Geek Trivia: Check(sum), mate, and match

What was the first variant version of chess ever played by a computer?

This Friday -- July 20 -- is International Chess Day, which should appeal to the computer scientists in the audience, as chess has been the historical standard bearer of human pastimes used to test the efficacy of the world's most advanced hardware-software combinations (Deep Blue, anyone?). Until recently, Turing's technical descendants haven't faired so well against us flesh units, but to be fair, we have had several centuries' head start on our mechanistic adversaries.

No one knows the exact origins of chess or even how old the game is -- the earliest literary reference to chess appeared in a Middle Persian book that dates back to at least the seventh century -- but it's a fair bet that the game we now call chess can trace its ancestry to Asia.

That doesn't exactly narrow it down much, but the Indian game chaturanga, the Arabic game shatranj, and the Chinese game xiangqi all bear striking resemblances to chess. Determining which of these three candidates was the most direct inspirational ancestor of contemporary chess spurs an ongoing debate in academic circles.

Muslims brought chess to the West via the conquest of Spain and Portugal, taking its Eastern heritage along for the ride. As such, many English chess terms can trace their etymologies to Persian phrasing. For example, checkmate is a derivative of shah mat for "the king is finished," and rook comes from rukh, which is Persian for "chariot."

Thus, it's worth noting that chess terminology, at least, shares a very general geographic ancestry with a fundamental school of mathematics -- algebra, which comes from the Arabic al-jabr, meaning "reunion of broken parts." The oldest surviving algebraic notation of chess occurred in 1173. About a century later, Castilian monarch Alfonso X documented more than 100 chess problems and chess variant games in his Libro de los juegos, or Book of Games.

So there's pretty sound evidence that math, logic, and chess have been intertwined for more than eight centuries. It also demonstrates that, even as we remain unsure of which games evolved into chess, chess itself has been and continues to transform into variations of itself -- with new alternate chess games introduced every year.

It's a good thing, too, as so-called orthodox or traditional chess was far too complicated for the earliest computers to comprehend. In fact, the first game of chess played by a computer was actually a simplified chess variant, used specifically so the computer could handle it.


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