Stories, legends...or more?
On the origins of chess – Shahnama, a Persian manuscript
The Persian manuscript Shahnama (“Book of Kings”) refers to some speculative evidence on the origins of chess. Shahnama recalls the legend of the sixth century of how a raj of India sent an envoy laden with precious gifts as a tribute to a powerful Persian king, Shah Khusrau Nushirwan, with a message presented on silk. One of the gifts was a magnificent game board, complete with pieces. The message contained a challenge to the wise men at the Persian court: they had to discover how this Indian game was played. If they succeeded, the raja would substantially increase his tribute to the shah; on the other hand, if the wise men failed to solve the puzzle, then the payment would be reversed and a substantial tribute would be demanded by the raja. The challenge was accepted. The Shah’s wisest vizier, Bozorgmehr, studied the problem for a day and a night before he announced his solution. “The board is the battlefield, the shah takes a position, with his army on either flank, and his vizier by his side; the soldiers line up in front, positioned ready to advance. The elephants are posted to the shah’s side. Next to them are the war horses and on either side of these are the chariots. A complete army display in combat formation.” Bozorgmehr also indicated the move that each piece could make. He had won the challenge and the Indian raja had to pay the promised tribute to the shah. Source: G. Williams (2000) Master Pieces.
The Dilaram Mate – A Thousand Year-Old Chess Problem
An Arabic chess problem (also called mansuba) that became well known is the “Dilaram Mate”. Dilaram – which literally means ‘heart’s ease’ – was the wife of an Arabic vizier, who in turn was a passionate lover of chess. Once, having lost all his property, he staked his own wife Dilaram on the game. The game – not uncommon for him, apparently – went poorly for the vizier. Finally, in an apparent hopeless position, when it seemed that white was threatened with an inescapable mate, Dilaram, who was following the battle, screamed to the vizier “Sacrifice both rooks and save me”. And indeed, in the position of the mansuba, the white pieces realise a beautiful winning combination thanks to a double rook sacrifice. Source: I.M. Linder (1979) Chess in Old Russia.
Destiny of Commander George Washington – The Battle of Trenton (1776)
A story that chess played a fortuitous cameo part in the destiny of Commander George Washington. The war against the British was not proceeding too well before the battle of Trenton, New Jersey, in 1776. Washington decided to attack his enemies and surprise them by crossing the Delaware in appalling weather conditions. A British sympathiser sent his son with a note the evening before the battle to warn the British army. Colonel Johann Rall was so engrossed in a game of chess that he carelessly pocketed the note. After the battle, the colonel was found mortally wounded, the note still in his pocket, unread. The battle of Trenton is regarded by many historians as the turning point in the American Revolutionary War. Source: G. Williams (2000) Master Pieces.
Why are Chinese chessmen different?
A Chinese legend tells how Emperor Wen Ti came across a group of travellers playing a new game, chess. He noticed they were using carved figures of a rajah, or Emperor. He was outraged that anyone would use an effigy of such an exalted personage as an emperor in a mere game. He orders the immediate execution of the players – as so often happened – and decreed that henceforth, no game should be played with images carved in recognisable forms. This is sometimes cited for explaining the simple form of the games’ pieces. Source: G. Williams (2000) Master Pieces.