Would You Like To Play A Game?

Love to. How about a Global Thermonuclear War?
Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of Shatranj?

Some have suggested that the Norse game of Hneflatafl is a precursor to modern chess. They’re not wrong, Walter (as The Dude would say), but they are also wholly not correct. Board games where the goal is to capture your opponents “King” are not uncommon. The appearance of Medieval Chess pieces in Northern Europe can definitely be associated to the styles of pieces used for Tafl games, however the rules and structure come from a very different source.

Shatranj was introduced to Mediterranean Europe sometime in the 8th century, coming from Persia. In turn, the game had originated in India shortly before that.  Chess, as the variation of Shatranj that we recognize today can be traced to the late 15th Century. For at least nine centuries the game remained popular in the Arab world, even supporting professional players who traveled a tournament circuit.

The Pieces, in Order of Precedence
The King (1), which moves as in modern chess.
The General [or Vizier] (1), moves to the first diagonal square.
The Elephant (2), leaps to the second diagonal square.
The Cavalryman (2), moves as the Knight in modern chess.
The Chariot (2), moves as the Rook in modern chess.
The Pawn (8), moves as in modern chess, no opening move of 2 spaces, cannot capture en passant.

Board Setup
King e8; General d8; Chariot a8, h8; Knight b8, g8; Elephant c8, f8; Pawns a7, b7, c7, d7, e7, f7, g7, h7
King d1; General e1; Chariot a1, h1; Knight b1, g1; Elephant c1, f1; Pawns a2, b2, c2, d2, e2, f2, g2, h2.

For those who aren’t up on technical chess coordinates: The board is set as modern chess, front rank is pawns. The second rank , from left to right of the player, is Chariot; Knight; Elephant; King; General; Elephant; Knight; Chariot.
This means the Kings are not on the same line when the board is laid out. Instead, they follow a standard precedence of the General being consistently to the right of the King.
While “Green” and “Red” are used to identify the opposing forces of the set, this is simply an expedient. The we’ll get into looking at sets in another post, but the colors of the two forces are rarely consistent from one extant set to another.

The Board

14th Century folio depicting an Indian Ambassador bringing Shatranj to Persia, Artist unknown

The iconic two-tone “checkerboard” pattern is a Western innovation, first indicated sometime in 13th Cen Spain. That pattern quickly moved into France, Italy and the rest of Western Europe within a few years. While it might have made the game easier to play, especially with the diagonal moves, the original boards were not differentiated  by colored squares, but by a simple grid. In the 14th century folio image (above), the board is shown to be white with the grid laid marked with a darker pigment.

Rules is rules
The game is played as modern chess, with only a few differences. It should, as chess is a variant of this game. In addition to the movement changes that I’ve described in the “Pieces” section, we have :
There is no initial two-space Pawn move.
There is no en passant capture for Pawns.
There is no castling move.
Pawns which reach the rear rank always promote to a General.
A Stalemate counts as a win (a players King is not threatened, but cannot make any move without being threatened, nor any move to break the isolation).
A Bare King counts as a win, unless the next move results in two Bare Kings.
Two Bare Kings counts as a draw.

Next time out, we’ll have a look at a board and the pieces… a little distraction I winkled out a few months back.

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