When and how and why was chess invented? The very oldest chess myths point toward its actual origins. One story portrays two successive Indian kings, Hashran and Balhait. The first asked his sage to invent a game symbolizing man's dependence on destiny and fate; he invented nard, the dice-based predecessor to backgammon. The subsequent monarch needed a game which would embrace his belief in free will and intelligence. "At this time chess was invented," reads an ancient text, "which the King preferred to nard, because in this game skill always succeeds against ignorance. He made mathematical calculations on chess, and wrote a book on it. . . . He often played chess with the wise men of his court, and it was he who represented the pieces by the figures of men and animals, and assigned them grades and ranks"
He also made of this game a kind of allegory of the heavenly bodies (the seven planets and the twelve zodiacal signs), and dedicated each piece to a star. The game of chess became a school of government and defense; it was consulted in time of war, when military tactics were about to be employed, to study the more or less rapid movements of troops.
King Balhait's wide-ranging list of the game's uses has a connecting thread: chess as a demonstration device, a touchstone for abstract ideas. The reference to "mathematical calculations" is particularly noteworthy, as math comes up over and over again in many of the oldest chess legends. One tale, known as "The Doubling of the Squares," tells of a king presented with an intriguing new sixty-four-square board game by his court philosopher. The king is so delighted by chess that he invites the inventor to name his own reward.
Oh, I don't want much, replies the philosopher, pointing to the chessboard. Just give me one grain of wheat for the first square of the board, two grains for the second square, four grains for the third square, and so on, doubling the number of grains for each successive square, up to the sixty-fourth square.
The king is shocked, and even insulted, by what seems like such a modest request. He doesn't realize that through the hidden power of geometric progression, his court philosopher has just requested 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 (eighteen quintillion) grains of wheat--more than exists on the entire planet. The king has not only just been given a fascinating new game; he's also been treated to a powerful numbers lesson.
This widely repeated story is obviously apocryphal, but the facts of geometric progression are real. Such mathematical concepts were crucial to the advancement of technology and civilization--but were useless unless they could be understood. The advancement of big ideas required not just clever inventors, but also great teachers and vivid presentation vehicles.
That's apparently where chess came in: it used the highly accessible idea of war to convey far less concrete ideas. Chess was, in a sense, medieval presentation software—the PowerPoint of the Middle Ages. It was a customizable platform for poets, philosophers, and other intellectuals to explore and present a wide array of complex ideas in a visual and compelling way.
David Shenk, The Immortal Game: A History of Chess