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      Chess at its purest is a totally abstract game that requires nothing but one's mind. 
     While the accoutrements of the game are unnecessary, the pieces and the board give the game its identity.  The chess pieces are the most spotlighted feature of the game, taking center stage. Hovering in the background, often unnoticed but intrinsic to visual completeness sits the supporting player, the board.

     Today we have boards of every conceivable material, solid, folding, rolled-up, large, tiny, portable, stationary, conventional or electronic.  It's hard to imagine a time when chess boards, or game boards in general, were rare and unlike any even among today's variety.

     Chess as we know it is a relatively recent development, if you consider five centuries recent.  But the modern game that developed in the 15th century was similar to the game that had come to be 5 centuries previous to that.  In the latter part of the first millennium, the Muslims were expanding west, populating the southern mainland of Europe. They brought with them their popular game, Shatranj.  The Islamic teachings restricted the visual aspects of the game.  Generally, though not always, the playing pieces were non-representative and the 64 square board was uni-colored made either of cloth or leather.


     Harold James Ruthven Murray, possibly the greatest chess historian of all time, wrote:

     "The shatranj board resembles all native Asiatic boards in being unchequered, but differs from the Indian and other boards in showing no trace of any regular marking of certain squares. The term 'board', however, is somewhat deceptive. The Arabic names ruq'a (a patch or piece of paper), sufra (a table-cloth or napkin), nat'a (a cloth) and bisāt (a carpet), all imply a soft material, and from the earliest days of the Muslim game down, the board has generally been a square piece of cloth or other substance upon which the dividing lines of the squares are worked in another colour.

      "In more elaborate chess-cloths the individual squares may bear a pattern of some simple type, or be merely indicated by the regular recurrence of a conventional design which occupies the centre of the otherwise undivided squares, while these patterns or designs may even, as in the case of the so-called Turkish cloth of which Falkener gives a photograph, show a further differentiation on lines analogous to the Indian marked squares. In the desert rougher materials still are employed: Stamma (Noble Game of Chess, London, 1745) notes: 'The wild Arabs draw the Squares on the Ground, and pick up Stones of different Shapes and Sizes, which serve them for Pieces.'"
from Edward Falkener's 1892  "Games Ancient and Oriental" as mentioned by Murray above.
Falkener added:
    The Turks generally make their "board" of cloth, embroidered over to form the cells, several of which, and sometimes all, as in this example, have ornaments or flowers in the centre. Such a chess-cloth with the men can easily be carried about in a bag, and so be always ready to be placed on the divan or carpet. The photograph represents such a board in my possession with the ivory men, the powers of which will be seen by the order in which they stand.
   The King is placed on the right of the Queen, and can take one knight's move at any time of the game, but only one.
   The pawns move one square at a time.
   In castling, the King can be placed on the Rukh's square, or on any other within that distance.
   The other rules are the same as those of the European game. This is the game as played by the author in Asia Minor in 1845. The variations from our game are unimportant, and not sufficient to rank Turkish chess as a distinct game, like several other Oriental games of chess, but is interesting only from the form of the pieces, and from its embroidered cloth,

     Murray continued: "Boards of more solid materials — it will be remembered that al-Ya'qubi describes Qaflan as making his board of leather—and even chequered boards are not entirely unknown, but the chequering is incidental to the ornamentation of the chessboard, and is not essential for its use. With the fondness of the Egyptian, the Turk, and the Persian for inlaid work in wood, it would be strange indeed if so obvious a method of beautifying the board had not suggested itself."

     In his 1860 book "The History of Chess," Duncan Forbes, the Scottish linguist and chess historian, claimed:

"The ancient board on which the primæval game of Chaturanga was played had no variety of colours; in fact, a chequered board in that case would have been rather objectionable than otherwise. When the game was modified into the Shatranj, the board, so far as we know, still remained unspotted; although the division into black and white would, in the latter case, have been a decided improvement.‘ Hyde [Rev. Dr. Thomas Hyde] gives a drawing of a splendid ivory chess-board presented to him by Daniel Sheldon, Esq, an East India merchant, nearly two centuries ago, on which the squares are, indeed, ornamented, but not of different colours. The oldest representation of a chequered board in the East, that I have yet seen, is in a copy of the Shahnama, in the British Museum, transcribed about 150 years ago. It is a picture of the scene where Buzurjmihr is unfolding the mysteries of the game in the presence of Naushirawan and the Indian Ambassador. The Persian sage has a chequered board of sixty-four squares placed before him, with the pieces arranged thereon, and a white spot to the right."

