First of all, it’s not chess it’s shatranj. And yes the rules are different. In chess, the queen is the terror of the board. In shatranj nothing is more powerful than the rook. The humble piece that sits next to the king is the farzin, a wretched civil servant that can move only one square diagonally. There are more differences, but this isn’t about modern chess versus authentic shatranj, it’s a confession. We Iranians cheated in the very first game of shatranj ever played.
In our defense, we didn’t start the whole affair, the Indians did. We were minding our own business when they showed up with thousands of camels, elephants and horses laden with treasure for our king Kesra Nushin Ravan. The Indians could have just paid our tribute and left us alone until next year’s extortion money was due. As I said we liked to mind our own business. But the Indians had come up with an imaginative way of saying, “We’re not happy paying you.
Their creative and non-violent protest came in the form of a fetching eight by eight square board populated by little figurines that looked like horses, elephants, chariots, kings and such. If the sages in the Iranian court could fathom the rules of this game then the Indian maharajah would keep paying us protection money. If our best and brightest failed, then this showed we weren’t as smart as the Indians. And who’d want to pay tribute to dummies.
Of course the Indians knew the score. If Iranians couldn’t figure it out, they’d just say, “Pay us or else” and the maharajah would quickly pay, nothing lost. But at least he would have the satisfaction of proving we were less refined than they. For a nation who values culture as much as India, that’s worth a few high fives.
Kesra Nushin Ravan called his genius grand vizier, Bozorjmehr, and showed him the game. Bojorjmehr could see right away that the rules of the game cannot be inferred from just the pieces and the board. We can see this because modern chess and shatranj have different rules, yet they can be played with exactly the same board and pieces. So Bozorjmehr cheated by making up his own rules. I’m sure he also sent spies out to find the real rules, which he kept in mind. But in proper imperialist fashion he thought to himself, “I don’t care how they’ve been playing the game so far; this is the way they’re going to be playing it from now on. Serves them right for getting uppity.” Naturally the Indians had to fake amazement at how the king’s grand vizier had “figured out” their game.
So while it is true that the chessboard and chess pieces were invented in India for the purpose of playing an Indian game called chaturanga, it was an Iranian who invented shatranj, the immediate ancestor of modern chess. Bozorjmehr’s rule changes were backed by Persian military power, and at the time nobody dared call that cheating. Iranian shatranj rules later spread to Europe, and just about the time when Spain was to become the first modern global empire, they (along with the Italians) changed the rules again to pretty much what we see today. In fact the rook, knight, and king move in exactly the same way. The only difference in pawn move is that in shatranj the piece is not ever allowed to move two squares, and there is no en passant. The puny farzin was replaced by a domineering queen, and the elephantine feal (Peal if you’re a Parsi-not-Farsi activist) traded its ability to leap over pieces for longer-range action, in the process being ordained a bishop.
This story about shatranj relies on myth and speculation. There’s no historical proof that Bozorjmehr invented the rules of shatranj. But encoded in those rules is an intriguing peculiarity that may be a sign from him. Unlike others in the Persian court, Bozorjmehr was probably not born into nobility. In the Sassanian dynasty’s quasi-caste system he must have defied astounding odds to make it all the way to the top to become vizier. Which rule of chess does this remind you of?
1. Here are the original rules of shatranj.
2. Here’s a Java script that plays authentic shatranj. If you succeed in loading and running it (big hassle), you will see that it is a very poor player. But it gives you an idea of the delicate feel of shatranj as compared with modern chess.
3. Here is a shatranj puzzle, which for some reason remained unsolved for a thousand years. It has reportedly been solved in the last couple of decades.
4. The name spellings of king and vizier are taken from Dick Davis’ Shahnameh. Ferdowsi tells this story differently with a sanitized narrative.