The Chess Variant Pages



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Shatranj

Shatranj is the Arabian form of Chess. Its name is just an adaptation of the Persian name Chatrang to Arabic. Some time after the death of Mohammed, the Arabs conquered Persia and learned about Chatrang, which was the Persian form of the Indian game Chaturanga. Its name too was a modification of the earlier name, which was Sanskrit for the four arms of the military. Because records of Chaturanga and Chatrang are sparse, the exact rules for these games are unknown, and it's generally presumed that they were more or less like Shatranj. Unlike its predecessors, Shatranj stands out for being well-documented, making it the earliest Chess variant we have detailed rules for. This game had professional players and a body of literature, and it is the main predecessor of the game we normally know as Chess. Since Shatranj first came to Europe by way of the Iberian peninsula, it's noteworthy that the Spanish and Portueguese names for Chess, ajedrez in Spanish and xadrez in Portueguese, are modifications of the name Shatranj.

Setup

The array is similar to that of Orthodox Chess, but it had Elephants instead of Bishops and Generals instead of Queens. It was originally played on an uncheckered board, but in 13th century Spain during the reign of King Alfonso X, it was being played on a checkered board.

Shatranj in the Alfonso-X style
diagram
Shatranj in a modern style
diagram

Black:
King d8; General e8; Rook a8, h8; Knight b8, g8; Elephant c8, f8; Pawns a7, b7, c7, d7, e7, f7, g7, h7.

White:
King d1; General e1; Rook a1, h1; Knight b1, g1; Elephant c1, f1; Pawns a2, b2, c2, d2, e2, f2, g2, h2.


The game was also played with Generals and Kings transposed. Besides the position illustrated above, the Kings could start on d1 and d8, and the Generals could start on e1 and e8. Mathematically, this made no difference, because both Kings always started in one central file and both Generals in the other.


Pieces


Shāh or King
Moves one space in any direction but not into check. It moves just as it does in Chess except that there is no castling.

Rukh or Rook
Moves across any number of spaces in the same rank or file but no further than the first occupied space, just as it does in Chess. Unlike the Chess Rook, it may never castle with the King.

Faras or Knight
Leaps in an L-shaped 1-2 or 2-1 pattern, just as it does in Chess.

Firzān or General
Moves to any diagonally adjacent space.

Fil or Elephant
Leaps two spaces diagonally. It may leap over an intervening piece, just as the Knight can, but it must move precisely two spaces in the same direction, and it cannot stop on the first space.

Baidaq or Pawn
Moves one space straight forward without capturing or one space diagonally to capture. Unlike the Chess Pawn, it may not make a double move, it may not capture by en passant, and all it may promote to upon reaching the last rank is a General.

Rules

Shatranj is the main forerunner of modern Chess, and it was played a lot like it. In addition to the piece differences noted above, its rules differed from Chess in the following respects:

For the most part, the preceding rules are agreed upon by King Alfonso X, H. J. R. Murray, John Gollon, Harry Golombeck, David Pritchard, and Wayne Schmittberger. Here are some variations on the rules not agreed upon by all sources:

Equipment

While Chaturanga and Chatrang were likely played with representational, figurine pieces, the Muslims had a religious prohibition against graven images, and while Jews and Christians had the same prohibition, as mentioned in the 2nd commandment, the Muslims really took it seriously. This led to the use of pieces that were not representational, as can be seen in these photos of pieces in the Muslim style that Jean-Louis Cazaux and his daughter made out of clay.

It's really hard to tell what any of these are supposed to be. You may notice a resemblance between these and the Alfonso-X pieces used above. In 1283, King Alfonso X of Castile, Galicia and León published Libro de axedrez, dados e tablas, which was the translation of an Arabic book on Shatranj and other games. Its title's English translation is book of chess, dice, and tables. The Chess Alfonso-X font was based on the piece images in this book, which can be seen in this illustration from it. So that you can see the pieces better, each half of the board is enlarged and rotated at the bottom.

These 13th century European piece images were still mostly non-representational, but they did include a more representational portrayal of the horse. Additionally, the Pawn was looking more like the Staunton Pawn. Even today, the Staunton set we commonly use represents things and animals, such as crowns, towers, mitres, and horses, but not people. This is thanks in part to the Muslim influence, though it also helps that abstract pieces are easier to recognize and tell apart than fully representational figurine pieces of human beings.

Computer Play

Notes

Chess Problems of 1001 Years ago


Original page written by Hans Bodlaender. Edited by John William Brown for the occasion of Shatranj's selection as Recognized Chess Variant of the Month.
WWW page created: October 23, 1995. Last modified: December 2, 2001.