The game of chess is arguably one of the most popular board games on earth, with a following in most countries around the world. Yet, despite this worldwide interest, the answers to vital questions about the game remain a mystery. For example, scholars have not been able to decisively pin down the exact location in which the game war born. In general, chess is thought to have originated in Asia around the 6th-century, with India being the most likely bet. Thankfully, we are much more certain about the origin of chess’ iconic victory-phrase—checkmate.
According to Persian legend, the game of chess was introduced into the Sasanian Persian Empire during the reign of Khosrow I (or Khusrau I, r. 531-579). In a dubious tale recorded during that time, the Persians were said to have sent their game of backgammon to India, and received chess in return in a sort of battle of wits, where each culture tried to decipher logic of the game rules created by the other country. Whether or not chess was introduced to Persia in this manner, the game did, indeed, become popular in the Middle East over the next few centuries.
Etymologists believe that the origin of the word, checkmate, traces back to the language of the Persians. In the Persian language, the objective of the game was to defeat the enemy king (shah) by making the king piece helpless or finished (mat). So, the phrase “shah mat” was coined by the Persians to state that “the king is helpless” or “the king is finished.” The phrase lived on in Arabic (as al-shāh māta), but was interpreted differently, translating into something akin to “the king is dead.” The phrase traveled to medieval France, where it was translated into “eschec mat” and then appeared in the Middle English language as “chekmaten.” Over time, the victory phrase simplified and modernized into the current English statement of “checkmate.”
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture attribution: (“Buzurgmihr Masters the Game of Chess” by Ferdowsi (940–1020), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).