The Alfil is the predecessor of the modern Bishop. This piece very probably came from India, where its original name was one of the Sanskrit words for elephant: hasty or gaja. It was alternately known by both names. It is found in the earliest known forms of Chess, such as Chaturanga and Shatranj, and it is very probably one of the original Chess pieces. But there is a bit of uncertainty and even disagreement on this matter.
The uncertainty is not over the piece's name. An elephant was, as far as anyone knows, one of the original pieces. The uncertainty is over how it moved. In both Shatranj and Chaturanga, it made a two-space diagonal leap, but Chaturanga was an Indian Contempory of Shatranj, and it is Shatranj, the Muslim form of Chess, that we actually have the earliest documentation for. As Murray reports in his History of Chess, there were two other moves for this piece that were current in India. One was the Dabbabah move, and the other was the Silver General move. While the former died out, the latter was the move for this piece in the form of Chess that spread to Burma and Siam. This is the move for the piece in both Burmese Chess and Thai Chess.
According to Henry Davidson, the five-fold Silver General move was the original move for this piece. Davidson comments on how this move resembles the four legs and trunk of an elephant. But according to H. J. R. Murray, writing in his History of Chess, the two-space diagonal leap was the original move. Murray reasons that the Elephant was the weakest piece in the game, and people began experimenting with ways to make it stronger, whereas they didn't experiment with improving the other pieces. This makes sense, because the Alfil is weaker than the Dabbabah and the Silver General. It can reach only one eighth of all spaces on the chessboard, whereas the Dabbabah can reach one quarter, and the Silver General can reach them all. Besides that, this same kind of experimentation gave birth to modern Chess during the renaissance, when the Alfil and the Ferz, which was the second weakest piece in the game, were replaced by the Bishop and Queen, while the other pieces were left alone. So it seems entirely reasonable that Murray is right.
When the Persians got Chess from the Indians, they translated the Sanskrit name to pil. Curiously, Golombek points out that pil is not a Persian word. Elephants were not native to Persia, and the Persians borrowed the word from some other language. Golombek also points out that the English word elephant was also borrowed from another language. Although I can't document the connection, elephant does sound similar to alfil. Perhaps it has its roots in the name for a Chess piece.
As Murray reports in his Short History of Chess, the game hardly changed when the Muslims got it from the Persians. So the Persian pil lept two spaces diagonally. Murray reports in the same book that the Muslims merely modified the name of the piece to suit their own pronunciation, changing the p to an f for the word fil, which became the piece's Arab name. This got prefixed with the Arabic definite article, al, to form the name Alfil.
When the names of fil and alfil reached Europe, they sometimes changed even more, but the transformed names eventually became associated with the Bishop. Although the name of Alfil is still used for the Bishop in some languages, such as Spanish, English-speakers began the tradition of reserving the name Alfil for the original piece.
Alfils take in the same way as they move without taking.
Alfils can only reach a very small part of the board. On the standard 8x8 board, an Alfil can reach only one eighth of all the spaces. It covers only half of the same color spaces on half the rows, i.e. two spaces on every other row. In this respect, it is even more colorbound than the Bishop, which can reach half the squares on a standard Chess board.
The Alfil is a leaper. A leaper is able to move directly to another space on the board without passing through other spaces. If other pieces stand between a leaper and its destination, it just leaps over them as though they weren't in the way. Other leapers include the Knight, the Dabbabah, and the Camel.
Click on an image to view the full piece set it belongs to.
In Chess problems, the Alfil is often represented by the letter A or by a Bishop symbol.
Davidson, Henry A. A Short History of Chess, 1949.
Golombek,Harry. Chess: A History, 1976.
Murray, H. J. R. A History of Chess, 1913.
Murray, H. J. R. A Short History of Chess, 1963.
Last modified: Sunday, April 1, 2012