   The "National Standard" of 1833 further relates:

      Daniel Sheldon, esq., an East India merchant, gave Dr. Hyde a fine chess-board, of great value aud antiquity, together with three sorts of chess-men used by the Indian princes aud nobles.
     This chess-board stauds upon four thick turned feet of ivory, and is so contrived, that, upon occasion, it will serve cither as a chess-board, or as a writing-desk. Within it are various cells to hold pens, pencils, and chess-men. On the outside are squares of tortoise-shell, of one colour only, divided by an ivory interlineation; and it need not be otherwise, for the distinction of black and while squares is only necessary for young players. The four gilded corners, of variegated work, are covered with crystal. The margins exhibit to the eye artificial flowers of coloured ivory, under a crystal transparent cover. The whole, iu short, is so curiously ornamented, that it would be tedious to describe every part of it.

     Below is the illumination from the Shahnama to which Forbes referred. The board he claimed to be chequered seems unchequered.

Naushirawan (center) and Buzurjmihr (right of board) from the Shahnama

     The "Shahnama," verses by the 11th century poet Firdowsi (Firdausi), has extant copies that were created during the 14th and 16th centuries. The above is from the latter.  This verse tells the story of how Shatranj was introduced into Persia by the Indian ambassador of the King of Hind who presented the elaborate board with pieces of ivory and ebony, as both a gift and test to see if the Persians were capable of unraveling the mysteries of the game. Buzurjmihr,the counselor to the ruler Naushirawan, did solve the riddle and was rewarded with a huge gold goblet filled with jewels.

another depiction from the Shahnama
     Mediæval Chess is the European adaption of Shatranj with similar rules up until the 13th century but with new pieces or the same pieces with different names.  The rules of play also gradually changed, but none of these things happened in a homogenized manner and there were many regional differences. Still, there is no doubt the Europeans were less interested in the static Muslim game and sought a faster, more exciting way of playing.

     There are references to Mediæval Chess before 1000 CE  but it's not until after 1100 CE that the references become somewhat more frequent, increasing dramatically after 1300 CE and by the next century the popularity of Chess far exceeded that of any similar game in history.

    What we know about the past is derived from a myriad of sources. We know Mediæval Chess was played on a chequered board even before the turn of the millenium from manuscripts found at the Stiftsbibliothek Einsiedeln of the Benedictine Abby in Switzerland, the earliest of which is dated 997 CE.   
    These manuscripts contain a short description of chess in what is referred to as the Einsiedeln Poem (one copy has the title "Versus de Scachis").  This is a very important chess document since, while the game in the poem is clearly the Muslim game of chess, it contains many modern features.  First, it avoids Ababic terms and the "nomenclature of the game is drawn from that of the state, and not from that of the army"  [Marilyn Yalom: "Birth of the Chess Queen"].  It presents chess as "not a dice game,"  and mentions a chequered board (as opposed to the Arabic uni-colored board).   The names of the pieces are given as rex (King), regina (Queen), comes or curvus (Count -today's Bishop), eques (Knight), rochus (Rook) and pedes (Pawn).   Notice the use of the term "regina."  This is the first mention of, what was previously known as "vizier"   although this Queen could only move one square diagonally.  A Pawn could be promoted to Queen (who was only marginally more powerful than a pawn) but only if the original Queen in off the board.

     This last feature of promotion is rather interesting since it is contrary to the rules of Shatranj which allow multiple viziers. The sensibilities of the Europeans wouldn't allow another Queen while the first one was still "alive."  But changing this Muslim rule also restricted the game, precisely the opposite to the European intentions of freeing up the game.  This conundrum was partially solved by renaming the promoted piece and giving it the same powers as the mediæval Queen. The first term we come across is "Domina."  This spread to different countries. Soon we find the Italians using "donna," the Spanish "dama" and the  French "dame."

     The above image is from the extensive Manesse Codex, 1304 CE, depicting the Margave Otto von Brandenburg playing chess on a chequered board.

     However, the illustration below- which many believe was created by Leonard Da Vinci himselffrom "De Ludo Scachorum" or "Schifanoia" by Luca Pacioli around 1500 CE, when the new chess was just becoming vogue, still shows a uni-colored board.


     Creators of Mediæval boards didn't seem particularly concerned with the colors of the squares and used a variety of contrasting colors to produce the chequered effect.

     The above set of pages is from the Cleopatra B.ix manuscripts from the Cotton room of the British library. One can readily see the almost haphazard array of chequered colors in just this single late 13th century source.

