Thursday, February 6, 2020

The Persian Chess Shatranj

Shatranj is the direct descendant of Chaturanga and had become popular in the Middle East and Persia for almost 1000 years. More so, the modern chess is also believed to have gradually developed from Shatranj.

The term Shatranj was derived from the Sanskrit Chaturanga, where chatu means four and anga means arm. The game also came to Persia from India during the early centuries of the Christian era. One of the earliest references to chess found in Persia is the book "Karnamak-i Artaxshir-i Papakan", which was written around the 3rd to 7th century.

The game Shatranj adapted much of the rules of Chaturanga, including the basic sixteen piece structure. However, in later variants of the game, the darker squares were eventually engraved. The Shatranj also spread westward and achieved popularity and body of literature on game strategy and tactics from the 8th century and onwards.

The Rules of Shatranj

Initially, the setup of the game is the same as modern chess, although the position of the king of white shah, on the left or right side was not entirely established. Shatranj is played using pieces, such as:
the king or shah, the rukh or rook, the fers or counselor, the pill or elephant, the faras or horse and the baidak or pawns.

Almost all the movements of the Shatranj pieces are similar to the modern chess with the exception of the two square movement of the pawn during the first move. There are also other differences of Shatranj compared to the modern chess, such as: the castling, which was not allowed but later invented. In the event of stalemating, the opposing king will result in a win. More so, if a player captures the entire opponent’s pieces apart from the king, that player will normally be declared the winner. However, if the opponent could capture the last piece on the next move, the game will result in a draw.

The game play of Shatranj includes the openings. These were usually called tabbiyya or battle array, when translated. However, due to the slow piece progress in the game, the precise sequence of moves was unimportant. Instead, the players aimed to reach a specific position, mostly ignoring the play of their opponent.

Additionally, the pieces used for Shatranj had values, which used a monetary system. Such values include:
one dirhem for the rook, two-third dirhem for the knight, one-fourth dirhem for the alfil, one-third to three-eighth dirhem for the fers, one-fourth dirhem for the central pawn, one-sixth to one-fifth dirhem for the alfil’s or knight’s pawn and one-eighth dirhem for the rook’s pawn.

These values were established and estimated by as-Suli, who was the strongest Shantranj player during the reign of al-Muktafi caliph, and al-Adli.

Early Beginnings of Shatranj

There are several works written about Shatranj during the Golden Age of Arabic. These recorded the analysis of opening games, knight’s tour, chess problems and other subjects that are commonly found in modern chess books.

Shatranj players who have the highest class were also called grandees or aliyat. There were only a few players that fell under this category and the most well known are: Abun-Naam, Rabrab, and Jabir al-Kulfi, who were the three aliyat players during the al-Ma’mun caliph rule; Al-Lajlaj who was a great master of Shatranj; and Ar-Razi who won 847 games against powerful Shatranj opponents.