Shatranj Day Thread

Modern chess evolved, by incremental changes in its rules, from a Persian game called shatranj. Shatranj, in turn an import from India where the original game was chaturanga, spread throughout the Muslim world after the Arab conquest of Persia.

The rules of shatranj are quite similar to modern chess, with a few major differences:

  1. Instead of the queen, there was a piece called the “ferz” (meaning “counselor”), a very weak piece whose only move was one square diagonally.
  2. Instead of the bishop, there was a piece called the “fil” (meaning “elephant”). It could only move exactly two squares diagonally, jumping over other pieces like the knight in chess.
  3. The pawn (called a “sarbaz”) did not have the option of moving two spaces on its first move, as in modern chess.
  4. Castling was not allowed
  5. A stalemate – that is, a position in which a player has no legal moves – was considered a win for the stalemating player.

As you can see, the pieces mostly move much more “slowly” across the board – with the queen and bishop replaced by much weaker pieces, only the rook (“rukh”, meaning “chariot”) can move from one side of the board to the other in a single move. Since the ferz moves diagonally, each ferz only has access to half of the squares on the board. And each fil, moving two spaces diagonally, has access to only one eighth of the squares on the board.

These differences result in a very different game from modern chess. Shatranj is more strategic and less tactical – in other words, it is more about slowly building up a good position than about finding brilliant moves and combinations. The exact sequence of moves was less important, making shatranj in a way a more “forgiving” game – it’s harder to lose the game due to a single bad move – but at the same time, it’s also harder to win with a single good move.

A 12th century set of shatranj pieces (This caption is not centered because WordPress is stupid.)

Shatranj was a very popular game in the Arab world during the Islamic Golden Age, and a great deal of literature was devoted to it, discussing strategy and openings as well as analyzing the game mathematically and posing puzzles with it. There was even a ranking system of players, much like today’s system of “master” and “grandmaster” titles in chess, and the names of several of the aliyat, the highest ranking, are recorded.

Shatranj was introduced to Europe through several routes, including Moorish Spain, Arab Sicily, and Turkey, beginning around the 10th century. In Europe, it continued to evolve, and the game as we know it today appeared in the late 1400s.