     This illumination from the "Romance of Arthur" (Bodleian MS 264; folio 127) shows three chessboards, each with different colored chequered patterns
     Unlike the boards used by the Muslims, Mediæval boards were made of more substantial material, usually wood or metal but sometimes stone.  Murray claims to have never seen a single reference to a board of soft material.  In Mediæval literature, chessboards were sometimes used as weapons.

      In "Ritual, Revenge and the Politics of Chess in Medieval Romance" by Dr. Megan G. Leitch (published in the compilation "Medieval Romance and Material Culture" edited by Nicholas Perkins), she wrote:

     "Why a chessboard makes such a welcome shield, and chess pieces such good weapons, certainly has something to do with the heft of these objects; however, the symbolism of chess seems highly suggestive...."

     "Renaud de Montaubin," c. 1300 CE, related a murder-by-chessboard incident [pictured above] involving Charlemagne's nephew, Berthelot who, while playing Renaud in a game, insulted him, after which Renaud "smote Berthelot vpon his hede so harde, that cloued hym to the teeth / and thus Bertholet fell doune deed to y grounde afore hym."

     The image below, from "Ogier de Damemarche" a 12th century poem by Raimbert de Paris, depicts a scene in which Ogier's son Baudoin or Baldwin had been challenged to a game of chess by Charlemagne's son, Charlot.  Baudoin won the game which angered Charlot, who insulted him.  This led to a fight in which Charlot killed Baudoin with a chessboard.  Ogier, the King of Denmark and a former Paladin of Charlemagne, sought justice, but was instead banished by Charlemagne.

     The 1300 CE romance, "Stanzaic Guy of Warwick," tells a similar tale of how a great sultan was entertaining Triamour, the Saracen king of Alexandria, and his son Fabour when Sadok, the sultan's son, challenged Fabour to a game of chess.  Sodok, losing the game, insulted Fabour and as things became intense.  Sadok struck Fabour with a chessboard, killing him.

     In "Perceval, le Conte du Graal" by Chrétien de Troyes, 1175 CE. Gauvain [Gawain] was enamored by a lady and was discovered in her company inside the castle of  her sister, Vergulat.  The townspeople, who were convinced Gauvain had killed the ladies' father, laid siege to the castle. Guvain used a heavy chessboard that was hanging on the wall from an iron ring as a shield while his lover hurled ivory chessman at the attackers.

     Murray gives us another example in the "British Chess Magazine" (May 1902), under the title "Some Stories of Mediaeval Chess"  :

     "There is a mediæval story—for the authenticity of which I will not vouchthat once upon a time Henry Beauclerc (1068-1135), the son of the Conqueror, played at chess before dinner with Louis, son of Philip, King of France, and mated him. Thereupon the French Prince in great wrath called Henry 'bastard's son' and threw the chessmen in his face. Henry seized the chessboard and dealt Louis a smashing blow and would have killed him there and then, if his own brother Robert had not intervened. Robert and Henry fled to Potoise, in Normandy, pursued hard by officers of the French King, and the memory of that game affected the relationships between France and England all the lifetime of Henry Beauclerc."  
     The mediæval boards were generally large and heavy, making all these stories at least logistically believable .  Below are some examples of board used in Mediæval Chess.

Board by Hans Sebald Beham of Nuremburg c. 1520-40 CE. of mother-of-pearl, ivory and metal.
(image from Murray's "History of Chess")

Digitalized by the "Gothic Ivories Project" at The Courtauld Institute of Art, London, accessed on May 30, 2016.
16th century game board from Flanders (housed at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence), made of ivory, ebony, bone and silver with one side for Chess with the reverse for Backgammon. (about 26"x26"x2.5").

15th century Burgundy - one side Chess board, one side Trictrac board.
housed at the Museo Nazionale Bargello
"© KIK-IRPA, Brussels"

An early 14th century Venetian board of Inlaid wood, jasper, chalcedony, bone, painted clay reliefs, miniatures under rock crystal.
One side is a Chess board, the other side a Backgammon board.
It's housed in the Kunstkammer Collection at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

     One final example is that of the board used in the somewhat obscure Courier Chess game.
     Murray believed Courier Chess arrived in northern Europe during the 13th century. It vied with Mediæval Chess but lost out everywhere other than Ströbeck, Germany where it became the game of choice for centuries.  The Courier board was a massive 12x8 squares.
The above pen sketch was made on July 28, 1661 by Jan de Braÿ.

note: I first published this in May of 2016 on "Chess News and Views," at the time a nascent chess website operated by Davide Nastacio.  Since the website seems to have been down for several months, apparently abandonned, I decided to republish the article here.

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