History of Chess (Part 3)

In the previous part of this article, I have discussed how chess, in the form of chaturanga, initially made its way from its poorly defined origins in India into the vast empires of the Persians and the Arabs, thereafter making its way into the stately courts and shady streets of various medieval European kingdoms through emissaries, merchants and conquerors. Even with official prohibitions sanctioned time and again by the Church and several monarchs, chess remained too popular and widespread to be abandoned by the nobles and masses just like that. In fact, such severe failures to ban chess gradually resulted in more religious tolerance and increased royal patronization towards the game by the 15th century.

Having discussed the origins of chess and its spread to medieval Europe, another question now remains: how did this game evolve to become what it is today?

It is evident that chaturanga differs from modern Western chess in several aspects. Most glaringly, perhaps, is the fact that in place of the queen and bishop in Western chess, chaturanga has the minister (mantri) and the elephant (gaja) instead. Such a difference is not as evident in Chinese chess as it is in Western chess, as the former still retains the advisor (the mantri-equivalent) and the elephant (the gaja-equivalent) on its chess board. Additionally, the rules governing the movement of some of the pieces in chaturanga have changed tremendously in its transition to become today’s modern Western chess.

It is fair to say that over the centuries, the king and the pawns have undergone minimal changes, if at all, both in their names and appearance. In the case of the king, even its manner of movement remains the same in today’s Western chess as it was during the days of chaturanga. The pawn, however, has undergone several changes regarding its rule of movement, of which I will be covering later in this part of the article. As for the knight, all that has changed over the centuries is its name, in which it is now officially called the “knight” instead of the “horse” due to the fact that knights in medieval Europe rode on horses during battle. (The term “horse” is, nevertheless, still commonly used colloquially outside professional circles.)

Putting these three chess pieces aside, let us now shift our focus onto the remaining three pieces that have undergone more major transitions over the centuries, in terms of either their appearance or function on the chessboard.

Chess pieces in contemporary Western chess. From left: Pawn, queen, king, bishop, knight and rook

As what I’ve mentioned earlier, if one were to compare today’s modern chess with chaturanga, one of the most glaring differences would undoubtedly be the queen. If you recall what I wrote earlier in the previous part of this article, there was never a queen in the original chaturanga set to begin with; a minister (mantri) stood in her place instead. Moreover, the mantri was never as powerful as the queen in today’s chess, as it could only move one square diagonally like the advisor in Chinese chess. So, how did the minister “undergo a sex change” and acquire more superpowers to become the queen that we know today?

No doubt, the existence of the minister in chaturanga and shatranj remained unaltered for several centuries before the game finally reached European Christian soil. While the game enjoyed widespread popularity in the medieval Muslim world, the minister was re-designated as the “vizier” or wazir, the title given to a high-ranking minister or political advisor in an Islamic government. The minister or vizier’s role was largely to protect the king, hence its limited power of movement. Nevertheless, after the introduction of chess to the Christian kingdoms of medieval Europe, the minister or vizier was gradually feminized, but how exactly this happened remains to be explained with certainty.

Several theories have been put forward to explain the minister’s gradual “sex change.” One postulation concerns the Arabic term for the vizier. In the medieval Muslim world, the vizier was either called the wazir or the firz in the Arabic language, the latter of which was most probably used when the Muslims introduced the game in Europe. The Europeans subsequently called the piece “firz” as well, without knowing what it actually meant. Because the firz stood beside the king on the chessboard, many Europeans made the assumption that it was most probably the queen, thereafter feminizing its name in several languages, such as alferza in Spanish and fierge in French. This was before the terms dama or reine (which means “queen” or “lady” in Spanish and French respectively) came to be used to label the firz.

Artist's impression of a vizier (wazir), a high-ranking minister in an Islamic government, in the above painting entitled Dergoumidas Before the Grand Vizier by Giovanni Antonio Guardi (1699 - 1760)

Another theory attributes the feminization of the minister or vizier to the popularity of the game amongst women in medieval times. In addition to gaining widespread popularity, chess also garnered a reputation for being a game in which women could play on equal terms with men, especially during an era when male chauvinism was the mainstay of life. The growing popularity of chess meant that more women could challenge and play against men in friendly matches. Additionally, the romantic traditions of courtly love that prevailed in much of medieval European literature and art frequently dignified the queen as an individual vital for the king’s survival; the death of the queen, according to such depictions, meant that there was nothing more of value left for the king. A combination of these factors probably contributed to the conversion of the minister into the queen.

Medieval women playing chess, as depicted in the above painting entitled Anguissola Sisters Playing Chess by Sofonisba Anguissola (1532 - 1625)

Now, how did the queen acquire its “superpowers” to become the most powerful piece on the chessboard? In the first few centuries after the queen started making an appearance on the chessboard, it remained relatively powerless, possessing the same ability to move as that of its predecessor, the minister. Around 1300, the queen was given the power to move two squares diagonally, which was how the bishop moved at that time. This was done as part of several rule changes introduced to hasten the game, which I will be discussing later.

