Why is chess such a popular game?

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10 January
19:23
12 January
17:00

Humans, at a fundamental level, are a social and cooperative species, but there is also a competitive element in their make-up, and these urges sometimes conflict.

To a greater or lesser extent, they also enjoy solving problems and facing intellectual challenges. All these elements combined have been crucial in securing our continued survival and expansion across the globe. Whilst essential to the nitty-gritty of making a living when the pressure is on, as human societies have developed to allow more downtime, we still find a need for an outlet for all aspects of our nature and so have been inventive in developing competitive physical sports and also card and board games, sometimes described as sports of the mind.

Board games have been around for at least 4,000 years, and chess is one of the oldest. Developed from the now extinct Indian game, Chaturanga, which dates from the 6th century and has spawned a number of variants throughout the world, it spread to Persia in the form of the game, Shatrang, and thence to Europe – where its modern rules were developed in Spain in the 15th century.

"It became a popular game in places of learning, the monasteries and universities, and in the European Royal Courts..."

It became a popular game in places of learning, the monasteries and universities, and in the European Royal Courts – and, therefore, an adept player could not only enjoy the game for itself, but could gain from the perceived social and intellectual accomplishment it bestowed on him or her.

Whilst spreading within the social and intellectual elite, news of the game inevitably spread downwards, and with it, its reputation as an interesting and challenging game. Whilst there was scope for the occasional roving professional from the 15th Century onwards, and occasional celebrated matches by the 18th century, with the numbers of semi-serious players expanding in the Coffee Houses, it was not until the mid-19th Century, with the development of improved transport infrastructure, that the present environment of national and international competition began to evolve.

Whilst chess saw a gradual increase in the number of serious players from that time, and grandmasters (as the leading players became known) began to be seen as possessing almost supernatural ability, the real explosion in popularity came with the Fischer-Spassky World Championship match which pitted – personalised in these two individuals – the East against the West. That the American, Bobby Fischer, won, had a huge impact on the popularity of chess worldwide and caused many 1000s of people to begin to play the game.

"Whilst to the non-player it has a reputation for being a hard game, the rules are actually quite easy to learn and it only takes a few games before a novice can play without having to refer to the instructions."

Whilst this boom is now long behind us and chess has never quite caught the public imagination with as much force as it did then, it has still left behind a legacy of an increased number of competitive players and many more who play the game at an informal level. In recent years, the development of the internet has, at least in the short-term, caused a drop in competitive players meeting “across-the-board”, but has seen an explosion in those playing online. Chess seems just about ideal for the internet age!

Probably one of the first things that attract players, and particularly children, to the game are the pieces - which, whether the ornate “medieval” sets or the internationally accepted Staunton Pattern, look much more fun than, say draughts pieces, and, being little figurines, excite the imagination. Whilst to the non-player it has a reputation for being a hard game, the rules are actually quite easy to learn and it only takes a few games before a novice can play without having to refer to the instructions.

Beginners to the game can, with a little application and practice, play some very satisfying games and can, perhaps, in the small pool of their backyard, gain for themselves a reputation as being a bit of a grandmaster! Chess sets can also be bought quite cheaply, a game takes up little space, and can be a way that friends or rivals can compete in a safe arena whilst happily socialising. Players taking the game more seriously not only enjoy the feeling of increasing mastery but can aspire to the kudos of being the pub, social club or school champion. So, whilst reaching the very top in chess is achieved by very few, it is easy to enjoy the game and even gain a reputation at less elevated levels.

For anyone who wishes to play chess and is short of opponents, a quick surf of the net will generally yield lots of places where it is played informally, such as bars and cafes, and for the more serious enthusiast it is not usually difficult to find a club serving the local area or one can find many websites where chess can be played online. For further information, a visit to the English Chess Federation website is a good place to start!

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