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Why are the squares on chess boards coloured, and why white on the right?

June 28, 2015

Short answer: I don’t know.

Long answer: I hope to find out. Thank you, to my friend Paresh, for asking me the second question, which has sent me on a happy journey trying to find out.

None of my, ahem, 561 chess books (good job Jane doesn’t read my blog) explains why, though to be truthful I have only looked at a handful, those few dealing with chess history and tidbits. So, soon, 561 will become 562 since I have ordered Harold JR Murray’s 1913 opus A History of Chess. (and 562 will become at least 564 before we go away on holiday in August)

When I was asked, my (incorrect, as it turns out) guess was ‘during the 15th century’, around the time the Queen’s move was changed, changing her from the weakest to the strongest piece on the board.

I previously blogged about the depiction of chess in the 2013 BBC series The White Queen. That blog shows (I) the chess board was correctly, coloured, but (II) the board was set up wrongly, with a black square in the right hand corner.

However, the coloured chess board goes back at least a further two hundred years. The Libro de los juegos, a key 1283 document about the history of games, shows (II) a black and white board; (II) white in the right hand corner.

The diagram in the left hand corner of the above picture is from the fifteenth century. Luis Ramírez de Lucena c 1465-c 1530, Spain, wrote the first surviving printed book on chess, wrote it, and the diagram correctly shows the white right hand corner. (It, and another position I have seen- on the Wikipedia page for Lucena, both show white at the top of the board; nowadays, white is ubiquitously shown at the bottom)

(Another meander: the Lucena position, a key basic tool of rook and pawn endings, is named after him, but whether or not he knew it, is unknown. It was first published one hundred years after his death).

Below is another position from Libro de juegos, again correctly set up.

The following extract from wikipedia gives some detail about the book.

 

Two modern forms of chess, Xiangqi and Shogi (Chinese and Japanese chess) both use monochrome boards.

 

So, subject to what Murray’s book says (I was tempted to download it onto my Kindle, but how can one do that to a 1913 book on history?- so will have to wait) my guess is that when the Indian game of chaturanga (played on a monochrome board) and moved to Persia, becoming shatranj, maybe then it became bi-coloured. Having said that, the various websites I have found on Shatranj show monochrome boards, so the colouring might have been a European addition.

If I find out the answer, I will either update this blog posting, or add a further one. Perhaps one of my readers will know, and will post a reply.

 

PS Paresh actually asked me another question, ‘does it matter’.

Short answer. It matters a LOT.

Longer answer: I am sure I am not alone in instantly seeing that boards are set upwrongly in the movies, on adverts, in shop displays. Googling ‘chess boards set up wrongly’ shows a posting on Chessbase of eleven movie scenes with the chessboard set up wrongly, but there are more.

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