The queen’s new ability to move two squares diagonally quickly spread throughout Europe. In fact, for some time in certain parts of Europe, the queen was also given the ability to move like a knight once in the game. Nevertheless, the queen obtained its modern powers only around the late 1400s to the early 1500s in Spain. This new version of chess, dubbed the “queen’s chess” or “madwoman’s chess”, gave the queen the ability to move like both the bishop and the rook (castle) in today’s modern chess. From Spain, “madwoman’s chess” quickly spread to other parts of Europe via print media and new books written on chess. For some time, the queen’s new ability raised anxiety and dissatisfaction in certain quarters, unhappy with the fact that there was a powerful female warrior figure on the chessboard.

Nonetheless, the reason as to why the Spanish introduced such powers to the queen remains to be questioned. It is widely believed that this was probably due to the influence of Queen Isabella I (1451 – 1504), who lived and reigned around the time the chessboard queen first acquired its modern powers. Queen Isabella I herself was widely revered as one of the most powerful monarchs in Spain and Europe, contributing much to governmental reformation and the unification of Spain alongside her husband, King Ferdinand II (1452 – 1516). Not surprisingly, the earliest surviving treatise on chess that describes the modern movement of the queen was published during her reign.

Queen Isabella I (1451 - 1504) of Castile

The next piece that we’ll look at is the bishop. Recall that in the original chaturanga set, the bishop never existed at all (all the more so during an era when Christianity was nearly unheard of in most parts of India). Instead, its corresponding piece is the elephant (gaja), which moved only two squares diagonally, similar to the elephant in today’s Chinese chess. Alternatively, the gaja of chaturanga is sometimes assumed to have moved in a manner similar to the silver general in today’s Japanese chess i.e. one square vertically forwards or one square in any diagonal direction. The gaja definitely did not move like today’s bishop in Western chess i.e. any number of squares in any diagonal direction.

The next question thus arises: how came the elephant (gaja) of chaturanga to be humanized and converted into Christianity to become the bishop of today? No, the answer is not merely because of the influence of medieval Christianity on the portrayal of chess pieces. In fact, the answer has something to do with the way the elephant was represented in both chaturanga and shatranj.

In chaturanga, the elephant was frequently portrayed in the form of an armed attendant or soldier who sat on the back on an elephant. With its spread in the Islamic world, where depiction of human beings and animals were forbidden in art, the elephant was consequently portrayed as a piece with a deep groove and two outward protrusions symbolizing the elephant’s tusks. It was, however, still known as al-fil (elephant) in Arabic.

Shatranj pieces, which are carved in abstract shapes in accordance with Islamic principles. Note the al-fil (elephant, 3rd piece from left)

When chess was brought into Europe, many did not know what the term al-fil meant, all the more so since elephants were not native to the European continent. As a result, each kingdom that was exposed to the game made their own interpretations as to what the piece with the deep groove and two outward protrusions was trying to portray. To the French, the piece resembled the pointed hats of fools or court jesters, thus they decided to call it fou (fool). To the Germans, the piece seemed to illustrate the forked sticks that messengers used in order to carry and deliver commands during battle, thus they called it laufer (runner/running messenger). The Italians thought that the piece resembled a flag, which was made with a fork (a groove in between) in those days, thus they decided to call it alfiere (standard-bearer/flag-bearer), a term which also sounded like the Arabic al-fil.

The English, on the other hand, interpreted the piece differently. They thought that the piece closely resembled the outward projections on the top of a bishop’s mitre, hence they decided to call the piece the “bishop.” Around the 1400s, “bishop” became the standardized and widely accepted name to refer to the pointed chess piece, with a few other nations following suit. The Portuguese, Icelanders and Irish soon after referred to the piece as “bishop” in their respective languages as well.

Look alikes?
The al-fil (elephant, first from left) was said to resemble a court jesters' hat (2nd from left) to the French, medieval flags (2nd from right) to the Italians and a bishop's mitre (first from right) to the English

While the bishop was only able to move two squares diagonally when chess was first introduced into Europe, it eventually gained the ability to move any number of squares diagonally by the 1500s. This was around the same time as when the queen attained its modern powers. As “madwoman’s chess” (see above) and thus the queen’s additional powers spread throughout Europe, so too did the bishop’s new rule of movement. As a result of these additional powers being endowed upon these two chess pieces, a game of chess could be won within a shorter duration of time and with fewer steps.

Looking at the rook next, it is quite obvious that its corresponding piece in chaturanga is the chariot (ratha). This is because both the modern rook and the ratha indisputably move in the same fashion. The only differences between the two are their names and appearances. Interestingly, it should be noted that the rook has been known as the “castle” for centuries and is still informally known as such. The usage of the term “castle” has been discouraged by many chess professionals and organizations in recent times, being more in favour of the term “rook” which closely resembles its original Arabic name rukh or its Persian name rokh in shatranj. Nevertheless, we shall briefly explore the evolution of the rook’s name and appearance throughout the centuries.

