The Chess Historian H.J.R. Murray

Edward Winter


We bring together a series of C.N. items about Harold James Ruthven Murray (1868-1955).

From page 124 of the April 1916 BCM:



This is still the only chess game played by Murray that we have seen.

Such was the scholarship of H.J.R. Murray that assumptions have been made that he was more than plain ‘Mr Murray’. On page viii of Fiske’s posthumous Chess in Iceland and in Icelandic Literature (Florence, 1905) Horatio S. White referred to ‘an eminent English authority on chess, Dr Harold J.R. Murray’. Then there is ‘Professor Murray’ on page 7 of The Literature of Chess by John Graham (Jefferson, 1984).

As recorded in the obituary by D.J. Morgan on pages 233-234 of the August 1955 BCM, Murray ‘took an Open Mathematical Exhibition to Balliol College, Oxford, and left the University, in 1890, with a First Class in the Final Mathematical School’. Balliol College Library has confirmed to us that these details are accurate and that no evidence exists that Murray had a doctorate. In 1891 he began a career in teaching, as Assistant Master at Queen’s College, Taunton.

The obituary by D.J. Morgan called Murray’s 1913 book A History of Chess ‘an enduring monument, the greatest book ever written on the game’. In an appreciation on page 114 of the September-October 1944 American Chess Bulletin Ernest J. Clarke wrote, ‘Unfortunately, I find that the History is considered ‘dry’ reading; on the contrary, it is so fascinating it is difficult to put it down’. On page 189 of The Kings of Chess (London, 1985) William Hartston described it as ‘The classic book on the subject; 900 pages of meticulous research, practically unreadable’. In his Encyclopedia of Chess (London, 1977) Harry Golombek wrote (page 355) that the book bore witness to Murray’s learning and industry, before adding obliquely: ‘It suffers however from the lack of a sense of history’.

Egbert Meissenburg presented a bibliography of Murray’s books and articles on pages 249-252 of the May 1980 BCM. Two omissions were pointed out by P. Bidev on page 107 of the March 1981 BCM, but there was still no mention of what seems to be Murray’s final published article, a review of J. Boyer’s Les jeux d’échecs non orthodoxes on page 75 of the March 1952 BCM. By then Murray was in his mid-eighties, and it was nearly four decades since his History had appeared. Thus F. Reinfeld was incorrect to state on page 5 of Great Moments in Chess (New York, 1963) that Murray ‘devoted a lifetime to a monumental history of chess’.


H.J.R. Murray (La scacchiera, June 1953, page 130)


Another writer who incorrectly attributed to H.J.R. Murray an academic title was Alfred C. Klahre, during his discussion of the Rou manuscript on page 13 of the January 1933 American Chess Bulletin (‘in a letter to the writer by Prof. H.J.R. Murray, Oxford, England’).


Any readers who are loath to tackle H.J.R. Murray’s 900-page A History of Chess (Oxford, 1913), or even to read his posthumous volume A Short History of Chess (Oxford, 1963, but written in 1917), may be interested and grateful to know that, a year before his death, he published an article on the origins of chess which was only 1,500 words long. It appeared on pages 88-90 of Things (London, 1954), a general reference book published by the Waverley Book Company Limited, and is reproduced below.

‘Chess is too well known to require a detailed description – enough to say that this greatest and most intellectually elegant of games of skill is played by two persons on a board of eight by eight “squares”, each player having 16 “men” – king, queen, two bishops, two knights, two rooks or castles and eight pawns, each type of man with its own powers of move and capture, the object of the game being to checkmate the adversary’s king – to force him, that is to say, into a position from which he cannot move without capture. Chess was invented in India, and before Indian chronology was put on a sound basis, exaggerated ideas as to the age of chess were formed and these are still often repeated.

It is in Indian and Persian works of the first half of the seventh century A.D. that chess is first mentioned; and of these works the oldest is the Karnamak, a Persian romance in which the hero is said to have excelled all his contemporaries at chess (chatrang). This was written about A.D. 600. Somewhat later chess is mentioned by Bāna, in his Sanskrit Harshacharita, in which he describes the peace and good order of Northern India under Sriharsha (A.D. 612-647), in a passage full of puns: “under this king only bees (shatpada) quarrel in collecting dews (dues), the only feet cut off are those in metre, only chess boards (ashtapada) teach the positions of the chaturanga (army or chess).” The ashtapada was a board of eight by eight squares which had reached India from Greece in the first millennium B.C., Greece and India having been in contact at least from the time of Alexander the Great.

The older Arab historians agree that chess was an Indian invention which reached Persia in the reign of Chosroes I (A.D. 531-579), and this is generally accepted as true. The invention of chess cannot be placed much earlier, for from A.D. 458 to 540 Northern India lay under the cruel domination of Hun hordes from Central Asia which “shook Indian society to its roots and severed the chain of tradition”. The invention of chess is accordingly dated about A.D. 560. This leaves rather a brief period for the adoption of chess in Persia, a difficulty that can be met by the facts that Chosroes aided in the destruction of the Huns, and that his interest in Indian culture led to his sending envoys to India to obtain a copy of the Fables of Pilpay. Later Arab historians ascribed the inception of chess to an Indian sage they called Sissa b. Dahir, borrowing the name which belonged to the first Indian prince with whom the Arabs came in contact. In fact the story is mythical.

