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13c., from Old French esches "chessmen," plural of eschec "game of chess, chessboard; checkmate" (see check (n.)), from the key move of the game. Modern French still distinguishes échec "check, blow, rebuff, defeat," from plural échecs "chess."
The original word for "chess" is Sanskrit chaturanga "four members of an army" -- elephants, horses, chariots, foot soldiers. This is preserved in Spanish ajedrez, from Arabic (al) shat-ranj, from Persian chatrang, from the Sanskrit word.
The chess pieces are the block alphabet which shapes thoughts; and these thoughts, although making a visual design on the chessboard, express their beauty abstractly, like a poem. [Marcel Duchamp, address to New York State Chess Association, Aug. 30, 1952]