Friday, July 20, 2007

Breeds of Chess

Chess is a great game with a long history. I'm not awfully good at it, but it interests me. (I hear you asking, "Dude, what doesn't?" Point taken.) After many centuries of development, it has come down to us in a pretty standard form, so that people from Vancouver to Vladivostok, from Stockholm to Santiago de Chile, enjoy the same game with the same rules, the same board, and the same pieces. There have been some genius players, and there have been some amazing computers programmed to play chess, and when they play among themselves (the great human players and/or the machines) it always seems to be a contest among the greatest intellects in the world.

All this is true, but many of us live under the illusion that the form of chess that we know is the worldwide standard. I did, until a couple years ago. No sooner did I discover some interesting alternate forms of chess than I bought sets of several of the games. I am still hoping, some day, to find a willing victim - I mean, partner - to teach to play them so I can experience the different nuances of these chess-like games.

Let's start with Western chess, for a point of reference. It is played on an 8 x 8 square board with alternating light and dark squares. Each player (light and dark) begins with 16 stylized, three-dimensional pieces lined up in two ranks at his own end of the board. In the front rank are 8 pawns that move forward, usually one space at a time, except when they attack; then they move one space diagonally forward.

Behind them stand an assortment of pieces that can move and attack in different ways: two rooks on the ends of the rank, which can move forward, backward, or sideways any number of unoccupied spaces; then the bishops, which can move diagonally ditto; the knights, which can jump over other pieces as they make their L-shaped moves; the queen, who starts on a square of her own color and can move like either a rook or a bishop; and the king, who can only move one space in any direction, and who needs to be protected from attack by the other side. When your king is under attack ("check"), the only move you are allowed to make is to get him out of danger. When there is no way to do this ("checkmate"), you lose the game.

There are other twists, of course - like the option of moving a pawn ahead two spaces from its original position, promoting a pawn to any other piece when it reaches the opposite side of the board, the castling maneuver involving a rook and the king, and the amazing en passant maneuver. These are among the features of Western chess that distinguish it from other historic and cultural variants of the game. And now, here are a few of those variants...

Xiangqi, or Chinese chess, uses the board and pieces shown here. You'll notice the layout is quite different from that of Western chess. Instead of three-dimensional pieces (based on such machines of war as infantry, cavalry, chariots, etc.) it has flat disks with Chinese characters written on them in either red or black. The characters determine the type and function of each piece. The pieces stand on the points where lines intersect, rather than the spaces between them; and the 9 x 10 grid is further embellished by the two "palaces" at opposite ends (from which each General and his two Advisers cannot move) and the the "river" across the middle (which the Elephants cannot cross). The General, who must be protected from checkmate, can move one space vertically or horizontally within the palace; the Advisers can only move one space diagonally within the palace.

The other pieces that start in the back row include, from the center outward: two elephants, which can only move two points diagonally unless another piece stands in the way, and which must remain on the "defensive" side of the river; two horses, which can move one point vertically or horizontally, then one point diagonally, but only if their path is unblocked; and two chariots, which move and attack like a rook in Western chess. Two points ahead of the horses are the two cannons, which move like the chariots, but must jump over an intervening piece in order to attack another piece. Ahead of the cannons stand five soldiers, who can only move and attack one space forward or, after they cross the river, one space horizontally. Once these players start moving, the game continues until a player is either checkmated or unable to make a legal move; that player loses - there is no stalemate in Xiangqi.

Does that seem weird to you? Weird or not, Xiangqi has been played since at least 300 B.C. and is among the most popular board games on earth. China is, after all, a big country! There are Xiangqi clubs and associations all over the world, including the U.S., and top players are ranked internationally. There is even a sort of Chinese breed of checkers or draughts, played with Xiangqi pieces on one-half of a Xiangqi board; it is called Banqi.

