form of chess we play today is just over 500 years old. And
our conventional design of chess pieces, the Staunton style,
has only been around for about a century and a half.
before our modern chess spread across Europe, there was an older
form of chess, lasting for almost 1000 years, with its own rules
and with its own conventional playing pieces. This older form
existed in Persia before the 7th century Muslim conquest. It
then spread across the expanding Arab world, through northern
Africa, and throughout Europe — all the while maintaining
the same set of rules and the same style of chessmen.
some minor variations did occur, the basic game remained the
same, lasting centuries and spanning continents.
conventional shapes of the ancient chess pieces are rather mysterious.
Generally speaking, they are simplified abstractions based on
familiar carvings of the pieces they represent: The King (on
elephant back), his Counselor (also riding an elephant) an Elephant
warrior (the tusks are apparent), a Horse (the protruding nose
identifies this piece), a Chariot (a V-shaped groove somehow
indicates a chariot).
rules given here are the best available account of how the game
of chess (Persian chatrang; Arabic shatranj)
was played in Persia, probably as long ago as the 6th century
pieces are set up, as shown above, much as they are in our modern
chess. The White side has his King (the larger piece) on the left,
and the Black side has the King on his right, so that the two
face each other.
in modern chess, each piece has a characteristic move —
and many of these moves are familiar to a modern chess player.
King, for instance, moves one square in any direction.
He has no power of castling.
Chariot (which retains its ancient Persian name
in English as “Rook”) moves as many squares as it wishes,
forward, backward, left or right, until it reaches another piece,
or the end of the board. Exactly like the modern Rook.
Horse (Knight) moves in a peculiar L-shape: two
spaces forward, backward, right or left, plus one square at a
right angle. It can not be blocked by another piece. This move
also is exactly like its modern counterpart.
Foot Soldier’s move is similar to that
of the modern pawn. It moves one square forward when not capturing,
but captures by moving one square forward/diagonally (shown by
X's in the diagram). Unlike the modern pawn, this soldier had
no option of moving two squares on its first move. When it reaches
the far end of the board it promotes, but only to a Counselor
— a rather weak piece.
Couselor (which became the Queen of modern chess)
moves only one square diagonally.
Elephant (which became our modern Bishop) has the
peculiar move of exactly two spaces diagonally. A move which allows
it to reach only eight squares on the entire board. Like the Horse,
the Elephant can jump over any piece that stands in its way. Just
why an elephant is associated with this leaping, diagonal move is
an interesting mystery.
pieces capture by landing on the square of an opposing piece,
and removing that piece from the board. Only the pawn has a special
move for capturing. All others capture just as they move normally.
A coin may be tossed to decide who goes first, and the players
take turns moving one piece in each turn.
a player’s King is threatened with capture, “check”
(Persian: “Shah”) is declared, and the player must
move so that his King is no longer threatened. If there is no
possible move to relieve the King of the threat, he is in “checkmate”
(Persian: “shahmat,” meaning, “the king is at
a loss”), and the game is over. Even if the King is not
under immediate threat, but any possible move would subject him
to capture (stalemate), he has lost the game.
if one side is reduced to a king alone with no other men, he loses
as a “bare king,” unless he can reduce
the other player to a bare king on the very next move, in which
case the game is a draw.
if it can be demonstrated that neither side has enough power on
the board to force a win by checkmate, stalemate or bare king,
the game is drawn.