Soil water content at sowing is an important determinant of chickpea seed emergence and early growth. The seed emergence and seedling growth of 9 kabuli and 11 desi chickpea genotypes sown and grown under four soil moisture contents (25, 50, 75 and 100% of field capacity) was measured in a glasshouse study. Across soil moisture treatments the day of first emergence was negatively correlated to all plant growth parameters, e.g. above-ground biomass and plant height (r = −0.83 to −0.94). At 50 and 25% field capacity the onset of seed emergence was delayed, and both the number of seeds that emerged and early growth were reduced. Within the 25% soil moisture treatment, genotypes with an early emergence had a high rate of emergence (as estimated by regression against time) and produced seedlings with a high specific leaf area. Genotypic differences were observed in the number of seeds that emerged, day of first emergence, and early growth across the soil moisture treatments. Differences in final emergence were not related to chickpea type (i.e. desi or kabuli) or seed size, but the kabuli types emerged later than desi types (P <0.001). The response of early dry matter production and leaf area to soil moisture was quadratically proportional to seed size, while the plant height response was linearly proportional to seed size. As a consequence kabuli chickpeas generated a higher degree of early vigour than desi types as soil moisture increased until seed sizes become extremely large, whereas under low soil moisture, kabuli chickpeas will have a much smaller or possibly no early vigour advantage over desi types.