Janggi, or Korean chess, is played on a similar 9 x 10 board, only without a "river" across the middle. The pieces are, again, disks with stylized Chinese characters printed on them in red or green; they vary in size according to their importance. The General and his two Counselors can move anywhere within the "palace." The Elephants move one space horizontally or vertically, followed by two spaces diagonally, provided their path is unblocked. The Horses move in a similar way, only the diagonal part of the move is only one space. The Chariots, again, move like a Western rook. The Cannon can move or capture any distance horizontally or vertically, provided there is exactly one piece in his path for him to "hurdle" over; this ensures that the cannon becomes less powerful as more pieces are taken off the board. The five Soldiers on each side can move one space forward or sideways; once they reach the opposite end they can only move sideways. Game ends when one player checkmates the other; there is no stalemate in Janggi, since a player who cannot make a legal move simply skips a turn.

Then there is Shogi, or Japanese chess, which I find particularly interesting. The set I own is played, not on a wooden board, but on a leather mat that is rolled up between games. Played on a 9 x 9 grid, the flat, pointy pieces are placed on the spaces (as in Western chess), starting in three ranks. The characters on both players' pieces are black, so one tells whose piece is whose by which way they are pointing. Many pieces can be promoted once they reach the far third of the board; they are then flipped over, revealing a different character written in red, signifying their new rank.

Another really awesome twist is that captured pieces can be "dropped" on the board, in their unpromoted rank, pointing back the other way. Thus they serve as reinforcements for the capturing side. A piece can be dropped anywhere on the board except to: (1) immediately capture a piece; (2) checkmate the opponent's king (in the case of dropped pawns); or (3) undergo mandatory promotion. Also, a dropped pawn cannot occupy the same rank as another unpromoted pawn belonging to the same player.

The pieces in Shogi move as follows. The King can move one space in any direction. Starting to either side of the king are two Gold Marshals, who can move one square in any direction except diagonally backwards. The two Silver Marshals, starting outside the Golds, can move one square diagonally or straight ahead. Next, outside the Silvers, are the two Knights, which can only jump one square forward plus one square diagonally forward, regardless of intervening pieces. On the outer corners are the two Lances, which can move any number of free spaces forward. Starting the game in the second rank, ahead of the Knights, there are one Bishop (on the left) and one Rook (on the right). These pieces move like their counterparts in Western chess. The nine Pawns in the third rank can only move ahead by one space per move. Pawns, Knights, and Lances enjoy mandatory promotion when they reach the far end of the board (in the case of Knights, this means either of the far two ranks); otherwise they can't move at all.

Here's how promotion works. Silvers, Knights, Lances, and Pawns all promote to Gold Marshals. The Rook and Bishop become the Dragon and Horse, respectively. In addition to their usual choices of moves as a Rook or Bishop, they can also move one space in any direction, like a King. Kings and Golds do not promote.

Sittuyin, or Burmese chess, is played with standard Western chess pieces on an eight-by-eight grid with two diagonals crossing the center of the board. The game starts with only the pawns on the board, the four on each player's right in his fourth rank, the left four in his third rank. The opening moves consist of the players, by turns, placing their remaining pieces anywhere on their own side of the board (i.e., behind their own pawns).

Only a few pieces act differently from their Western chess counterparts. The queen, known here as the General, can only move one step diagonally. The bishop, here called the Elephant, can move one step diagonally or forward. While standing on a space with a diagonal going through it, a pawn can be promoted to General provided the original General has been captured; this promotion constitutes one turn. Stalemate is not allowed.

Makruk, or Thai chess, is also played with Western pieces on an 8 x 8 grid. Considered the living chess variant that is closest to the original game that is the common ancestor of all these warlike board games, it is more popular than chess in Thailand and Cambodia. Makruk opens with the pieces set up pretty much like those in Western chess, with two exceptions: both kings are to the left of their queens (known here as Ministers), and the pawns begin in the third rank.

In Makruk, the pawn moves and attacks just as in Western chess, except it doesn't get to advance two spaces on its first move, and there is no en passant move. The bishop and Minister move like the Elephant and General in Sittuyin. The other pieces move like their western counterparts, though the rook is called a Boat, and the knight a Horse. Pawns promote to Ministers when they reach the third rank from the far end. The most complicated part of Makruk involves counting the number of moves allowed, after all the pawns have been removed from the board, before declaring the game a draw. I would rather not go into that right now.

