How Did Chess Pieces Get Their Names?

by Victor Epand

Chess has had a long and rich history, having roots in both India, China, and Persia, as well as from Europe, where the modern incarnation of the game was born. To fully understand the pieces of the game, however, it is advisable for one to trace its history in all of these places. As the game evolved, so did the pieces used in the game, turning Chess into the wealth of possibilities which it exists as today.

In China, the game known as Xiangqi developed early on, although its first known actual literary reference was in the 9th Century. The King piece in this game is known as a General and the object of this game is to subdue the opponent's General. The corresponding piece of the traditional Queen is known as an Advisor or a Guard, depending, and their sole purpose is to protect the General. They are stuck in a small space with this piece, unable to move beyond to battle. Other pieces involved with this game are Elephants, Horses, Chariots, and Soldiers, all of which figure greatly into other Chess-like games.

In India, and perhaps the birthplace of the game of Chess itself, Chaturanga is the name of the game. Pieces here were based on the most common elements of war in India. Elephants, Infantry, Calvary, and Chariots all played a role in this game, and each piece corresponds closely with one of the modern European Chess pieces. Elephants are what grew into the modern form of Bishops while Chariots became the Rooks. Infantry were the foot soldiers which were represented by pieces much like Pawns and the Calvary, riding in on horses for battle, came to be symbolized as such with Knights.

When the game took its next step toward Europe and moved on to Persia, coming to be known as Shatranj, the pieces grew even closer to their eventual European counterparts. The Queen piece, still called a Counselor in this time frame, was known by the Persian word "Vazir." As language grew and spread across countries, the word "Vezer" came to be known as "Queen" in Hungarian, tracing its roots back to this original piece. The Knight, still pictured as a horse, was known as "Faras," the Arabic word for "horse." Most interesting, however, was the use of the Chariot. The Persian word for "chariot" is "Rokh." This word is directly what became the Rook in modern European Chess.

After, through Spain, the game spread into Europe, it quickly gained popularity after the pieces were given a makeover into a more court-centered frame of reference. The General piece was converted into a King and the protector of that piece was made into the Queen. The calvary pieces were known as a Knights and Elephants became Bishops, conveying the power that the Church held during this era. The Rooks came to be depicted more as Castles than chariots, but held their roots as mobile fortresses. The Infantry became known as Pawns but still held their image as foot soldiers, making this into a game about the struggles of the court, rather than warriors.

About the Author

Victor Epand is an expert consultant for board games, chess boards, and dungeons and dragons miniatures. You will find all these things and more if you visit board games pieces, chess boards, and dungeons and dragons miniatures.