From Shatranj to chess. The female irruption

From Shatranj to chess. The female irruption

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The Queen is the most powerful piece of the chessboard, it is the one that dominates more squares, the one that can arrives to any place in only one o two moves. A piece that is definite, dangerous, sure, agile, protective, female, murderer…. But not always has been like this.

The game of chess such us we know today, has just over 500 years. The first known treaty on modern chess was “Llibre dels jochs partits dels schacs en nombre de 100” by Francesch Vicent, printed in Valencia in 1495. In this treaty is shown some games with the movements of the Queen as today. The Queen replaced a much weak piece called Fers. This fact, with other changes like the transformation of the elephant to bishop, the initial possibility of the pawns going forward two squares, the en passant capture and the castling, mean the start of the modern chess history.

The game of chess evolved of Shatranj, which comes from another similar game, the Chaturanga, that was probably invented in the 6th century in India.

Chaturanga means four (Chatur) and limb (anga). It refers to the four classes in the Indian army at the time: infantry (pawns), cavalry (knights), elephantry (bishops) and tanks (rooks)… There was not the Queen.

We don’t know the exact rules of the Chaturanga, although some historians claim that the movements of the pieces were the same o very similar to the Shatranj ones.

The Chaturanga, the grand father of chess

In the Chaturanga there were 4 players. The factions located in diagonal were allied and there were special moves which provided certain benefits.  In some regions it was played with a dice, incorporating a random element that moves away this game of the basic idea of chess as we know.

The Chaturanga happened in Persia and turned into Shatranj where only two players took part. The factions allied merged in a single army and the left kink tuned into Vizier (the minister) who many years later will become a Queen.

The Shatranj spread successfully worldwide Islamic taking roots among the Arab people and the game entered into de history. The Arabs created a significant literary works and also some collections of problems called Mansubat. The first written treatises date from the 8th century. During the 9th and 10th centuries, the Caliphs, rulers of the Muslim world, had Shatranj’s professionals. 

The Vizier of the  Persian Shatranj was renamed the Fers (minister) but the piece remained weak and one day would become a woman and give a new dimension to chess.

  (From “The immortal game” by David Shenk)

The Shah, the Faras and the Rukh correspond to the King, the Knight and the Rook, and they moved just like in chess today.

The Pīl and the Fers (predecessors of the Bishop and the Queen), had different chess moves from moves today. The Pīl (the elephant) was a primitive bishop. It moved two positions diagonally in any direction and could jump as does the knight. The Fers (the Counsellor) would be the future Queen. His power was very limited. It moved one position diagonally in any direction.

The Baidaqs corresponded to pawns and they moved like pawns in today chess with some differences: There was no initial movement of two squares and when a Baidaq reached the last role it could be only transformed into a Fers.

The actors of Shatranj

Even though the movements of the pieces where quite similar to modern chess, the Shantranj was a game slower, and with a high number of games finished in draw. However it gave equivalents chess positions like today. As an example, look at this Mansubat composed by the famous master al-Aldi in 840. A former simple problem, but it has its charm. As there is no Pīl nor Fers the initial position and sequence of movements can be applied to modern chess. 

You can consult about a collection mansubats (Shantranj problems) here:

As an added curiosity, the Arabs were also who invented the blindly game and simultaneous games.

The Shatranj came to Europa through the Iberian Peninsula before the 11th century and spread quickly. It was in Europa where Shatranj became a modern chess. By the 12th century a new rule accelerated the opening: the possibility of move a pawn forward two squares in the first movement.

But the big changes were not until the 15th century. The bishop passed to dominate across all the diagonal, though now it could not jump over a piece as Shatranj’s elephant did. The Fers was substituted by the Queen and added the movements of the Rook and the new Bishop. The pawns could change to any piece. By that time was also set the castling up and the en passant capture, that ending to outline what today we know as the chess.

The new game became much more dynamic and interesting. The development concept took shape. With the new Bishops and the Queen grew the power of both sides and it opened new tactics and strategic possibilities. The castling, a central move for a good defence, the rule of King drowned that equals the possibilities of the rivals at the end of the games, the possibility to get a Queen that gives a high potential to pawns, are new concepts that started a way.

The first written references of the new chess appear in a poems book published in Valencia in 1475, "Scachs d'amor". n the verse 54 there is a reference to the modern movement of the Queen. 

«Mas nostre joch de nou vol enremar se de stil novell e strany a quien be.l mira»
(Our chess want to adorn themselves with a new and surprising style)

It refers to a new piece, inspired by Queen Isabel the Catholic, who was granted with the sword the sceptre and the throne. On the right site of the page of a copy of the time, is described the new movement specifically:

«Diu que la reyna vagie axi com tots, sino Cavall» 
(It says that the Queen had the movement of all the pieces except the movement of the Knight)

The poem transcribes in 64 verses, the first documented game of modern chess, that face up Castellvi and Vinyoles under the arbitration of the priest Fenollar, who certified the legality of the game under the new rules. 

A Queen with power would have been and unthinkable in the Muslim world. The woman had not role in the battle of Islamic Shatranj. But in medieval Europe in the late 15th, where the bestialities of the time lived together with the romantic  affairs between ladies and gentlemen, the Queen acquired a respect, a high profile and a strength that coincided with a deep transformation of the game. The female burst supposed a new sensitivity in this area of 8 x 8 that we know today as chess. 

More information

The Shatranj:
The Chaturanga:
Shatranj puzzles:
Literature and Shatranj:
Shatranj online: and

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