top of page
  • Nina Sorokina

A Game that is more than a Game

In the introduction to the book "Quaternity Chess", Arif Ali-Shah wrote that this game always retained some secret within it - something magical, even mystical, occupying the minds of kings, generals and mystics alike.

“…A Celtic legend narrates of a magical chess game played by King Arthur and his knight Owen.

As soon as the parties began to move the pieces made of gold, a hot battle broke out between their armies, with the side of the winning player overcoming the other army. Finally, Arthur grabbed the pieces and squeezed them so hard that they turned into dust and the battle ceased…”

Such legends remind us that chess was originally a tool of magic. Sinologist Joseph Needham associates ​​the origin of chess with ancient astrology and divination. Needham describes a 6th Century Chinese divination device, where pieces symbolising various celestial bodies were thrown onto a specially-marked board and then moved based on certain rules on a roll of a dice.

In a similar instrument, two boards were used - the bottom one was square, on top of which a rotating round board representing the heaven was set. The square board symbolized the earth and was marked with various symbols, including 64 hexagrams of the Book of Changes, the I-Ching. Needham suggests that these tools were possible predecessors of chess in India and China.

The oldest legend about the invention of chess, recorded in the Indian epic Ramayana, describes how the king of Lanka, the ten-headed demon Ravana, invented chess when Rama's army besieged his capital. Is it possible that by placing the pieces on the board and assigning each chessman a role, Ravana performed a magical ritual? After all, was he not a "ten-headed demon" with a superior intellect and vast knowledge?

The earliest version of Indian chess was called chaturanga, meaning "four-parted" in Sanskrit. It was played by four players (two against two) with pieces of different colors, representing four alchemical elements - fire, air, water and earth. The pieces were the same as now – the king, the elephant (bishop), the horse (knight), the rook and the pawns, with the exception of the queen.

The moves of the elephant (bishop) and of the rook differed from those known to us.

The 8x8 board at that time was single-colored. Which piece is to be moved was determined by rolling of a four-sided dice with numbers from 1 to 4. Thus, in proto-chess, the role of chance pertinent to divinatory devices was still intact.

The chess game was brought from India to Persia in 6-7 centuries BC, and, apparently, already in the version for two players with 16 figures for each, black and white, featuring a new piece - the wazir, as there could only be one king in each set. No dice was used, the game became purely intellectual. The board was divided into black and white cells. From Persia, the chess game spread to Arabia, where it became very popular, and further, through Moorish Andalusia it penetrated into Western Europe. There, the wazir became the queen, the elephant turned into the bishop, the rook into the castle, and the horse into the knight.

In Europe, different chess variants were in circulation simultaneously. Of particular interest is an esoteric version of four-player chess, called the "four seasons’ game", the rules of which were described in the "Book of Chess" attributed to the king of Castile, Alphonse the Wise, the patron of the Troubadours. The game was played by four, and the pieces placed in the four corners of the board moved around in a circle, mimicking the transition of the Sun. The pieces were green, red, black and white, corresponding to the four seasons, four elements, and four temperaments (sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic and melancholic). A standard 8x8 chessboard was used, with two diagonals drawn through the central 16 squares. The Troubadours were a Sufi school, based in the Moorish Spain and spread into other Western European regions. The Sufis, wrote Arif Ali-Shah in the “Quaternity Afghan Chess”, believe that chess served as a teaching tool, but the way this tool was originally used, and what it taught remains unclear. Like the Gurdjieff movements (sacred dances), like the original forms of yoga, chess was used as an instrument.

Perhaps, here and now is the time and the place to discover the many facets of its function…

Nina Sorokina

bottom of page