Which came first chess or checkers?


checkers Photo by sk 726, CCO license

Board games have captivated people for millennia, acting as an idyllic form of leisure for many cultures. Whether it is scrabble, backgammon or any of the other thousands of games out there, people to this day continue to occupy their time with these simple, fun activities.

But one question that constantly arises is which popular game came first, chess or checkers? They look the same, right? In fact, they both share a closely-connected history. Chess and checkers have traveled through many continents over many centuries to find their way to their current forms.

Even though they look the same, they operate very differently. For those of you who haven’t played either, in checkers, all the game pieces move in the same way. In chess, you move each piece differently, based on its ability. 

So, let us outline the brief and fascinating history of both. The game of draughts (better known as checkers) dates back to the almighty age of 3000 B.C. when the game was first mentioned by Homer in his legendary work The Odyssey, and it was even referenced in Plato’s early writings.

The earliest physical evidence of the game dates back to an archeological dig, where remnants of the game were found in an Iraqi city called Ur. Along the way, a modern version arose around the 12th century when a Frenchman decided to take the chessboard and use it for draughts. This is how the 64-space format came to be what it is today, known as the “short king” board version. Today, other countries like Canada and China embrace something called the “long king” version, with up to 144 spaces. Celebrated figures who have put their hands to the black, red, or white pieces include Napoleon, Edgar Allen Poe and General Ulysses S. Grant.

“But what about chess?” you may ask.

Although some scholars argue that its origins stem from China, chess finds its most ancient form in India, of all places, where it is thought to have originated via a game called Chaturanga in the 6th century A.D. It eventually spread to Persia, where the game found the new name Shatranj. Over time, it spread to Southern Europe in the 15th century, where it found its modern form and a new nickname as well—Shah. But it wasn’t until the 19th century when it cemented its European name, chess, while gaining traction in Germany and England due to the emergence of large tournaments and the onset of computers. A survey found that, as of 2012, 605 million adults played chess regularly across the world, making it one of the world’s most popular pastimes. Some of the chess world’s most famous proponents include actors Charlie Chaplin & Humphrey Bogart, scientist Albert Einstein and even the French grandmaster Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who broadened the game's horizon by mixing it up it with other activities.

So, there you have it: Checkers (also known as draughts) and chess both share an ancient history. Who would have known that checkers predates chess by almost 3,5000 years? Who would have guessed that checkers was name-checked by Plato and Homer? But if it hadn’t been for a smart French gentleman in the 12th century twisting the fate of both games together, we wouldn’t have the game of checkers as we know it today at all.

updated: Tuesday, November 26, 2019