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The modern rules of chess, except for the stalemating being a draw, are basically equivalent to a game in which the goal is just to capture the king, not checkmate him. It's plausible that in the oldest versions of chess, this was indeed the goal, but since a rational player would then always move their king when in check, and never leave themselves in check, and would only have their king captured when there was no escaping from it, players may have decided that responding to check may as well just be made a rule.

I haven't been able to find any reliable source either confirming or refuting this hypothesis. Is there any?

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    I think capturing the King is still the goal, except the game ends one move before the actual event. Checkmate basically means, "I'm taking it next turn and there's nothing you can do about it." – Tony Ennis Apr 3 '16 at 21:10
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    Not quite Tony. Unlike having, say, a queen captured, a player in the modern game cannot mistakenly allow his king to be captured. – Hugh Apr 3 '16 at 22:21
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    @TonyEnnis that almost works, but not quite. Stalemate is the issue. If you can't move without moving your king into check, then in chess this is a draw. However, if the goal were to capture the king then this would be a losing position, because your king would be forced to move into check and would be captured the next move. – Nathaniel Apr 3 '16 at 23:04
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    @Hugh : in many speed chess variants it can happen. I've seen official speed chess tournaments where games starting with 5 minutes for each player allowed the player to lose if he left the king in check (and the other player noticed). – vsz Apr 4 '16 at 8:11
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    A comparison to other games in the chess family could be instructive here. In "Chinese Chess" there is also no actual capture of the General - but there is no stalemate, having no legal moves means you lose. – wberry Apr 4 '16 at 15:07
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Wikipedia claims that

In early Sanskrit chess (c. 500–700) the king could be captured and this ended the game. The Persians (c. 700–800) introduced the idea of warning that the king was under attack (announcing check in modern terminology). This was done to avoid the early and accidental end of a game. Later the Persians added the additional rule that a king could not be moved into check or left in check. As a result, the king could not be captured,[13] and checkmate was the only decisive way of ending a game.[14]

References [13] and [14] are to Davidson, Henry (1949), A Short History of Chess, which can be consulted on Google Books. I couldn't tell immediately what sources Davidson used.

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    This is interesting but I'm not sure how reliable this book is. I wish Google Books would let you look at the bibliography. – Jack M Apr 4 '16 at 10:55
  • I agree that the book seems pretty chatty and not particularly scholarly. The very dedicated chess historian Edward Winter agrees here and lists more books on the history of chess (all of which he finds some fault with). – dfan Apr 4 '16 at 17:19
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I think you may be right, but I can't find anything to support it. However, if the goal was originally to actually capture the opponent's king, this raises another interesting question: What happens if the goal is to capture the king, moving into check is allowed, and you still have no legal move? For example:

   [fen "3k4/8/8/8/1p1p4/pPpPp3/PRP1P3/NKN5 w - - 0 1"]    

If it is White to move, this position is stalemate under modern rules, but if there's no stalemate, and Black has to capture the white king to end the game, does White just skip a move, and then 1…axb2 2.Kxb2, cxb2#, or would they just look at material, position, whatever, and work out who should win, agree to a draw, or just end the game with no result and replay it or something?

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    1. .. axb2 2. a3? – hkBst May 25 '16 at 8:20
  • Yeah, I missed that. My point still holds about the position though. – Jivan Scarano May 25 '16 at 15:50
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    It is a good point (hence my upvote and attention), but could be made better perhaps. The position also seems to suffer from being unattainable in a real game. I wonder if there are attainable positions (let alone realistic positions) that fall into this same category of no moves at all (not even once that result in check. – hkBst May 26 '16 at 6:58
  • I think that position would be attainable, although very unlikely as it is obviously completely contrived. I originally tried something similar, but using bishops to block the king from moving, but if the bishops are blocked by pawns, then they can never have moved, so how did the rook get there? Also I had the entire position moved two squares to the right, another two pawns of each colour added on the a and b files, which still works, but makes it even more contrived, unlikely, and unnecessarily complicated. – Jivan Scarano May 26 '16 at 7:27
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    yes you are right that the position is attainable. – hkBst May 26 '16 at 11:19

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