Shatranj is a Middle-Eastern variant of chess that developed in Persia (present-day Iran) a thousand years ago. Western chess is directly descended from Shatranj, though the latter is not the original form of the game (more on that to come). The king (Shah), rook (Chariot), knight (Horse), and pawn (Soldier) move exactly like their modern counterparts, except the pawn doesn't have the option of a two-space opening move. The bishop (Elephant) moves exactly two spaces diagonally, by jumping over the intervening space. The queen (Counselor) moves only one space diagonally. There is no castling (ditto all these other variants of chess), and a player who cannot make a legal move loses the game (hence, no stalemate either).

Tamerlane Chess was an extended version of Shatranj, developed during the reign of the Persian Emperor Timur (1336-1405). It was played on a 10 x 11 grid with two additional squares (one to the right of each player's second rank), known as "citadels." Only kings can occupy a citadel, and one can obtain a draw by taking possession of the opponent's citadel. Of course some extra pieces are required for this expanded setup. Besides the king, knights, rooks, and a full complement of pawns, each moving like their modern-chess counterparts, the pieces and their moves included a General (one square diagonally), a Vizir (one square horizontally or vertically), a Giraffe (one square diagonally plus three squares horizontally or vertically), a Picket (at least two squares diagonally), an Elephant (exactly two squares diagonally, if its path is unobstructed), a Camel (two squares diagonally, plus two squares horizontally or vertically, provided its path is unobstructed), and a Siege Engine (two unobstructed squares horizontally or vertically). Pawns that reach the far end of the board promote to whatever piece started in the same file. Since one of the pieces starting in the first rank is an additional pawn, this raises the complicated issue of promoting the "pawn of pawns." Plus, due to promoting the pawn of kings, there may be as many as 3 kings to a side - and there are still other complicated rules which one would best learn about here.

The original game from India, and the common ancestor of all these variants of chess, is Chaturanga. All the pieces in modern, Western chess have counterparts in chaturanga: the Raja (king), Minister (queen), Chariot (rook), Elephant (bishop), Horse (knight), and Soldier (pawn). In later variants, some of these names were swapped around, or changed into other things such as ships and camels. The pieces are initially arranged on an 8 x 8 grid as in Western chess, except that each king is to the right of his queen. The pieces move mostly as in Shatranj, except it is not quite clear how the Elephant was supposed to move - it probably changed over time. Oddly, the game was won either by taking all the opponents pieces except the king ("baring" the king), or by being unable to make a legal move. (By the way, I did notice that the modern-day "Chaturanga" set in the picture actually fits the description of Chaturaji. Go figure.)

A four-player version of Chaturanga also existed, known as Chaturaji. Each player began with a king, boat (rook), horse (knight), and elephant (bishop), lined up in that order in one corner of the board (with the elephant in the corner square) and guarded by a line of four pawns. The pieces moved mostly like their modern-chess counterparts, except the pawn didn't get a two-space opening move, and the boat moved by jumping diagonally over a square. A boat can capture all three opposing boats at once by moving so that the four boats fill a 2 x 2 square. Originating a thousand years ago, Chaturaji was originally a game of chance. Moves were determined by a throw of the dice; a later, diceless version continued to be played in India until the 1800s.

Many, many other fascinating variants of chess have been tried, some of them requiring special equipment, and some of them existing only as computer games. To explore more of these variants of chess, see this Wiki page. Chess is a surprisingly diverse game. You can play it with other real people by mail, over the phone, by email or IM, and online. You can play it alone with more or less sophisticated computers. Legions of books have been written about chess strategy. Chess problems and puzzles have fascinated generations of people who enjoy having their brain teased. The boards and gamepieces are often unique and exquisite works of art (including the sittuyin pieces pictured here, and the chaturanga set above). And now it turns out that learning variants of chess can be a great way to gain insights to other cultures, to learn foreign languages, and to broaden one's understanding of historic war strategy. And I haven't even mentioned Go, Backgammon, Pachisi, or any of their respective legions of related, warlike boardgames...maybe another time!

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