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Did Ancient Greeks Play Chess?

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The  Exakias or “Vatican Amphora” from 530 BC, which depicts ancient Greek warriors Ajax and Achilles playing a board game related to modern chess. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain 

Chess has been receiving increased attention in the media, as Greek players are performing very well. Lately, the Greek chess team became the highest-ranked team in Europe and 5th in the world while participating in the Kasparov Cup. More exciting news came in just recently, as 11-year-old Evangelia Siskou from Thessaloniki became a world champion in the category for girls up to 13.

Many have questioned, was chess also played by Ancient Greeks.

Evangelia Siskou Chess champion
Siskou won the World Championship for her age group ahead of 34 other young chess players. Credit: Facebook/AMO Galaxias Thessaloniki

How did chess become popular in Europe?

It is widely known that chess originated in India in the 6th century AD. The game featured many characteristics that were specific to the Indian army at the time. In the 9th century AD, chess had already reached different parts of Asia and Middle East. However, it was still not widely popular.

Chess set from Jaipur, India
Chess set from Jaipur, India. Credit: squinting / Flickr CC BY 2.0

It made its way to Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries, where it underwent significant changes and adaptations before eventually becoming the familiar game we know today, thus introducing the rich and captivating chess culture to the Western world much later than its inception.

Already during the period of the Renaissance, it was a well-known game for the elites and aristocrats, who would invent new strategies and even use chess in diplomatic relations. Not only was it a tool for learning negotiation techniques, but it also helped philosophers, mathematicians, and even poets to come up with new ideas.

The popularity of chess in Europe also grew, and it was even used as a tool for military training. Many military leaders recognized the benefits of playing chess as a way to develop strategic thinking and planning skills which could be applied in battle.

Chess started becoming more and more popular when the first international competition was held in 1851 in London. This gave an opportunity to involve more people in the game, which is nowadays considered to be the acme of competitiveness, strategy, and intellect among board games.

Chess-like games played by the ancient Greeks

The Ancient Greeks did not play chess exactly as we know it today, but they did have board games that were very similar and just as exciting.

To sharpen their minds they invented many board games that featured strategy, planning, and critical thinking – just as chess does.

The first game that is noteworthy is Zatrikion, or Greek chess, which was very popular in Ancient Greece.

The Zatrikion board has a 64-square grid, like a chess board, but with different markings. The pieces used in Zatrikion are also different from those used in modern chess, with some pieces having unique moves. One notable feature of Zatrikion is that the game can end in a draw if neither player can win. In this case, the player with the most valuable pieces on the board is declared the winner.

Today, Zatrikion is mostly played as a historical or academic curiosity, rather than as a popular game. It is occasionally used as a variant of chess in some tournaments and chess clubs, but it has not gained widespread popularity.

Petteia – Ludus Latrunculorum, Iconography of the Hellenic Latin civilizations. Credit: Estudio de Arquepoética y Visualística Prospectiva / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Another game that ancient Greeks would play was called “Petteia” which means pebbles. This game was a great way of picturing military strategy, as the players would sit in front of each other with a board and an even number of pieces. The players received black and white stones and had to capture the opponent’s pieces. The capture happens if one player’s piece was surrounded by two of the other player’s pieces. Whoever captured a greater number of  pieces was declared the winner.

The last game worth noting is Ludus Latrunculorum, which translates to “the game of soldiers.” This was its roman name, but it is thought to be a variant of earlier Greek games known as Petteia, pesso, psêphoi, poleis, and pente grammai, to which references can be found as early as Homer’s time.

The Ancient Greeks used this game to improve their strategic thinking and tactics. The game was played with black and white pieces, and the goal was to capture the opponent’s pieces or surround them in such a way that they could not move.

Today these games are not as commonly played as chess, either in Greece or elsewhere in the world. However it is fascinating that, just like modern chess players, the Ancient Greeks recognized the importance of playing games that could enhance their ability to plan, strategize and develop their critical thinking skills.

By Nareh Galstyan

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