Traditional Board Games

Mediaeval Chess and the Need for Speed

Knights Templar playing chess.
Knights Templar playing chess.

Wednesday, 2nd April 2014

Shatranj is pretty close the the original game of chess as it was played in the first millennium. After some experimentation with the the move of the elephant (nowadays the bishop), the game became standardised for nearly a thousand years. The queen and bishop had shorter moves than today, and the pawns didn't have their initial double-step move. But there were niggling complaints: the game started slowly, with the pieces not coming into contact quickly enough for some players.

Modern western chess is one solution to this perceived problem, with its striding bishop and "mad queen". It was invented in about 1490, and quickly replaced the older game throughout Europe. It is the most dramatic solution, with the faster-moving pieces able to attack the enemy very early. But there are other solutions attempted too. Some were successful enough to still survive as regional chess variants today. Others fell by the wayside. In this blog post I'll highlight a selection of them.

In Europe, before modern chess was introduced, there were other attempts to speed up the game. The king was sometimes given a knight's move to be used only once per game, probably for the same purpose as modern castling. Another solution was to advance the rooks' and queen's pawns two squares at the start, and to give the queen a "joy leap", so that she would start just behind her own advanced pawn. This was adopted in the courier game, a 12x8 variant from Germany.

In the middle east, there was another way to speed up the early game. Players made their first dozen moves simultaneously, keeping to their own half of the board until those moves were done. This allowed each player to set up a fortress with some pieces advanced and ready to do battle.

Further east, things were more innovative. In Thailand, the pawns of mak-ruk were advanced one row at the start of the game, starting on the third rank. This brings them into conflict much earlier in the game than is the case in shatranj. And sittuyin, the Burmese chess variant, goes further - the pawns start on the third and fourth rank, with the pieces arranged behind them as the players like. This has echoes of the starting fortresses in shatranj.

The Chinese, Korean and Japanese games are very different from the rest of the chess family, but all share the advanced pawns of mak-ruk. The Chinese game has additional long-range pieces, the cannons, which help to speed things up.

Personally, I like shatranj, and the slowness of starting doesn't bother me. But if it bothers you, and you want to play some positional chess that doesn't rely on memorising openings, then some of the other variants mentioned might be worth a try.


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