Warfare in ancient India made much use of the chariot, which was a heavily armored horse-pulled vehicle carrying a driver and at least one ranged-weapon bearer, such as an archer. The chariots used on the battlefield were so heavily fortified that they sometimes resembled mobile stone buildings on wheels that bulldozed anything along its path. Being adapted into the game of chaturanga, the chariot was portrayed accordingly and was given the formidable power of moving any number of squares horizontally or vertically. The ability of the chariot to move in this manner was maintained as chaturanga spread to Persia, China and Japan as shatranj, xiangqi and shogi respectively.

 Artist's impression of Krishna and Arjuna, the two heroes of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, riding a war chariot

As shatranj spread throughout the medieval Arab world, the chariot became depicted abstractly as a square with two points above representing the horses’ heads, in line with Islamic rules of art (as mentioned above). Once again, when shatranj was introduced into the medieval European kingdoms, confusion arose as to what exactly the piece was trying to portray. The Italians assumed that the Arabic name for the chariot, rukh, was most probably synonymous with the Italian word rocca, which means “fortress.” In the minds of the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Germans, Dutch and even the Italians, that piece with a square and two points above most closely resembled a building with arrowports. With time, the piece was gradually transformed into a crenellated turret and was called either the “rook” (due to its resemblance in sound to the Arabic rukh) or the “castle” (due to the fact that turrets were a prominent feature of most medieval European castles).

 Turrets were a prominent architectural feature of most medieval European castles

Before discussing about the changes in the rules of chess over the centuries, I would like to touch on an interesting fact regarding the history of the pawn in chess, although it does not bear any significance upon its appearance or function on the chessboard today. The pawn, representing foot soldiers or infantry, has remained largely unchanged since the days of chaturanga, with the exception of its rules of movement which I will be discussing shortly. Despite its constancy, chess players of medieval Europe did make attempts to name each of the eight pawns according to a commoner’s occupation in medieval times, in the following order from left to right:

1.    Gambler/lowlifes (in the left-most square, left being associated with evil in medieval times)
2.    Policeman/city guard (in front of a knight, as knights trained city guards in real life)
3.    Innkeeper (in front of a bishop)
4.    Merchant/moneychanger (in front of the king)
5.    Doctor (in front of the queen)
6.    Weaver/clerk (in front of a bishop, for whom they wove or clericked)
7.    Blacksmith (in front of a knight, as blacksmiths cared for the horses)
8.    Farmer/worker (in front of a castle, for which they worked)

These designations made medieval chess more appealing, but bore no significance whatsoever to the rules of gameplay or the way in which the pawns were portrayed.

Having covered the details regarding the evolution of the various chess pieces to become what it is today, I will now be discussing about the evolution of the rules of gameplay over the centuries. Doubtless to say, in the few centuries after the introduction of chess into Europe, both the queen and the bishop were relatively powerless pieces on the chessboard, being able to move only one square diagonally and two squares diagonally respectively. The pawn was allowed to move only one square forwards at all times, and could only capture an enemy piece diagonally. A pawn that has advanced all the way to the furthest row on the chessboard is allowed to be promoted to any other piece of the player’s choice. This rule of pawn promotion has been in existence since the early days of chess in Europe, based on the idea that a foot soldier who was able to break through and advance all the way across enemy lines was worthy of promotion.

Caricature illustrating the return of the queen in pawn promotion

Despite the vast popularity of chess, the old rules of gameplay made it a very slow game demanding long hours of play. Friendly and informal games could take up to several hours to finish, while formally organized professional games sometimes required many days before concluding. As a result, many people experimented by introducing several modifications to the rules in order to speed the game up. Different modifications were done in different places at different times, some of which were widely accepted and others discarded after some time.

Nevertheless, by the 1500s, these modifications were standardized and thereafter maintained until today. The three major modifications effected upon the rules of chess by then were:

1.    Each pawn was given the ability to move two squares forward on its first move
2.    The bishop was given the ability to move an unlimited number of squares diagonally (as explained earlier), as opposed to only two squares diagonally prior to that
3.    The queen was given the ability to move an unlimited number of squares horizontally, vertically and diagonally (as explained earlier), as opposed to only one or two squares diagonally prior to that

With these new modifications, a game of chess could thus be won within a shorter duration of time using fewer moves. This revolutionized chess and further propelled its popularity amongst the masses.

One setback to these new rules was the fact that the king was now less protected on the chessboard. Prior to the introduction of these new rules, the queen and the bishops were relatively weak and did not possess the ability to move too far away from their starting positions within a short period of time. This meant that the king was, for the most part of a game, well surrounded and protected by these pieces. With both the queen and bishop acquiring its modern powers of movement, they were consequently able to move far away from their starting positions in just a few moves, leaving the king “bare” and more vulnerable to threats from multiple directions. In order to overcome this setback, the rule of “castling” was subsequently introduced to allow the king to be moved to safety and to permit the rook an opportunity to initiate movement earlier.

Movement of the king and rook in castling

Having read about how chess has evolved to become what it is today, let me now lead you to the final part of this article, where I will be covering briefly on the modern history of chess.

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