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Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

Early European Chess References

Around 997 AD, the Einsiedeln Poem, also known as ‘Versus de scachis’ was written in Latin. Only two known copies exist today. It was found on two manuscripts from Einsielden, Switzerland, written by a German monk at the Benedictine Einsiedeln Abbey (built in 934 AD). The poem’s 98 lines described chess (scacci), its rules, and some basic strategies. The work is considered the earliest known reference to chess in a European text. The poem mentions the chess queen (regina) for the first time ever, replacing the old vizier piece. The poem also described the 64-square chess board with two different colors for the first time. The piece that is today known as the bishop was represented by a count, or aged one.

The Einsiedeln Poem began by praising chess as a unique game that did not require dice or a gambling bet. The description was meant to counter religious opposition to games of chance and gambling. The poem then described everything one needed to know in order to play the game. The 32 pieces, 16 on each side, were colored white and red (not black). The pieces in the poem were: rex (king), regina (queen), comes or curvus (count), eques (knight), rochus or marchio (rook), and pedes (pawn).

The first English translation of the poem was made by Dr. Henry Aspinwall Howe of McGill College at Montreal in 1878. The poem was originally published by Professor Hagen in the Swiss newspaper Der Bund at Berne, with a German translation.

The Latin romance “Ruodlieb.” was written around 1030 AD. It is the first reference to chess in German literature. Portions of the poem were discovered in the Benedictine Abbey of Tegernsee (founded in 746 AD) in Upper Bavaria, Germany. The poem was probably written by a monk named Froumunt of the Tegernsee Abbey. The poem was translated by Baron Tassilo von Heydebrand und der Lasa (1818-1899). It described the adventures of a medieval knight named Ruodlieb. He was a youth of noble birth who goes out to seek his fortune. Chess (ludus scachorum) featured in one setting when Ruodlieb was force to play for stakes with the court of a foreign king. Ruodlieb has been regarded as an ancestor of the German novel. The poem was left unfinished. The manuscript was cut up and used for binding books. Fragments of the poem were only gradually discovered and pieced together in the early 19th century. Some fragments were discovered in 1838 under the binding of some old books in the Abbey of Tegernsee. These fragments were sent to the Munich Library, which has 34 leaves of the poem.

Ruodlieb serves a powerful king. At the conclusion of a war with another king, peace was arranged by Ruodlieb. Ruodlieb spends some time in the enemy’s camp where he plays chess with the Viceroy. Ruodlieb wins most of the games, and only loses when he deliberately plays to lose. After five days of playing chess with the Viceroy, Ruodlieb is then admitted to the king’s presence. Ruodlieb then describes what happens next.

“The king, calling for the tabula (chess board), orders a chair to be placed for himself, and orders me to sit on the couch opposite to play with him. This I strongly refuse, saying: ‘It is a terrible thing for a poor man to play with a king.’ But when I see that I cannot withstand him, I agree to play, intending to be beaten by him. I say: ‘What profit is it to poor me to be beaten by a king? But I fear, Sir, that you will soon be wrath with me, if fortune help me to win.’ The king laughed and answered jestingly: ‘There is no need, my dear man, to be afraid about that: even if I never win, I shall not become more angry. But know clearly that I wish to play with you, for I wish to learn what unknown moves you will make.’ Immediately both king and I moved carefully, and, as luck would have it, I won three times, to the great surprise of many of his nobles. He lays down a wager against me, and would not let me lay down anything against him. He gives what he had wagered, so that not one coin remained. Many follow, anxious to avenge him, proposing bets and despising my bets, sure of losing nothing and trusting much to the uncertainty of fortune. They help one another, and do harm by helping too much. They are hindered while they consult variously; through their disputes I win quickly three times, for I would not play anymore. They now wished to give me what they had wagered. At first I refused, for I thought it disgraceful to enrich myself at their expense, and to impoverish them. I said: ‘I am not accustomed to win anything by play.’ They say: ‘While you are with us, live as we do; when you get home again, live there as you like.”

Around 1120, a poem, The Song of Chess, written by the Spanish rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) described each chess piece. The pieces still resembled the Arab style of play, which did not have the modern chess queen. The elephant did not move like today’s bishop piece, but as confined to three spaces diagonally at a time.

I will sing a song of battle
Planned in days long past and over.
Men of skill and science set it
On a plain of eight divisions,
And designed in squares all chequered.
Two camps face each one the other,
And the kings stand by for battle,
And twixt these two is the fighting.
Bent on war the face of each is,
Ever moving or encamping,
Yet no swords are drawn in warfare,
For a war of thoughts their war is.
They are known by signs and tokens
Sealed and written on their bodies;
And a man who sees them thinketh,
Edomites and Ethiopians
Are these two that fight together.
And the Ethiopian forces
Overspread the field of battle,
And the Edomites pursue them.

First in battle the foot-soldier
Comes to fight upon the highway,
Ever marching straight before him,
But to capture moving sideways,
Straying not from off his pathway,
Neither do his steps go backwards;
He may leap at the beginning
Anywhere within three chequers.
Should he take his steps in battle
Far away unto the eighth row,
Then a Queen to all appearance
He becomes and fights as she does.
And the Queen directs her moving
As she will to any quarter.
Backs the elephant or advances,
Stands aside as ’twere an ambush;
As the Queen’s way, so is his way,
But o’er him she hath advantage,
He stands only in the third rank.
Swift the horse is in the battle,
Moving on a crooked pathway;
Ways of his are ever crooked;
Mid the Squares, three form his limit.

Straight the Wind moves o’er the war-path
In the field across or lengthwise;
Ways of crookedness he seeks not,
But straight paths without perverseness.
Turning every way the King goes,
Giving aid unto his subjects;
In his actions he is cautious,
Whether fighting or encamping.
If his foe come to dismay him,
From his place he flees in terror,
Or the Wind can give him refuge.
Sometimes he must flee before him;
Multitudes at times support him;
And all slaughter each the other,
Wasting with great wrath each other.
Mighty men of both the sovereigns
Slaughtered fall, with yet no bloodshed.
Ethiopia sometimes triumphs,
Edom flees away before her;
Now victorious is Edom;
Ethiopia and her sovereign
Are destroyed in battle.

Should a king in the destruction
Fall within the foeman’s power,
He is never granted mercy,
Neither refuge nor deliv’rance,
Nor a flight to refuge-city.
Judged by foes, and lacking rescue,
Though not slain he is checkmated.
Hosts about him all are slaughtered,
Giving life for his deliverance.
Quenched and vanished is their glory,
For they see their lord is smitten;
Yet they fight again this battle,
For in death is resurrection.

–Bill Wall


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