One of the more fascinating things I saw when digging through the Libro de los Juegos was Alphonso X’s description of how to play chess. I haven’t played since I was a kid, as I was happy with a casual game of attrition, while my peers who played actually learned the strategy. Rusty as I am, I still know the pieces and how they move. Now, I always thought the modern rules of chess were still pretty much the same as the original, but our gamer king not only knew of quite a few variants (4 players! Larger boards!), and the way he describes the “official” game is absolutely fascinating to me, because of how it would change the strategy entirely.
Today, I’ll compare the modern rules to the rules in 13th century Spain. As common as chess is, I’m not going to explain the current rules here, just note the differences. He starts out explaining the many different board sizes known at the time, but settles on the 8×8 board we know today. Next, he talks about the number of pieces being 32 – 16 each, and that they line up on opposite sides of the board, then that half of each army is lesser to represent common people, clearly describing pawns. He writes that the king goes in one of the two middle squares on the back row,and then the differences start:
And next to him in the other middle square, is another piece which resembles the fers (alfferez) who carries the standard of the king’s colours. And there are some men who do not know the name and call him “fersa” (alfferza). And these two pieces each one plays alone and does not have another in all the sixteen pieces that resembles them.
So, not a queen, but a standard-bearer. We’ll come back to this when I talk about movement. Next, in place of bishops, another different pair of pieces:
And in the two other squares beside these there are two other pieces which resemble each other and they call them fils (alffiles) in Arabic which means the same thing in our language as elephants, which the kings used to bring into battle and each one brought at least two so if one of them died, that the other one would remain.
That’s right, no women, and no clergy — this is a battle, dontcha know? Next are knights, and then rooks, the same as the starting setup we know today. One ineresting thing is that the rooks were not originally representing castles or towers or siege engines, like presented today, but instead were a “rank of armed soldiers…holding on to each other” – basically like a Roman phalanx. He then spends several paragraphs reiterating the number of pieces and that most of them are doubled up so there is an extra should one be captured. He then notes that a pawn advancing to the back rank becomes a fers – the standard bearer. Of note is that in the modern game, a pawn can be promoted to any piece other than pawn or king, but in this game, the only option is a fers.
Finally, he explains about check and checkmate, and that the purpose was to shorten the game, since it would be no fun to have just the two kings remaining on the board. Next, he explains the movement of the pieces. The pawn, king, and knights move the same as we know today, although the knight’s movement is described as one square orthogonally, and then one diagonally out in that direction, rather than the L-shape as it was taught to me. However, the fers (which replaces the queen), the fils (which replace the bishops), and the rook move very differently:
The fers moves one square diagonally and this is in order to guard the king and not leave his side and to shield him from the checks and checkmates when they are given to him and in order to go forward helping him to win when the game comes out well.
But he can also on his first move jump to the second straight or diagonal square and even if another piece is in between. And this is in the manner of a good captain who charges ahead in great feats and battles and rushes everywhere they need him.
Instead of being able to move as far as possible in any of the 8 directions, like a queen, the fers moves like a limited king – one square in any diagonal direction, because their purpose is to guard the king. The only exception to this movement is on their first move, when they can move two diagonal spaces, even jumping over another piece to do so. This makes a big difference in strategy, as you no longer have to guard from the “queen” when it’s clear on the other end of the board.
Likewise, the elephants are more limited than bishops, in that they only move 2 spaces diagonally, although they are able to jump while doing so – think of the piece it jumps over as getting out of the way to avoid being trampled!
Meanwhile, the rooks can still move orthogonally as far as possible, but they have less control. Unlike merely being allowed to move as far as you could, the rook in the 13th century was required to do so. A rook had to move until it either was stopped by an allied piece or the edge of the board, or they captured an enemy piece.
More advanced movement, like capturing en passant, and castling, simply didn’t exist at the time. Given how gradually the pieces moved, I can see where checkmate may have been a new concept – forcing an opponent to surrender once the king was captured, rather than trying to eliminate all the pieces, like most other games of the time. It might also have been a reason for changing the movement of the queens, bishops, and rooks to allow for control and more distant captures. It makes me wonder just how long these historic games of chess took to play.