#1761 Chess, A Brief History

Including the Johnson Family Chess History

In our last several +1s (here, here, and here), we’ve been spending time with the first African American Chess Grandmaster in history, Maurice Ashley.

His new book, Move by Move: Life Lessons On and Off the Chessboard, is awesome.

Today we’re going to wrap up our quick tour through his book as we take a quick look at the brief history of chess!

For curious souls, we’ll throw in a brief Johnson family history of chess. 🤓 ♟

Let’s get straight to work.

We’ll start with some high-level chess goodness then get into the history goodness…

Maurice tells us: “Thinking like a chess player can change your life.”

“I’m not writing these words just because I’ve spent more than four decades studying, playing, coaching, and commentating on chess. The 605 million people worldwide who play regularly would agree. School systems in several countries have included chess in their curricula because educators know that the game helps develop analytical and strategic thinking, abstract reasoning, concentration, focus, patience, grit, determination, memory, creativity, self-awareness, and respect for the genius of others. The United Nations has set aside a special date for chess, recognizing July 20 as World Chess Day. Not only does chess promote ‘fairness, inclusion, and mutual respect,’ the UN said, but it is ‘one of the most ancient, intellectual, and cultural games with a combination of sport, scientific thinking and elements of art.’”

He continues by saying: “These days, everywhere you turn, chess is being used to explain war, business, sports, art, science, personal development, music, and even love. As the runaway popularity of the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit has shown, anyone can become enthralled by the subtle mysteries of the game. It’s not just high school chess geeks but also actors, musicians, artists, world leaders, and business tycoons who rave about what the game has done to help take their thinking to a higher level. Athletes in particular often attribute a mental edge to playing chess.”

Those are the very first words of the book.


It does a Hero good!

Now it’s time for that quick history of chess…

Here we go…

The ancient version of chess was invented in India in the 7th century—around 1,500 years ago.

As per Wikipedia: “Precursors to chess originated in India. There, its early form in the 7th century CE was known [in Sanskrit] as chaturaṅgh, which translates to “four divisions (of the military)”: infantry, cavalry, elephantry, and chariotry. These forms are represented by the pieces that would evolve into the modern pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, respectively.”

Wikipedia continues by telling us: Chess was introduced to Persia from India and became a part of the princely or courtly education of Persian nobility. Around 600 CE in Sassanid Persia, the name for the game became chatrang (in Persian, which subsequently evolved to shatranj (in Arabic). ... The rules were developed further during this time; players started calling “Shāh!” (Persian for “King!”) when attacking the opponent’s king, and “Shāh Māt!” (Persian for “the king is helpless” – see checkmate) when the king was attacked and could not escape from attack. These exclamations persisted in chess as it traveled to other lands.”

The history of chess and its remarkable evolution over the last 1,500 years across the globe is as fascinating as the game itself. (Learn more with this Wikipedia entry on the History of Chess.)

Today, chess is played by over 605 MILLION people!

To put that in perspective, “only” 250 million people play soccer—the world’s most popular sport.

Another fun fact: Membership on popular online chess sites TRIPLED at the end of 2020 during COVID and “a million-dollar online chess tour sprang to life to take advantage of the increased interest.”


For curious souls…

Here’s the quick take on the Johnson family history of chess!🤓 ♟

I didn’t play my first game of chess until I was a junior in college at UCLA. I was 21 years old.

I can vividly remember learning how the pieces moved and then playing my roommate to a draw in my first match—wonderfully irritating him. (I typed that with a laugh. 😆)

I played a bit with friends and online forever ago but never actually studied the game.


I knew enough about chess to teach Emerson the fundamentals—controlling the center of the board, creating tempo with your pieces, etc.

Eighteen months ago (I’m typing this on April 10th, 2024), he was good enough to beat everyone but me.

Then, one day (September 17th, 2022 to be precise!), I took the kids to a park in Austin on one of our weekend adventures. A group of guys had just finished playing chess and one of them asked Emerson if he’d like to play a game. Emerson said yes. They had a GREAT time. The guy told us that they played every Saturday and that we should come back next week to join them.

I have an album of pictures on my iPhone called “Chess Mastery Fun!”

The VERY FIRST picture in that album is from the following weekend (September 24th, 2022). It’s a picture of Emerson playing an adult at that park with Eleanor watching intently. (Check it out here.)


On that same day, I met the dad of an INSANELY great (and cute!) little chess player named Tharun.

Tharun was only 5 or 6 years old at the time. He dominated Emerson (who was 9) in their first match. And… Emerson LOVED it. They were both giggling as they moved their pieces. It was truly awesome. (Note: Tharun is now one of the Top 100 7-year-olds in the country.)

Tharun’s dad told me about a website called ChessKid.com. He told me that was how Tharun got so good and that Emerson would probably love it, too.

Note: I just got goosebumps typing that because my little (Target swipe!) Micro-Moment of Awesome with Tharun’s dad COMPLETELY changed our lives. 🎯

I hooked Emerson up with a ChessKid.com account when we got home that day and Emerson WENT OFF watching basically EVERY video FunMasterMike (the resident GENIUS chess teacher on the site) created. We homeschool Emerson and he would spend 2-4-6-8 hours on ChessKid.com EVERY.SINGLE.DAY.

After a few months, it was clear he was super into it, so we got him an INCREDIBLE coach. (Nick Matta: YOU ROCK!)

Fast forward a bit.

Emerson starts playing informal tournaments. Then he plays in the novice division for the regionals here in Austin, Texas and won it. Then he played in the JV division for the Texas State Championships (his third tournament ever) and won that. More recently, last month he placed second in the Championship division in the Texas State Championships.

He absolutely LOVES the game and wants to be like Maurice: A Chess Grandmaster.

I ABSOLUTELY love our boys-only chess weekend trips while enjoying the opportunity to support him in his Heroic quest while sharing all these ideas with him.

Note: Here’s my all-time favorite piece of wisdom from Emerson’s quest: Effort Counts Thrice.

I’ve had a lot of friends ask me so I want to make sure I make this explicit...

If you’re a parent/grandparent/aunt/uncle/etc with a kid who shows some interest in chess, I HIGHLY (!!!) recommend ChessKid.com.

As I say in the first chapters of Areté, in which I share how I’m applying Heroic ideas to Emerson’s chess pursuits (check out this and this and this), FunMasterMike is one of THE BEST teachers I’ve ever seen.


That’s officially WAY MORE than enough from me.

Hope you enjoyed that quick little Johnson family chess history.

It’s time to get back to work!

Today’s +1…

How about we celebrate those moments we couldn’t have anticipated that can change our lives while keeping our eyes peeled for the next little micro-moment of awesome that might do the same?!

👀 🙌

It’s Day 1.

We’re ALL IN.

Let’s go!

Unlock this Heroic +1 (and over 1,000 more)!

Create your account to get more wisdom in less time. Personal development made simple so you can flourish in energy, work, and love. Today.

Sign Up Today