The classic one-on-one strategy game of chess has, fundamentally, remained unchanged for as long as anyone reading this has been alive. You and your opponent each command an army of pieces and take turns making moves with the goal of capturing the other’s king. But across its several hundred years in the sun, changes big and small have been made to create the game we see today.
Chess has seen an astronomical rise in popularity over the past year. In December 2020, the game saw an average concurrent Twitch viewership of over 15,000, which is more than seven times its average the whole previous year. Much of this can be attributed to the Netflix drama The Queen’s Gambit, which accumulated over 62 million views globally within its debut month, and the Twitch tournament series PogChamps. The former presented a story about a disadvantaged chess prodigy chasing their dreams while struggling with drug abuse. The latter saw several prominent streamers being trained by expert chess players, then playing each other in a round-robin format stretched out across two weeks—opening chess to players and viewers who typically visit the site to watch video games about martial artists, wizards, and super-soldiers. Each of the first three Pogchamps have managed to hit over 100,000 peak concurrent viewers.
You can now find chess ranking high among Twitch’s viewership statistics, battling for views alongside heavy hitters like League of Legends and Call of Duty. And its appearance in the platform’s esports directory uniquely places chess as the only popular esport to have both existed and remained unchanged for the last hundred years.
In the earliest versions of chess, only the pieces we know as the knight, rook, and king moved as they do now, leading to a slower overall game. Bishops couldn't move infinitely on a diagonal, and pawns only moved a single space, so it took far longer for any meaningful interaction to occur.
The current versions' bishops and queens are all critical to applying pressure across the board. Without them in place, the king was much harder to pin down, because there weren’t many threats that could target it from afar. Bishops still moved on their respective diagonals, but only up to two spaces at a time. It wasn't until the late 14th century that a variant called "Mad Queen's chess" became popular enough to become the norm in Western Europe. It was also around this time that pawns were allowed to promote upon reaching the other side of the board. When this rule was first introduced, pawns would become queens—but once a stronger version of the queen became popularized, pawns were allowed to change into any other piece. Later, in the 1700s, it was tightened to be any already-captured piece. Ultimately, this settled in the 1800s to what we see today, where a pawn can turn into any piece, including the queen.
In the 1981 book A Short History of Chess, Davidson Henry explains that castling, a move where your rook and king change places, didn’t exist in its current form until the 17th century. The concept itself didn’t enter the game until around the 15th century, and back then, the maneuver was called the “King’s Leap.” Instead of sliding past the rook, the rule stated that the king could move two spaces once a game, or like a knight in some variants.
In the past, there were far more ways to win a chess match. In addition to the standard checkmate or concession, capturing all of your opponent’s pieces and forcing a stalemate were viable paths to victory. These other methods would be removed as the game developed, with the stalemates being the most volatile throughout time.
Right now, a stalemate is considered a draw. But before the 1800s, it was considered a win for the losing player. These rules were heavily dependent on the region the game took place in, and as noted in Harold J. R. Murray’s A History of Chess, a stalemate win was commonly considered to be an “inferior win,” and any player who won a competitive chess match in this way would only receive half of their winnings. Since then, chess experts have gone back and forth with regards to the rule. As recently as 2009, grand master Larry Kaufman argued in the 35th issue of Chess Life that a stalemate shouldn’t be a draw, because it’s a situation “where any move would get your king taken.”
Stalemate remains a draw because of chess’s propensity to create draws. Implementing a rule change on that scale would make hundreds of years of endgame theory irrelevant.
The White Side Advantage
While reviewing competitive chess matches from the years 1852 to 1932, chess theorist William Franklyn Streeter found that across more than 5,000 games played, the white side was slightly more likely to win. As reported in Chess Review in May 1946, this trend has maintained into the present day despite changes to the rule set.
Since tournament matches were recorded, white has been calculated to have around a 5 percent higher chance of winning than the opposition, because it gets the first move—something statistics and theorists have agreed on throughout history. If the white side can construct an opening that maintains its innate advantage, it can carry that boost into the rest of the game. It’s up to the black side to construct a defense that will swing the initiative back into its favor and fight for a draw if that’s not possible.
The attacking and defending sides are decided the moment the game begins. Over time, players—including grand master Larry Kaufman in his 2004 book The Chess Advantage in Black and White: Opening Moves of the Grandmasters—have argued that, if played perfectly, the white side should always win. You can't take a piece by purely playing defensively, while you can when always being the aggressor. It's hard to imagine a change to the game that would adjust this without giving one side an option the other doesn't have.
But does such a change need to be made? While the numbers suggest that the game is tilted towards the attacking side, it's still a theory that doesn't always work out when humans are involved. If given infinite amounts of time, a high-level chess player could divine the best move—but most competitive chess formats restrict the players' time. Nowadays, most rule changes, or “patch notes,” are toward the clock's usage and how the players and referees (or arbiters) conduct themselves in the game. For instance, you can't have any electronic device capable of communication while playing in a competitive match.
A Human’s Touch
The human aspect is what sculpts competitive chess. If everyone made the correct move instantly, the game would play out the same way—but very few can play perfectly under a timer, and even fewer are able to come up with the best move at all. Chess's modern rule sets are different because of what goes on around the game, rather than in it—something that is rarely seen in esports, where the players are bound by the game's code.
Blitz chess is a subcategory that includes any format where players have less than 10 minutes to make their moves. Bullet chess, with one minute per side, is the fastest among them. Stricter time limits push players to make mistakes. With such limits in place, new strategies arise—you can complicate the game board to give your opponent something to think about, or start simplifying it so that a standard win becomes more feasible.
But does that make chess balanced? The white pieces still move ahead of the black ones. The attacker could start with an opening, and the defender still needs to respond. The time limit may mitigate things, but if all things are equal, the proactive player would still win most of the time if they make the mathematically best move. There are a finite number of board states in chess, but that number is so vast that it’s impossible to navigate them all within a reasonable amount of time. Someone might be able to pilot a strong opening into the rest of the game, but if the defending player understands how to complicate it, they can still wrestle control back to their side. Chess has always been that way; the changes made over the centuries have made the pieces more interactable. If both players open by moving opposing pawns, they come in contact within two moves as opposed to four moves in older versions of the game.
In many active esports, when a strategy or character is deemed too strong, developers have the functional ability to change the game itself—to “nerf” the offending thing to make the game more balanced. One character might grow weaker, or some spot on the level might change.
An easy fix is to have both players in chess start simultaneously and have the exact same options available to them, but that would change chess’s “identity” as a turn-based game. All iterations of the game, along with its relatives Shogi, Xiangqi, Makruk, and Sittuyin, are turn-based strategy games that are theorized by some, like chess historian Harold J. R. Murray, to have sprung from the ancient Indian board game of Chaturanga.
Changing that turn-based style would place the game into an entirely different genre. A first-person shooter is different from a third-person one, because most third-person shooters let you see around corners. Most fighting games allow two players to fight each other with the same character, colloquially dubbed a "Mirror match." Unlike chess, these games run at real time. Players can make inputs on every frame, which develops the state of the game, so it is perfectly balanced. Some crowds want that type of experience. Super Smash Bros. Melee is a game that’s over two decades old at this point, and it still hauls in thousands of viewers, despite its age and a small fraction of the roster seeing widespread tournament play. Fighting games boast rosters of diverse and recognizable characters who function differently; a competitive shooter might allow players to pick different weapons—while chess defines an attacking and defending side from the outset.
The rules have changed over time, but none throughout history have fundamentally changed what defines chess as a game.