That the inventor’s idea was to make a game of skill in which the operations of an Indian army could be illustrated is evident from the names which he gave to the game and its “men”. The complete Indian army from at least the fourth century B.C. contained four kinds of troops, infantry, cavalry, chariots and elephants, the aggregate being called a chaturanga, “composed of four elements”. In his game of chaturanga, the inventor added to these four elements the king and his minister or commanding officer; and he arranged his armies on the two opposite outer rows of the ashtapada, placing one army on the first and second and the other on the seventh and eighth rows; on the second and seventh rows he placed eight pawns, and on the first and eighth rows, starting from the corners of the board, he placed chariot, horse and elephant; on the two middle squares he placed king and minister, the two kings standing on the same file. He gave the king a move of one step in any direction, the minister one step diagonally; to the chariot he gave the move which the rook has in our modern chess, and to the horse the leap of the modern knight. The elephant leapt diagonally over one square to the square immediately beyond. The pawn took single steps forward on the file on which it stands, made captures on an adjacent square diagonally in advance, and was promoted to the rank of minister on reaching the end of the board. The aim of the game was either to checkmate the opponent’s king or to deprive him of all his men. Stalemate, which has no analogy in actual warfare, he gave as a win to the stalemated king.

The Persians only made two changes in the Indian game. They translated the names of the men and they made stalemate a draw. The Arabs when they conquered Persia, in A.D. 638-651, made no alteration in the Persian rules. Pre-Islamic Persia knew the game for less than a hundred years, but this brief period had an effect of great importance upon chess, since it gained a fixity of arrangement, a method of play, and a nomenclature which have attended the game everywhere in its western career.

Islam absorbed chess quickly and the names of many chessplayers before 750 have been preserved. Wherever Islam penetrated, so did chess, as far west as Spain, as far south as Zanzibar, as far east as the Malay Islands and as far north as Turkestan. But lawyers maintained that playing chess was against tradition and the Koran. The matter was only settled for the Sunnite sect by ash-Shafi‘i (d. 820), who was himself a chessplayer skilled in blindfold play, on the ground that chess was not only a game but a training in military tactics (it is part of the modern training of Russian army officers); he held that chess was lawful provided it was played with conventional men, was not played for money or in public, and did not interfere with the performance of religious duties. The Shiite sect omits the first condition. These rules never troubled the caliphs, who played freely and patronized good players, watching what we should call “championship contests”. Players were classified by their skill, and the names of the chess champions from 800 to 950 are known. Two of these, al-‘Adli and as-Sūli, wrote books on chess which are still quoted, and al-Lajlāj, a pupil of as-Sūli, enunciated the principles of play.

Christians on the Spanish Marches were playing chess soon after A.D. 1000, and it was played in Italy not much later. By 1100 it was played in Bavaria, France and England, and by 1250 it had reached Iceland. English and French players adopted the eastern names when they did not understand the meaning, and translated them when they did. Thus in England the minister became a “fers” (Arabic firzān, Persian Ferzēn, “wise man”, “counsellor”), the elephant an “alfin” (Arabic al-fīl, “the elephant”), and the chariot a “rook” (from the Persian rukh, for “chariot”). Our “checkmate” is from the Arabic shāh māta, “the king is helpless”, “Chess”, too, came into English in the Middle Ages and goes back through Arabic and Persian to the Sanskrit chaturanga. “Pawn” comes from a medieval French word for a foot-soldier. The Italians made chess a model of the European state, the minister becoming a queen and the elephant an elder who was often carved as a bishop. When the Lombards acquired the reputation of being the best European chessplayers, these changes of name were adopted in France and England. Chess became immensely popular, first in royal and knightly circles, then in towns and finally and more sparsely with the commonalty. By 1250 the earlier prejudice of the Church against chess was weakening, since the game was patronized by kings, and the monastic orders were gladly accepting chess as an alleviation of the monotony of convent life. By 1300 chess had acquired a literature of its own, had become the theme of poems, sermons and moralities, and was influencing the plot of romances. Chess had also become a regular feature in the education of royal and noble children.

Despite the general popularity of chess, there were signs that players were a little disappointed with it: a game took too long. Giraldus Cambrensis towards the end of the twelfth century noted that English players were dropping chess and turning to the solution of chess problems in which fewer men were used and which had a prescribed length. On the other hand, in Italy, the Lombard players were strengthening the moving power of some of the men, and by 1300 had given queen, pawn and king, in this order and for their first move only, an additional power. These attempts culminated in the great reform of the 1490s which gave queen and bishop their modern moves, making the study of Opening Play both possible and necessary, and revivified chess altogether. These changes led to the great chess activity of the period 1550-1640 in Italy and Spain, during which the reform was completed by the addition of “castling”, the combined move of king and rook. The reformed game was then adopted in Europe generally.’


Page 516 of the December 1912 BCM announced the forthcoming appearance of Murray’s book ‘upon which he has been engaged for more than 13 years’.


The following improbable addition comes from page 286 of CHESS, 29 June 1963:

‘It was said of Murray’s History that it grips like a novel.’


From Mark N. Taylor (Mt Berry, GA, USA):

‘On page 287 of Means Davis’s novel The Chess Murders (New York, 1937) a character remarked regarding H.J.R. Murray’s work: “I wouldn’t take that book too seriously”.


Davis also introduced two chessic phrases which never caught on: “playing chess on it” (page 263), i.e. thinking about a problem as a chessplayer thinks about a position), and “it wouldn’t be chess” (pages 300-301), i.e. it would not be fair or admit a logical response).’


Dale Brandreth (Yorklyn, DE, USA) has sent us a copy of a letter dated 4 August 1932 from H.J.R. Murray to A.J. Souweine:

murray philidor


Christopher Lenard (Bendigo, Victoria, Australia) reports that the biography of James A.H. Murray Caught in the Web of Words by K.M. Elisabeth Murray (Oxford, 1977) has on page 316 a photograph which includes H.J.R. Murray (her father):



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