Is Chess a Jewish Invention?

By Rabbi Aron Moss

Question of the Week:

I once heard that the game of chess was invented by King Solomon. Does it say that somewhere?


There is a legend that King Solomon came up with the game of chess to keep the minds of his military commanders sharp. Nobody could beat him at his own game.

He often played against Benayahu, his chief of staff. The king always won….always, that is except once.

Benayahu was once playing against the king, and things looked like he was about to be checkmated. Frustrated at always losing, Benayahu took advantage when King Solomon left the game for a moment to investigate a commotion happening out the window. Benayahu surreptitiously removed Solomon’s knight off the board. When the king returned he did not notice the missing piece, and Benayahu was able to turn the game around to his advantage and finally win.

Solomon was crestfallen. No one had ever beaten him at chess before. Wanting to learn from his mistakes, he reconstructed the game in his mind, move by move, to see where he went wrong. But it did not make sense. A piece was unaccounted for. There was a missing knight! Solomon knew what must have happened. He could have immediately confronted Benayahu for his dishonesty but he did not. He understood the value of someone admitting wrongdoing themselves. So the king waited for the right moment. And it eventually came.

One fine day King Solomon caught a thief attempting to steal treasure from the royal palace. He called the rabbinical judges of the high court, and in the presence of Benayahu asked them, “What should be done to someone who dares to steal from the king?”

When Benayahu heard this, he was sure the king was referring to his stealing the king’s chess piece. Terrified, he confessed to cheating and begged for mercy.

The king was happy. Benayahu had owned up to his deceit, without Solomon ever accusing him of anything. The king remained undefeated at his beloved game. I guess you could say King Solomon checkmated Benayahu, yet again.

Source:  This legend is found in a collection of Jewish tales from rare sources called “Beis Hamidrash,” authored by Aaron Jellinek in 19th century Vienna. Though this fascinating work is found in the Frierdiker Rebbe‘s library, the author and his sources cannot always be relied on as true to Torah. Some of his stories, like this one, are viewed as apocryphal. Nevertheless, the singular affection Torah sages expressed towards the game of chess may indicate it comes from a lofty source…

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