Traditional Board Games


Knights Templar playing chess.
Knights Templar playing chess.

In Arabic, chess is called shatranj. In English language texts, shatranj refers to the particular form of mediaeval chess brought to Europe from the middle east. It has major variations from the modern western game, making it of much different character.

Shatranj gives much shorter moves to some of the pieces. The pawns only move one square forwards, even on their first turn. The long move of the bishop, called the elephant in shatranj, is instead a short diagonal leap of a distance of two, and exactly two, squares. And most surprising to modern players of the game is that the queen is here a vizier, with only a short diagonal move to an adjacent square.

History of Shatranj

The game of chaturanga, invented in India, passed to the Persians under the name chatrang, and to the Islamic world under the name shatranj. It underwent very little change during this time. The original move of the elephant, which became the modern chess bishop, was one square diagonally or directly forwards, said to represent the elephant's legs and trunk.

Shatranj in mediaeval times went under as much learned scrutiny as chess does today. The prominent player Al-Suli (A.D. 880-946) wrote the first scientific book on the game, the "Book of Chess". Chess problems, as often seen in newspapers now, were set in this period and documented in books.

The game came to Europe in the 10th century, and spread from Byzantium to Iceland over the next three centuries. Rules were changed little in that time, but the Europeans were the first to set the game on a chequered board, the Asian players being content with an unchequered grid. Other minor rule changes restricted to various regions include the particulars of stalemate, a one-time knight's move to the king, and the advancement of the queen, queen's pawn and rooks' pawns two squares forward at the start of the game.

The game lasted in this form until 1490, after which was replaced by the modern game. This replacement took a surprisingly short time - 10 years, as opposed to about 300 fo the game's initial spread across the continent; probably the printing press had a part to play.

The major change was an attempt to speed up the game, as were some of the earlier European innovations. In the Middle East, sometimes the first eight or twelve moves were played simultaneously to speed things up, neither player crossing the central line at this time. Further east, this desire to speed things up led to the creation of Sittuyin and Mak-ruk.

Rules for Shatranj

Rules for Shatranj
Shatranj in the Islamic world was more standardised than its European counterpart, the Arabs being content to leave the rules alone. It is these rules, then, that are reproduced here.

1. Shatranj is played on a board of eight squares by eight, the squares being of uniform colour.

2. There are two players, one known as white and the other black.

3. Each player has sixteen pieces of his own colour: 1 king, 1 vizier, 2 elephants, 2 horses, 2 chariots and 8 pawns. At the start of the game, they are laid out on the board as in the diagram.

4. White ma­kes the first turn, then black plays, turns alternating thereafter until the game is over.

5. A turn consists of moving one of the player's own pieces from one square to another, according to that piece's abilities, removing (capturing) an enemy piece if it occupies the destination square.

6. The abilities of the pieces are as follows:

(i). the king may move to any of the eight squares adjacent to him, with some limitations explained below;

(ii). the vizier may move to any of the four adjacent diagonal squares;

(iii). the elephant may move exactly two squares in a diagonal direction, jumping over any piece that occupies the intervening square;

(iv). the horse moves one square horizontally or vertically, then one square diagonally away from its starting point, jumping over any piece that occupies the intervening square;

(v). the chariot moves any distance horizontally or vertically, but may not jump over intervening pieces, which block its way;

(vi). the pawn moves one square forwards, unless it wishes to capture, in which case it moves one square diagonally forwards.

7. If the king is threatened with capture, he must move to a safe square, another piece must move to protect him, or the aggressor must be captured so as to remove the threat.

8. A king may never move into a square that is threatened by an enemy piece. Neither may a piece protecting the king move so as to expose him to capture.

9. If a pawn reaches the far row, it immediately becomes a vizier.

10. A player has won the game if he threatens to capture his opponent's king, and the opponent can do nothing to prevent this.

11. A player also wins if, at the end of his opponent's turn, he has two or more pieces left but the opponent has only a king.

12. A player wins if his opponent has no legal move.

13. A game is drawn if both players have only their king, or if otherwise there is no way for either player to achieve victory.

Strategy in Shatranj

Strategy in Shatranj
A brief description such as this is insufficient to even start on strategy in shatranj, which is comparable to modern western chess in depth of play. But there are some strategic concerns which become apparent after a number of games of shatranj.

The number of ways that different cultures have tried to speed the game passes a very strong hint that this game is slow-starting. In contrast to western chess where conflict ensues in the first few moves, in shatranj the players have time to build up a more robust defensive position before coming into contact with the enemy.

It is important to realise that with the vizier being a much weaker piece than the queen which replaced it, the chariots, or rooks, now become the most powerful piece in the game. They therefore warrant a little more attention to their protection in the older game.

Finally, never underestimate (or overestimate) the piece which the bishop replaced, the elephant. Its lumbering move allows each elephant to visit only eight squares on the board, leaving half the board unthreatened by any elephant. However, the jumping move can catch a beginner unawares; if an elephant is two diagonal squares away from you, no intervening piece will protect you from attack.

Shatranj: try it out!


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