History of Chess (Part 1)


What do you think the three things above have in common? Any ideas?

No doubt they are all board games, and popular are they too. But that’s not the only similarities that the three of them share. Any other ideas as to what they may possibly have in common?

For some of you out there, it may be unfair for me to ask any further, as you might be giving the right two photos above perplexed stares, wondering at the back of your minds as to what exactly they may be. Whatever it is, I’m very sure that most of you would be able to recognize the first photo from the left as being that of conventional Western chess, or what most of us would normally refer to simply as “chess.” Well, did you know that there are also other existing types of chess in this world, such as Chinese chess (Chinese: 象棋, xiàngqí) and Japanese chess (Japanese: 将棋, shōgi)? As some of you might already be aware of, these two types of chess are portrayed respectively in the right two photos.


So, let us get back to the question above. What do you think the conventional Western chess, Chinese chess and Japanese chess have in common? Might it be their rules? Or the alignment of their component pieces on the board? Or perhaps their historical origins?

Before I give you the answer, perhaps it may be best for me to give you an overview of the rules for each of these three popular types of chess. Then perhaps you may be able to compare and contrast for yourselves the similarities and differences between them. On top of that, in order to better understand the origins and progression of chess throughout history, it would be best if you first understand the basic rules of these three types of chess. If, however, you do not wish me to bore you with all these facts and descriptions, feel free to move straight to the next part of this article.

Conventional Western chess


Conventional Western chess, or what people always refer to as “chess” in English, is perhaps one of the most widely played board games in the world, having spun numerous national and international tournaments revolving around the game. Basically, Western chess is played on an 8-by-8 square board, giving a total of 64 squares with alternating colours, as seen in the diagram below. The game is played by two opposing players, each commanding a set of 16 pieces coloured black and white respectively. Each player begins with one king, one queen, two rooks (castles), two bishops, two knights and eight pawns (soldiers). The arrangement of the pieces is shown below.

 Arrangement of pieces at the start of the game in conventional Western chess

The player commanding the white set makes the first move. At any one turn, players can only move a single piece, either to an unoccupied square or to a square occupied by the opponent’s piece. In the latter case, the opponent’s piece is captured (“eaten”) and removed from the chessboard. The only exception to this is the en passant rule, which I will explain later. Although players are only allowed to move one piece at a time, an exception applies if the player chooses to do castling, which I will also explain later. The objective of the game is to render the opponent’s king helpless, thus putting the king under “checkmate.” A player’s king is considered checkmated if the opponent’s next move will result in its capture and it is unable to move anywhere else to avoid capture.

"Checkmate!" The black king is checkmated as the white piece's next move will result in its capture and it is unable to move anywhere else to avoid capture

The game is considered over if either one of the player’s king is checkmated or stalemated. In the case of stalemate, the king is itself under no direct threat from any piece, but the player is unable to make any legal moves to avoid capture in the next turn. Unlike checkmate, a stalemate results in a draw (i.e. having no winner) between the two players, and is sometimes used as a tactic to avoid losing to the other player, especially in professional tournaments.

A case of stalemate. The black king is under no direct threat of capture from any white pieces, but itself cannot move anywhere else in its next turn to avoid capture

Each chess piece is allowed to move only in its predetermined style. This is listed below, and illustrated in the following diagrams:

1.    King: Moves one square in any direction. Can also move in conjunction with the rook (castle) in a move called “castling.”
2.    Queen: Moves in any direction and with any number of squares. It cannot, however, leap over other pieces.
3.    Bishop: Moves diagonally only with any number of squares. It cannot leap over other pieces.
4.    Rook (castle): Moves horizontally or vertically only with any number of squares. It cannot leap over other pieces. Can move in conjunction with the king during “castling.”
5.    Knight: Moves in an “L”-shape, that is two squares vertically and one square horizontally or two squares horizontally and one square vertically. It is the only piece allowed to leap over other pieces.
6.    Pawn (soldier): Has several moves. It can move forward to an unoccupied square immediately in front of it (i.e. moves one square to the front vertically provided the square is empty) or to an occupied square diagonally in front of it (i.e. moves one square to the front diagonally provided the square is occupied), thus capturing the occupying piece. On its first move, a pawn may also advance two squares vertically forwards provided both squares are empty. A pawn can only move forwards until it is promoted. It has two special moves i.e. the en passant capture and the pawn promotion.

Under no circumstances can a player capture his or her own pieces.

