Origins of Check Mate

Chess is a game of war, so it is not surprising that the word checkmate would relate to the demise of the central piece, the king. The game itself is ancient and not for the idly amused, maintaining a solid following for over 1,500 years. Monopoly and Backgammon are mere adolescents in comparison. Chess remains popular despite competition from football and reality shows where you may enjoy the action without the ability to flex your muscles or even get off the couch. Chess is not a lackadaisical sport. Not only do you participate, you really have to know what you are doing. In 1550, St. Theresa of Avila wrote to the similarities between Chess and prayer “if you cannot set out the pieces and do not know how to check you will not reach checkmate”.

Back to the origin of the word. Checkmate, frequently shortened to mate, is a situation in which one player’s king is threatened with capture (“in check”) and there is no way to meet that threat. It has been translated from the original Persian, into meanings which will be argued to the end of time, literally from Shah mat “the King is left helpless”, and from Shah “King” + mat “he is dead”. Mate has been traced to another Persian word mandan, meaning “to remain”, similar to the Latin manco. It means left behind, abandoned, the formal translation being “surprised” as in a military ambush, not the result of deliberate action to put oneself in harms way. So the king is in mate when he is ambushed, at a loss, or abandoned to his fate. Either way, the king is dead, long live the king.

Chess is a game of skill, requiring focus to win even if it is perceived you are leading the charge. Keep your eye on your opponent’s King. Checkmate lurks behind every pawn. Remember, the road to victory is often littered with knights. Of course there are ploys, facing your opponent into the sun, or offering popcorn as a distraction to hasten your win. To some, the game seduces and, like a truffle melting onto the tongue, becomes an addiction. As David Shenk states in The Immortal Game, Chess is all about how thirty-two carved pieces on a board taught the human race an understanding of war, arts, science, and most certainly, the brain, which, through all appearances, seem to be in constant checkmate.