How Did Chess Become The Most Popular Board Game Ever?

Be it to pass away leisure, or to settle an argument, board games have been around since time immemorial. It is difficult to accurately pinpoint the origin of any particular board game, simply because men developed most of them as a means of pleasure. As they gained popularity, the rules were modified, which led to the modern versions of the games. While some board games simulate a real-world situation, like a war ground, some simply act as an enjoyable pastime with friends indoors, like tic-tac-toe, while a few others, like Scrabble, were invented as a fun way to teach vocabulary to kids.

Of all the available board games, the one that has gained unrivaled popularity with a massive number of fans is the game of chess. Played on a 64 checkered board, proficiency in this two-player game is loosely thought to be a measure of intelligence in an individual.

Origin of the game

As we mentioned above, it is impossible to trace back the game to its origin. Chess, however, is believed to have evolved in India during the Gupta Empire, known as “chaturanga” with four types of players, namely infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots, named after the different divisions of soldiers in the war. It was used as a means to teach war strategies to people, and was considered as a “King’s Game”. The game of chess was used to improve one’s ability to think into the future while cautiously making the best move possible.

From there onwards the game gradually spread to the Eastern and Western culture, where they adopted the game, and modified the rules to give rise to the modern version of the game.

Evolution of the game:

In the pre-modern and Renaissance Era, chess was primarily a nobleman’s game, and each player’s moves were determined depending on their duties in their respective social positions.

Chess gained massive popularity since the Early Modern Era. An avid chess player, Benjamin Franklin, in his article “The Morals of Chess” (1750), wrote about the game in highest regards. According to Franklin, the game of chess is a means of training one’s mind to function to its highest capacity, while teaching us about everyday values to be incorporated in our daily lifestyle. It teaches one about “circumspection” i.e. looking at the big picture of any situation, “foresight” i.e. thinking two moves ahead while playing the game, and “caution” whereby one needs to measure the pros and cons of a move and weigh them to see if sacrificing a player is worth the risk, or not.

Gaining Popularity:

The game of chess started gaining popularity since the mid-19th century with chess organizations springing up at various places of the world. The first modern chess tournament, held in London in 1851 further enhanced its popularity. The event gained fame due to the final game in the tournament, referred to as the “Immortal Game” due to the bold sacrifices by German chess master Adolf Anderssen in order to win the tournament.

The revolutionary strategic play of the game evolved after American chess master Steinitz explained the importance of planning in the game, scientifically breaking down individual moves, and described how to make the best of any position, while taking advantage of the opponent’s play. The mathematical aspects of the game were also developed during this time, which sparked a new-found interest in the game of various mathematicians, like Emanuel Lasker.

Cultural Impact

Having acquired the interest of academicians and common men alike, the game began its journey into its immense popularity. It has been used in various movies to symbolize strategic mentality of the characters. We all have watched the characters of Star Trek play the futuristic “Tri-Dimensional Chess”, Ron in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” brilliantly play the “Wizard’s Chess”, or the subtle symbolization of the game in Satyajit Ray’s periodic drama “Shatranj Ke Khiladi” (“The Chess Players”).

Current Scenario

Though never exactly having been in the spotlight, the chess-playing community is huge as compared to any other board games, with a whopping 605 million regular players worldwide, according to a survey in 2012 by the polling organization, YouGov. More popular with introverts, the game has managed to captivate the interest of people of all ages.

Recently on 21st November 2018, the live match of Caruana vs. Carlsen saw a huge audience, whereby grandmaster Magnus Carlsen defeated Fabiano Caruana in game three of the rapid playoff to win the 2018 World Chess Championship, making him the current world chess champion.

While there are around 1500 grandmasters all over the world, the number of female grandmasters is only 37. There have been various speculations as to the reason for this huge anomaly, though no specific reasons could be credited to it. The difference in abilities of men and women has been credited to the simple fact that since more men are in the game than their female counterpart, they have higher efficiency. The experiment conducted by Merim Bilalic from Oxford University for his doctoral thesis is a sharp and apt reply to all who claim that the male dominance in the game is a sign of some sort of intellectual inferiority of the fairer sex.


The primary reason why chess has become so popular is probably that the original rules of the game are straightforward, making it easy to learn. The gameplay lies in the tactics and strategies of how to utilize those few moves within the bounds of the game to defeat the opponent. Once the tricks and strategies are learned, the only other factor is continuous practice to master the game.

It is sad to watch that the game which has survived the longest of all board games gathers so little attention and has still not been given its due respect in the field of sports, never been included in the Olympic Games. The beginning of the digital age may have temporarily lessened the game’s popularity; however, people have developed a renewed love for the game, taking the game to never-before-attained heights of popularity.