Symbolism Behind The Chess Pieces

by Victor Epand

You should basically know what the different types of Chess pieces are. They have generally become a well-known part of culture and anyone should be able to look at a Chessboard and recognize it for what it is. The King, Queen, Bishop, Knight, Rook, and Pawn are all highly symbolized pieces which each have a special set of rules, moves, and uses. What many people do not realize, however, even if they have experience with the game, is exactly why those pieces are called the names they are. These Chess pieces did not originate as Kings, Queens, and the like, but simply found their most popular form in them.

The Chess pieces, when the game was originally conceived in India, were all based on war elements. Infantry and calvary, elephants and chariots were all represented by pieces much like Pawns, Knights, Bishops, and Rooks. These pieces played out the game, trying to gain dominance over the other player's army. As the game spread to Eastern Asia, the pieces changed somewhat but still kept a military theme. The most importance piece at this stage, instead of being called the King, was usually referred to as the General. Even when the game eventually moved to Europe, the game did not catch on until the pieces were redesigned with a court-like theme instead of the popular military one.

Pawns kept the idea of the infantry and grew to represent the peasants from a court. They were considered expendable pieces, as the entire game was built around protecting the court. During the phase of Medieval Chess, however, these pieces were given a little more substance, and each particular Pawn was generally given a name relating to a certain commoner's occupation. Some Pawns were considered to be city guards, farmers, merchants, doctors, and innkeepers. While these special ranks did not denote anything special upon the Pawns, it attempted to give a little more story to the game of Chess and make things a little more diverse.

The Rook was originally symbolizing of a chariot and the word itself sounds remarkably familiar to the Persian word for "chariot." These Persian war chariots were often heavily armored with fortified stone work, giving the Chess piece the image of a mobile building. The design eventually reshaped itself into a turret and the modern Rook was born. Knights are usually represented by horses and are rather straightforward in their history and appearance. They never have had drastic meaning changes or appearance.

Bishops seem to generate from the Staunton Chess set. They are given a tall hat, much like a Bishop's mitre. This form, however, also pays homage to the original form of the Bishop, with the traditional deep groove also symbolizing the tusks of the elephant that the piece initially represented. The Queen, however, has had the most transformation over time. Originally only being allowed to move one space diagonally and to make a jump like a Knight only once in a game, by 1600, the piece was given the powers it is granted today. Additionally, the King was changed from a General to keep with the modern court theme. Just as with a General leading a war, a country is powerless without its King, making it be the most important piece of a Chess game.

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 used board games, chess piece history, and dungeons and dragons miniatures.