Conventional Western chess pieces. From left: Pawn, queen, king, bishop, knight and rook

Castling is a special move in which the king moves two squares horizontally towards a rook (castle) and the rook (castle) moves to the last square the king crossed. Each player can only do it once in every game, and certain conditions have to be met, namely:

1.    Both the king and the rook (castle) have not been previously moved during the game (i.e. both these pieces still remain in the same positions from the start of the game)
2.    There must be no pieces between the king and the rook (castle)
3.    The king must not be in check (under direct threat of capture from any opponent piece), nor may it pass through any square that is under attack from opponent pieces, nor move to a square that would put it under check

 Castling

En passant is another special move in chess, involving the pawn. When a pawn advances two squares forward from its initial position in the game and it lands directly beside the opponent’s pawn, the latter can capture it en passant (in passing) by moving to the square that the former passed over. This can only be done on the very next move; otherwise the right to do so is lost. This move is illustrated in the diagram below.

 En passant

Pawn promotion occurs when a player’s pawn reaches the furthest row away from the player (i.e. the opponent’s first row). A pawn can thus be exchanged for the player’s choice of any piece of the same colour. There is no restriction for the piece that can be chosen for promotion, thus it is possible for a player to have more pieces of the same type compared to at the start of the game (e.g. two queens).

Chinese chess


Chinese chess (Chinese: 象棋, xiàngqí) is a popular board game in China and in areas with large Chinese populations worldwide. Its name in Chinese literally means “elephant game”, an allusion to the “elephants” or bishop-equivalents in the game. Chinese chess is different from Western chess in several aspects, one of which is its board. The board used in Chinese chess has 9 vertical lines and 10 horizontal lines, and the pieces are played on the intersections of these lines. Between the 5th and 6th horizontal lines, separating the two opposing sides, is a river that is often marked as the Chu River (楚河, Chŭhé) and the Han Border (漢界, Hànjiè), a reference to the historical Chu-Han War (楚汉相争, Chŭhàn Xiāngzhēng) of 206 – 202 BC.

In its most common form, Chinese chess is played by two opposing players, each commanding a set of 16 pieces coloured red and black respectively. Each player begins with one general, two advisors, two elephants, two horses, two chariots, two cannons and five soldiers. The arrangement of the pieces at the beginning of the game is shown below.

 Arrangement of pieces at the start of the game in Chinese chess. Note the Chu River/Han Border (楚河漢界) at the centre separating the two opposing sides

Throughout history, there has not been a single definite rule as to who makes the first move. Even today, some guidebooks state that the black side moves first, while others state that the red side moves first. In many tournaments today, however, the red side is normally given the chance to move first. Like Western chess, players can only move a single piece at any one turn, either to an unoccupied point or to a point occupied by the opponent’s piece, thus capturing and removing the opponent’s piece from the board. Unlike Western chess, however, there is no pawn (or soldier) promotion, thus a captured piece can never be returned back to the chessboard. The objective of the game is similar to Western chess, that is to render the opponent’s general helpless, thus putting it under “checkmate” (将死, jiāngsǐ).

Another different point about Chinese chess is that when a stalemate occurs, the player with no legal moves left loses. In order to avoid losing, a disadvantaged player may end up checking or chasing pieces in a way that the moves fall into a repeated cycle. In such situations, special rules exist to draw the game. As these rules differ from place to place and are somewhat confusing, I will not delve into them here.

 Painting depicting Chinese chess being enjoyed as a popular pastime in imperial China

Some pieces move in the same manner as their corresponding pieces in Western chess, while others move in a slightly different manner. There are also several additional pieces in Chinese chess which are absent in Western chess. The pieces in Chinese chess are as follows:

1.    General: Labelled / (jiāng, lit. general) on the black side and / (shuài, lit. marshal) on the red side. It can only move and capture one point forwards, backwards or sideways in a horizontal or vertical fashion. Its movement is limited to within the palace (the squares with the diagonal lines) only. Its capture results in the end of the game and the defeat of the captured general’s player. Although its movement is limited to within the palace, there is an exception to this: when a general faces the opposing general directly in the same row without any pieces in between, the “flying general” (飞将, fēi jiāng) move can be done, enabling the player’s general to “fly” directly to the opposing general’s palace to capture it. The general is the king-equivalent in Chinese chess.
2.    Advisor: Labelled (shì, lit. scholar/official) on the black side and (shì, lit. scholar/official) on the red side. Starting beside the general, the two advisors can only move and capture one point diagonally within the palace.
3.    Elephant: Labelled (xiàng, lit. elephant) on the black side and (xiàng, lit. minister) on the red side. They are, however, generally known as elephants. The two elephants can only move and capture exactly two points diagonally. They cannot jump over any piece, neither can they cross the river. They roughly correspond to the bishops in Western chess.
4.    Horse: Labelled / (, lit. horse) on both sides in most modern sets. The horse moves and captures in an L-shape, similar to the knight in Western chess. However, unlike the knight in Western chess, the horse is supposed to move two points vertically or horizontally first, followed by one point horizontally or vertically respectively. In other words, the horse is supposed to move the long arm of the “L” first, followed by the short arm. If a piece lies at the centre of the long arm of the “L”, the horse’s movement is obstructed, as illustrated below.
5.    Chariot: Labelled / (, lit. chariot/car) on both sides in most modern sets. It moves and captures any number of points horizontally or vertically, but it cannot jump over any pieces. It is the exact equivalent of the rook (castle) in Western chess.
6.    Cannon: Labelled (pào, lit. cannon) on the red side and (pào, lit. catapult) on the black side. In English, both are normally referred to as cannons. The cannons move any number of points horizontally or vertically, just like the chariot, but it can only capture another piece by jumping over a single intervening piece (ally or enemy). It cannot jump over a piece and not capture anything, neither can it capture without jumping.
7.    Soldier: Labelled (bīng, lit. soldier) on the red side and (, lit. pawn/private) on the black side. Soldiers move and capture by advancing one point forwards only before they cross the river. Once they cross the river, they can move and capture one point forwards or sideways. They cannot move backwards, and upon reaching the last row on the board, they can only move and capture sideways. Unlike the pawn in Western chess, they cannot be promoted.

