An Illustrated History of Chess

  1 Origins
  2 Early Chess

  3 Thailand, Burma
  4 China

  5 From China?
  6 Korea
  7 Japan
  8 Evolution
  9 Europe
  10 Variants

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An Illustrated History of Chess

It has been said that Japan takes in ideas from all over the world, and reinvents them in a style which is uniquely Japanese. As you will see, the game of shogi illustrates this idea beautifully.

Looking at the shogi board, at right, what similarities to other forms of chess are already apparent?

Like the Chinese game:
T he pieces are flat, caligraphed figures, nine across, with the commanding general (king) in the center, and there are two special pieces on their own row.

Like the Persian game:
The pieces are placed on the spaces (not lines), and there is a pawn in each column.

Like the Thai game:
T he pawns start out on the third row...

And yet, the neat wooden board, divided into rectangles, with wooden tiles seems to have a very Japanese character.

shogi, ready to play
the initial array of shogi
 the chessmen of xiangqi (Chinese chess)

You may be able to detect a few similarities between the Chinese pieces (above) and the Japanese pieces (below).

the chessmen of shogi (Japenese chess)

In fact, the Japanese pieces are written in Chinese characters (one of Japan's three official alphabets!). The Japanese pieces, however, are composed of two characters — the first is an adjective. For instance, look at the fourth and fifth pieces in the Chinese and Japanese line-up at the left. The Chinese pieces are "horse" and "chariot." The corresponding Japanese pieces are "laurel horse" and "fragrant chariot."

Notice the two pieces which stand alone on the second row. Strangely enough, one has the move of a western bishop (called, "angle-goer") and one has the move of the western rook (called "flying chariot" — did you recognize the character for chariot?). It is said that the historic line-up of shogi pieces did not have anything in the second row, and that these pieces were simply borrowed, several centuries ago, from European chess.

Most of the moves found in shogi are already already familiar to us, and some are slight variations on familiar themes. The chariot and horse, for instance, move like our rook and knight...but only in the forward directions. The pawn moves and captures with a forward movement, like the Chinese pawn.

Now, let's talk about elephants. Well, there is no elephant in the Japanese chess...but that piece two spaces to the king's right and left, the silver general — has the characteristic elephant move found in Southeast Asia — just like the nobleman of Thai chess.

the move of the silver general in shogi (Japenese chess), a familiar move in south-east Asian chess variants
the move of the silver general
 the move of the gold general in shogi (Japenaese chess), a unique move among major chess variants
the move of the gold general

What's new in shogi is the move of the gold general, who stands next to the king (or jaded general). The gold general moves one space forward, backward of sideways or forward-diagonal. This is an interesting complement to our silver general, who moves in the four diagonal directions or to the one forward direction. You can see that there is a preference in shogi for the pieces to move forward — on the attack.

Now, here's where things start to get complicated. Notice that the pieces are all flat tiles. This shape serves a special function: Each player starts with twenty pieces, and all but three of these pieces (the king and two gold generals) can flip over, to show a promotional value.

Promotion occurs when a piece enters the enemy's third row (as it does in Thai chess). Upon entering the promotional zone, the piece may flip over (as the pawn does in Thai chess) to show a new character. The newly promoted piece has a new, more powerful move, becoming at once a greater threat in the enemy's territory.

the chessmen of shogi (Japenese chess) showing their original values 

the chessmen of shogi (Japenese chess) showing their promoted values
All of the shogi pieces, except the king and the gold general, flip over to show a promoted value.

But here's where things get really complicated. Did you notice that the pieces on opposing sides are all of the same color, only differentiated by the direction they are pointing? There is a reason for that too.

When a piece is captured in shogi, it isn't dead yet! It waits on the side of the board, to be placed back in the service of its captor, on any vacant square of the board (some restrictions apply). So, unlike all other forms of chess, shogi never winds down into a simplified end game. No, in shogi there are 40 pieces in play, from beginning to end, being promoted, captured, dropped back into play, being promoted and captured again...until, finally, someone declares checkmate!

If you think an intense game loaded with extraordinary possibilities of attack and necesities for tight defense is for you, check out the detailed rules of shogi!

That just about completes our tour of the Far East. It is by no means exhausted! There are varieties of chess still played in India and Myanmar... and myriad variations and predecessors of the games we've looked at throughout history.

But let's finish our world view with a look at the chess we know and love, western chess — just plain "chess," as we call it. How did it get here, and how long has it been around?...

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