Top 10 Mind Blowing Facts About Chess



Top 10 Mind Blowing Facts About Chess

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
"The Queen's Gambit" has thrust this iconic game back into the spotlight! For this list, we'll be looking at the most fascinating facts about the game of chess. Our countdown includes The Pieces Look Like They Do for a Reason, “Checkmate” Has a Cool Origin Story, There Are Billions of Potential Play Combinations, and more!

Top 10 Mind-Blowing Facts About Chess

Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 mind-blowing facts about chess.

For this list, we’ll be looking at the most fascinating facts about the game of chess.

How close are you to becoming a Grandmaster? Let us know in the comments below!

#10: The Pieces Look Like They Do for a Reason

Many people the world over will recognize the general, though variable, physical design of chess pieces. Pawns are usually little nubby things, knights are horse heads, bishops have a rounded headgear, rooks are castle towers, and the king and queen have their respective crowns. According to various explanations the reason these pieces don’t represent actual people is due to certain traditions of Islam. Since those beliefs didn’t allow for representations of people, the designs were altered to make them appear more vague and universal. When chess finally reached Western Europe around the 9th century, the pieces remained unchanged.

#9: It Might Help With Memory Function

Alzheimer’s is one of the worst diseases that a human being can suffer from. Luckily, there are ways to help mitigate it. Like playing chess. Lots of scientific research has been undertaken regarding the relationship between chess and memory function. In 2003, the New England Journal of Medicine and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that chess and other similar brain activities help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. Stanford University’s Professor Abraham Verghese also recommends exercising the brain to prevent dementia illnesses, and that there may come a day quote “when doctors recommend a game of chess along with physical exercise and a healthy diet.”

#8: Queen Isabella Changed the Game

Like all games, the rules of chess are fluid and ever-changing. The rules we know today weren’t standardized until the 19th century, and the game had changed numerous times before that. Before the late 1400s, the male Queen equivalent could only move one or two squares at a time - much like the King. That is, until Isabella I of Castile. Ruling over Spain with her husband King Ferdinand II, Isabella became the first Queen of Spain and helped finance Christopher Columbus’s fateful voyage to the New World. According to chess historian Dr. Govert Westerveld, Queen Isabella’s power and influence altered the rules of chess, turning the male piece into a female Queen and allowing it to move any distance in any direction.

#7: “Checkmate” Has a Cool Origin Story

The terminology of chess may sound different to our modern ears. What the heck do “check” and “checkmate” even mean? Well, the earliest forms of chess ended only after the King was physically captured. After a couple hundred years, the Persians changed the ending to a “checkmate,” which is when the King is cornered by the opponent’s pieces. The word “checkmate” is sourced from numerous Persian and Arabic phrases. It may derive from the Persian phrase shāh māt, meaning “the King is helpless.” It may also be derived from Arabic, with “Sheikh” meaning “monarch” and “Māt” meaning dead or helpless. Therefore, “Sheikh Māt” translates to “the monarch is dead or helpless.”

#6: Fool’s Mate Can End You Quickly

Chess is a very complex game. When played at the highest level, a game can take numerous hours to finish. It’s also possible, although exceedingly unlikely, for the black player to checkmate the white in just two moves. This infamous trap is called the “Fool’s Mate.” It’s performed by moving the E pawn so the Queen can go to H4. However, this is only possible if the white player moved their pawns to F3 or 4 and G4, opening up a devastating line of attack and allowing the black Queen to trap the white King. It’s presumably so named because the white player has to be a fool to allow it to happen.

#5: There Are Over 1,000 Different Openings

It’s no secret that chess takes a very long time to master owing to its complexity. That isn’t very surprising when one considers that there are over 1,000 different opening variations alone! In fact, “The Oxford Companion to Chess” lists an unbelievable 1,327 different openings and variants. Originally published in 1984 by the Oxford University Press, “The Oxford Companion to Chess” was written by chess masters, historians, and researchers David Vincent Hooper and Ken Whyld. Some of the more well-known openings include Open Game, the Bishop’s Opening, the King’s and Queen’s Gambits, and Petrov’s Defense, just to name five of 1,327.

#4: Chess Began in India

Chess is a very old game, and it has its roots in the Gupta Empire. Gupta was an ancient Indian empire that covered much of the Indian subcontinent from the third to sixth centuries. It was during this reign, some time around the sixth century, that chess was created in northwest India. It was known as chaturanga, and its rules have been lost to history. What we do know is that chaturanga means “four divisions,” and said divisions were composed of the infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariotry. We also know that it was placed on an 8x8 checkerboard known as an ashtapada.

#3: There Are Billions of Potential Play Combinations

If you thought 1,000 different openings was difficult and complex, then you haven’t heard anything yet. Chess can go any number of ways - roughly 300 billion ways to be exact. And that’s just in the first four moves! Yes, the different play combinations are so staggering that there are an estimated 319 billion different combinations and positions in the first four moves of chess alone. But that’s not all. In theory, the longest possible chess match would last 5,949 moves. We say “in theory” because that would take an astoundingly long time to complete. The longest chess match in history took place in Belgrade in 1989 and lasted “just” 269 moves. That game alone took just over twenty hours to complete.

#2: The Shannon Number Will Blow Your Mind

And if you thought that was crazy, just wait until you hear the Shannon number. If there are over 300 billion different combinations in the first four moves, then just how many unique total combinations can there be? The answer is almost literally unimaginable. The Shannon number, devised by mathematician Claude Shannon, places the conservative lower bound of chess at 10^120 (ten to the power of one hundred and twenty) unique variations. That’s more than the number of atoms in the observable universe, which is estimated at 10^80. Does that even make sense? With that said, the 10^120 number takes into account ridiculous moves that no sensible player would make. When accounting for “sensible games,” the number is closer to 10^40. Not that that is any less staggering…

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

The Second Book Ever Printed in English Was About Chess
The Etymology of “Rookie” May Come from the Rook
The First Modern Board Was Created in Europe in the 11th Century

#1: The Folding Board May Have Been for Stealth

Folding chess boards are quite common today. The boards fold perfectly down the middle, and the pieces are typically held within the folded halves. This allows for easy carrying and storage… and it’s also great for hiding the chess set from prying eyes. Legend has it that the folding chess board was invented back in the early 12th century, in a time when chess was forbidden in the church. A chess-loving priest supposedly defied the rules and created a secret chess board that could fold in half and be stored on a shelf where it would look like two nondescript books. The idea obviously caught on, because people have been making folding chess sets for the last 900 years!