Pieces in Chinese chess. From left (top and bottom respectively): General, advisor, elephant/minister, chariot, horse, cannon, soldier/pawn

Japanese chess


Although there exists several types of chess in Japan, Japanese chess (Japanese: 将棋, shōgi) is perhaps the most popular one. Its Japanese name literally means “general’s chess.” It is played on a board containing 81 rectangles, 9 in each column and 9 in each row. These rectangles are undifferentiated by marking or colour.

Whereas pieces in both Western and Chinese chess are differentiated between the two opposing sides by their colours or markings, this is not the case with Japanese chess. In Japanese chess, corresponding pieces on both sides contain the same colour and markings, with the exception of the kings. In order to tell apart as to which pieces belong to which side, one has to look at the orientation of each piece. Each piece is wedge-shaped and has a protruding end that points towards the opponent during the game.

Each player starts with 20 pieces, comprising a king, a rook (castle), a bishop, 2 gold generals, 2 silver generals, 2 knights, 2 lances and 9 pawns. These English names are standardized names used in English translations of the game, and do not necessarily reflect their actual meanings in Japanese. The role played by each piece is marked in Japanese characters on the top side. In all pieces except the king and gold generals, Japanese characters are also found on the bottom side. These may sometimes be marked in red, and they indicate the roles played by the pieces once they are promoted. The bottom side is turned face up once a piece undergoes promotion. The arrangement of the pieces before the start of the game is shown in the picture below.

 Arrangement of pieces at the start of the game in Japanese chess

The game starts when either player makes the first move. Similar to Western chess, a player can move only a single piece in any one turn. The piece can be moved to an empty rectangle or to one that is occupied by an enemy piece, thus capturing and removing it from the board. Alternatively, a player may choose to use his turn to “drop” a captured piece onto the board. The “drop” rule is a special rule that is unique to Japanese chess alone. I will explain more about this later. Players can only capture opponent pieces and not ally pieces.

Pieces in Japanese chess move in their predetermined fashion, some similar to Western and Chinese chess and others different. They are described below:

