawn is a footsoldier, but in German and Spanish, it’s a peasant or farmer, instead!

In shatranj, the predecessor of chess, the pieces represent the parts of an army.  The Pawns are footsoldiers, the Rooks are chariots, the Knights are cavalry, the Bishops are elephants, and the King and Queen are the emperor and his minister.

The reason why traditional chess pieces don’t look like actual soldiers, bishops, and kings is because before the game reached Europe, it passed through the Islamic world.  Islam forbids making statues of animals or people, so chess pieces became vague-looking.  When the game spread to Christian Europe, the pieces didn’t change much.

About 600,000,000 (Six hundred million) people know how to play chess worldwide!

The oldest surviving complete chess sets were found on the Isle of Lewis, in northern Scotland, and dates to the 12th century.  They were probably made in Iceland or Norway, and their appearance was used in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the wizard chess pieces.

In 1770, Wolfgang von Kempelen made a machine that could play chess, astonishing Europe!  However, it was actually a fake.  The Mechanical Turk, as it was called, contained a chess player hidden inside the table, who controlled the Turk.

In the early 11th century, the Holy Roman Emperor’s daughter was “won” in a chess game between her brother and her future husband, Ezzo, the Count Palatine, a German noble.

Chess was originally designed to teach war, and even the Soviet Union required its generals to learn chess.

Throughout the Middle Ages, chess was banned by priests and kings numerous times, but always survived with its popularity intact.

The oldest recorded chess game in history is from the 900s, between a historian from Baghdad and his student.

Because of the way the King, Queen, Bishops, Knights, Rooks, and Pawns work together, each with their own role, the game was used to help explain morality and comment on society during the Middle Ages.

The first computer program for playing chess was developed in 1951, by Alan Turing.  However, no computer was powerful enough to process it, so Turing tested it by doing the calculations himself and playing according to the results, taking several minutes per move.

Chess was one of the few ways a man could visit a woman in her chamber during Medieval and Early Modern times.

The second book ever printed in the English language was about chess!

A Medieval European tradition said that chess was invented by a philosopher to pacify a tyrannical king.  The game was designed to teach him how a king led his subjects and protected them from danger, while the subjects protected the king.

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