I came upon the following wonderful painting by Sofonisba Anguissola, ‘The first great woman artist of the renaissance,’ of her sisters playing chess (painted 1555).

Sofonisba Anguissola (1555) her sisters playing chess

The painting is truly sublime. Chess players will notice, however, that the color of the squares on the board is the opposite from what is usually used in modern games, with light on the right, and so it made me wonder about the history of this convention. When did the light-on-the-right convention come into prominence? Has it been long established that way? Is this painting illustrating a different custom at that time, or rather might it be explained by an artist inventing a scene and not aware of the custom?

  • 2
    My wife points out that if this image were a reversed photo of the actual painting, which seems possible, then perhaps the actual painting does not depict a reversed chessboard. But all the online images of the painting I have found have this orientation, so I find it likely that the image is not reversed.
    – JDH
    Mar 28, 2017 at 23:58
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    The second definitely occurs - a more modern example englishchess.org.uk/the-simpsons-feat-magnus-carlsen
    – Ian Bush
    Mar 29, 2017 at 6:27
  • The girl with her hand up is about to say 'you know, we've been playing this game all wrong...'
    – user1108
    Mar 29, 2017 at 10:06
  • @IanBush And here is another example: plus.google.com/u/0/+DustinAbbottTWI/posts/WJaBZDKmJ8A.
    – JDH
    Mar 29, 2017 at 13:37
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    The painting is indeed sublime. I've spent half an hour looking at an enlarged version; it's one of those paintings that gain more and more depth the more you look at them. I didn't know it or Sofonisba Anguissola before, so I'm very grateful. Two of the best things in life at the same time: Chess and art. Mar 31, 2017 at 17:11

1 Answer 1


Sometimes chess textbooks would rotate the board by 90 degrees, under the assumption that the players sat at the left and right of the board:

The only clear evidence of the use of different sources is supplied by the diagrams. While the great majority are oriented in the way universally followed in modern text-books, a small number in each work are at right angles to the ordinary arrangement. These must have been derived from an MS [manuscript], in which the positions were drawn on the supposition that the players were seated to the right and left of the board.

Source: A History of Chess: The Original 1913 Edition by H.J.R. Murray

Murray unfortunately does not give the origins of 'light on right'.

  • Is the saying really "light on the right"? I don't think I've ever heard that before; I always thought it was "white on the right".
    – bof
    Mar 31, 2017 at 22:26
  • @bof - I've heard both. In Ubisoft's Chessmaster tutorials, Yasser Seirwan says 'light on right'.
    – user1108
    Apr 1, 2017 at 8:10

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