1.    King: Labelled (ōshō, lit. king-general) or (gyokushō, lit. jeweled general). It can move only one rectangle in any direction. It cannot be promoted.
2.    Rook (castle): Labelled 飛車 (hisha, lit. flying chariot). Similar to the rook (castle) in Western chess and the chariot in Chinese chess, it can move any number of rectangles horizontally or vertically, but it cannot jump over any pieces.
3.    Promoted rook (dragon): Labelled (ryūō, lit. dragon king) in cursive. It is promoted from the rook (castle). It can move as a rook (castle) or as a king, that is, it can move any number of rectangles horizontally or vertically, or only one rectangle diagonally, but not both during any one turn. It cannot jump over any pieces.
4.    Bishop: Labelled 角行 (kakugyō, lit. angle mover). Similar to the bishop in Western chess, it can move any number of rectangles diagonally, but it cannot jump over any pieces.
5.    Promoted bishop (horse): Labelled 龍馬 (ryūma, lit. dragon horse) in cursive. It is promoted from the bishop. It can move as a bishop or as a king, that is, it can move any number of rectangles diagonally, or only one rectangle horizontally or vertically, but not both during the same turn. It cannot jump over any pieces.
6.    Gold general: Labelled (kinshō, lit. gold general). It can move one rectangle vertically forwards or backwards, or one rectangle horizontally sideways. It can also move one rectangle diagonally forwards, but cannot move diagonally backwards. It cannot be promoted.
7.    Silver general: Labelled (ginshō, lit. silver general). It can move one rectangle diagonally forwards or backwards, or one rectangle vertically forwards. It cannot move vertically backwards or horizontally sideways.
8.    Promoted silver: Known as 成銀 (narigin, lit. promoted silver), but marked on the pieces as a cursive variant of (kin, lit. gold) or . Promoted from the silver general, it replaces the power of the silver general with that of the gold general.
9.    Knight: Labelled 桂馬 (keima, lit. cassia horse). Like the knight in Western chess, it moves in an “L-shape” fashion, but its difference is that it can only move forwards and not sideways or backwards. As such, it can only move two rectangles vertically forwards and one rectangle horizontally, forming an “L-shape” to the front. Unlike the horse in Chinese chess, its movement is not blocked by intervening pieces, as it is the only piece on the board that can jump over pieces.
10.  Promoted knight: Known as 成桂 (narikei, lit. promoted cassia), but marked on the pieces as a cursive variant of (kin, lit. gold), or . Promoted from the knight, it replaces the power of the knight with that of the gold general.
11.  Lance: Labelled 香車 (kyōsha, lit. incense chariot). It can move any number of rectangles vertically forwards only. It cannot move backwards or sideways. It cannot jump over any pieces.
12.  Promoted lance: Known as 成香 (narikyō, lit. promoted incense), but marked on the pieces as a cursive variant of (kin, lit. gold), or . Promoted from the lance, it replaces the power of the lance with that of the gold general.
13.  Pawn: Labelled 歩兵 (fuhyō, lit. foot soldier). It can only move and capture one rectangle vertically forwards and cannot move backwards, sideways or diagonally.
14.  Promoted pawn: Known as と金 (tokin, lit. reaches gold), but marked on the pieces as a cursive variant of (kin, lit. gold), or . Promoted from the pawn, it replaces the power of the pawn with that of the gold general.

 Pieces in Japanese chess. From left (top): Promoted bishop (dragon horse), bishop (angle mover), king/general, king/general, rook (flying chariot), promoted rook (dragon king), gold general. From left (bottom): Promoted pawn, silver general, promoted silver, knight/horse, promoted knight, lance (incense chariot), promoted pawn, pawn/foot soldier

Promotion can be done when a player’s piece either moves into, out of or wholly within the promotion zone. The promotion zone is the furthest three rows on the board, that is, the three rows occupied by the opponent’s pieces at the start of the game. A player may choose to promote a piece at the end of his turn after moving the particular piece, or he may choose to let the piece remain unpromoted. Promotion is indicated by turning the bottom side of the piece up, revealing the Japanese characters marking the promoted piece’s rank. A piece deliberately “dropped” within the promotion zone cannot be promoted immediately, but only in subsequent turns. Promotion of a piece remains permanent until the piece is captured, after which it reverts back to its initial rank.

A special rule that is unique to Japanese chess is the “drop” rule. When a piece is captured, it is not “eaten,” as is frequently said in both Western and Chinese chess. A captured enemy piece is retained in the capturing player’s hand and can be returned into play at any turn under his/her control. After dropping, the captured enemy piece becomes part of the capturing player’s forces i.e. it switches sides. Dropping takes a whole turn of its own i.e. after dropping, the player cannot move any other piece and his turn ends. Dropping a piece within the promotion zone does not result in immediate promotion, and neither can a piece be dropped on an occupied rectangle to capture an enemy piece. It can only be dropped into an empty rectangle.

Two restrictions apply to dropping pawns. Firstly, a pawn cannot be dropped onto the same column as another unpromoted pawn controlled by the same player. Secondly, a pawn cannot be dropped to give an immediate checkmate, although other pieces can be dropped to do so.

 Former World Chess Champion, Garry Kasparov, trying his hand in a game of Japanese chess

Similar to all other types of chess, the objective of Japanese chess is to render the opponent’s king helpless, thus putting it under “checkmate” (詰み, tsumi). A game may end with a draw if the same game position occurs four times with the same player or if the game reaches a stalemate. A stalemate occurs if both kings have advanced into their respective promotion zones and neither player can hope to attack the opponent’s king or gain any further material by capturing more pieces. A stalemate has to be agreed upon by both players, after which a point calculation system based on all the pieces in a player’s possession is used to determine the game’s outcome.

Shion no Ou/The Flowers of Hard Blood (しおんの王), a mystery-themed manga-cum-anime based on the game of Japanese chess

Having given you a brief and concise outline of the basic rules and layout of Western, Chinese and Japanese chess, let us now move on to the next part of this article.


*Contents of this article:
1.      Part 1 – Introduction to the basic rules of chess
2.      Part 2 – Early history of chess
3.      Part 3 – History of chess in medieval Europe
4.      Part 4 – Modern history of chess

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