A note on Ethiopian Chess

Ethiopia deserves an honourable place in the great history of chess which appears to have been traditionally popular in court circles and among the nobility. The game was known in Amharic as Sentherej, a name borrowed from the Arabs who called it Shatranj, a corruption of the Persian Chatrang, itself derived from the Sanskrit chaturanga.

In the early sixteenth century the Emperor Lebua Dengel (1508-1540) is said to have played chess as well as cards with the Venetian artist Gregorio or Hieronimo Bicini, as was related by the Ethiopian ecclesiastic, Brother Thomas of Ganget, in his conversations with the Italian Alessandro Zorzi.

Sahle Sellassie, the early nineteenth century King of Shoa, was another notable chess player. The French travellers Comkes and Tamisier, who visited Ethiopia in 1835-37, relate that he used to play in the evening with one of his courtiers, who, they allege, always took care to allow his master to win.2 Sahle Sellassie’s habit of playing chess is also referred to in Gabre Sellassie’s chronicle of the reign of Menelik II where it is stated that the latter sovereign declared that his ancestor had prophesied the establishment of Addis Ababa while he was at play, sitting under a tree in the Filwoha area.

A quarter of a century earlier the British traveller Henry Salt, writing of his visit to Tigre in 1809-10, says that Ras Walde Sellassie, the ruler of that province, was a great chess man. He points out, however, that the game then played in Ethiopia ” differed more from ours than we at first supposed.” Ethiopian chess in fact was the old game as it had existed in other parts of the world before the changes which occurred in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

In the olden days there was no Queen, instead there was a piece called farz or firz, also known as farzan, farzin and farzie, signifying a ” counsellor,” ” minister ” or ” general.” The name was subsequently Latinized into farzie or fercia, and rendered into French as fierce or fiege, after which it is supposed to have been called vierge, or ‘virgin,’ and is thought by extension to have become a woman and hence a Queen. Another theory was that as the pawn was promoted on reaching the eighth square to become a farz, this piece was conceived of like the dame in draughts, and for this reason became known as a Queen. The farz traditionally moved only one square diagonally and was consequently the weakest piece on the board, the Queen’s present immense power only being acquired in the middle of the fifteenth century.

Salt suggests that in early nineteenth century Ethiopia the game was still more or less played as of old for he says: ” the Queen moves diagonally, and only one square at a time.” He adds that ” the Castles either have not the same power in the European games, or the players do not make use of them so frequently, nor do they seem to value a Castle as much as a Knight.”

The Emperor Theodore’s friend and adviser, Walter Plowden, who wrote half a century later, has left a more detailed account of the game as he saw it played in the middle of the nineteenth century. He says that the chessboard, which had of course 64 squares as in Europe, was generally made of a piece of red cloth with squares marked out by strips of ivory black sewn at equal distances. This fact would suggest that the game, or at least the type of chessboard, was introduced after the thirteenth century because before that time the board is said to have been of only one colour. The chessmen, Plowden continues, were made of ivory, hippopotamus tusk or horn. Those of ivory or hippopotamus tusk were ” ponderous and massive,” while those of horn were much lighter. All, however, were simply made, without ornament or fancy work, their differences ” being just sufficient to mark the distinction of the pieces.”

Describing the powers and arrangements of the pieces he explains that the derr or Castles, stood at each corner of the board and moved exactly like Castles in other countries. Next to them, as elsewhere, stood the Knights who corresponded exactly to Knights as he knew them. Next to them came the pheel, or Bishop. This term was borrowed from the Arabic fil, a variant of the Persian pil, the word for elephant. According to Plowden this piece moved obliquely, like an ordinary Bishop, but could only advance over three squares including its own; it could not stop at the King’s second square, even if vacant; it could, however, pass over any interposing piece on that square or any other.

Turning to the centre of the pieces Plowden states that the King, or Negus, had the same power as in Europe but was placed slightly differently, the two Kings facing each other exactly instead of being on different colours.

The furz (or counsellor above described) stood next to the King. He confirms that it had only the very limited power of moving one square in any direction, and could only take obliquely. The pawns, or medaks, were moved, he said, as in Europe and there was no obligation to take them. On reaching the eighth square they acquired the powers of a furz as was the case, as we have seen, in the old game.

Discussing the technique of the game, Plowden says, that it started in a “a singular manner” and one which often enabled the good player to gain a decisive advantage. Both parties, he says, moved as many pieces as they could lay their hands on, presumably not in alternate order but simultaneously, until the first pawn was taken. Though at this stage of the game a stranger might suppose there was great confusion the player in fact keenly watched the moves of his opponent, and changed his tactics accordingly, frequently withdrawing the moves he had already made and substituting others so as to be in the most favourable position at the moment of the first take whether his own or his adversary’s. After the first piece was taken the game proceeded more or Ethiopian Chess—less as in Europe. The convention was that the move was not considered settled until the player had placed the piece on the square and removed his hands from it.

Another distinctive feature of Ethiopian chess was that all forms of checkmate were not considered equally honourable. Checkmate by Castles or Knights we are told was ” considered unworthy of the merest tyro,” that is to say these pieces, though assisting in throwing the net round the enemy, were supposed not to deal the fatal stroke though the use of the Knight was ” just endurable.”
Checkmate with a single Bishop was ” tolerably good,” but with two was applauded. Mating with one, two, or especially three or four pawns was considered the ne plus ultra of the game.

Checkmate was considered particularly meritorious if the adversary had not been denuded of all his superior pieces, and in
fact it was’”almost necessary to leave him with two,” for it was customary for him when reduced to one, say Bishop or Knight, to start counting his moves, it being expected that the King should be mated before he had made seven moves with that piece. This piece moreover, could not be taken as the game was considered drawn as soon as one side had lost all its capital pieces without having been checkmated. Obstruction by the last of these pieces frequently made it impossible to finish the game in the time allowed or obliged the player to ” give an ignominious mate ” with a Castle of Knight which was ” hailed almost as a triumph by the foe.” A good player, therefore, found it advisable to leave his adversary two good pieces, such as a Castle and Bishop or Castle and Knight, for if he left him a furz and Bishop, for example, he would probably be forced to take one in self-defence.

Source: History and Principles of Ethiopian Chess, RICHARD PANKHURST Journal of Ethiopian Studies Vol. 9, No. 2 (JULY 1971), pp. 149-172 (24 pages) Published By: Institute of Ethiopian Studies