Senterej – Ethiopian chess with a flying start

by ChessBase
3/31/2009 – The setup is the same as Western chess, with most of the rules in place. But what is really special about Senterej is that at the start, before the first capture is made, both players can move their pieces as many times as they like, without concern for the opponent's moves. Even spectators can intervene. Ethiopian Empress Taytu Betul was one of the stars of this cheerful African game.

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Senterej – Ethiopian chess with a flying start

By Dr. René Gralla, Hamburg/Germany

Historians and experts in cultural studies always look towards India, Persia and Arabia – and some even turn to China, more recently – when they search for the origins of chess. But with regard to Africa it is a sobering fact that up to now the science of chess has stubbornly ignored that continent which is the cradle of mankind.

Africa remains a white spot in the relevant publications so far. That is deplorable since Africa has contributed its own creative and very entertaining version to the universe of chess: the Ethiopian variant "Senterej" that has emerged parallel to the hitherto well-known lines of development.

It is thanks to the British historian Professor Richard Pankhurst that the web community can now learn a little bit more about this thrilling game, on the Tezeta web site. The following survey on history and rules of Senterej is mainly based on the findings of this expert from the UK. Born in London in 1927, Professor Pankhurst today lives and works in Ethiopia where he has founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at the University of Addis Ababa.

One of the endearing aspects of Senterej is the fact that beginners do not have to face any major problem to find their way in the scenario of African chess. It is the familiar battleground of 64 squares where the two armies clash. You have only to get used to a different colour scheme: instead of "White" versus "Black", it is the "Green" King who wants to defeat the "Golden" Monarch. Moreover the board is not checkered, but uniformly red with fine blue lines marking the squares.

Apart from the somewhat different visual impression in Senterej, the majority of pieces move the same way their counterparts do in Chess, i.e. they actually conform to the rules of FIDE. The foregoing is valid with regard to the "castle" (in Ethiopian "der"), that rumbles along like the modern rook, with regard to the "horse" (in Ethiopian: "ferese"), which is the equivalent of our knight, and more or less with regard to the "king", or the "negus", as the Ethiopians call him, and which has the same power as his European colleague, except for one difference: there is no privilege of castling in Senterej.

The student of Senterej has to make himself familiar with two special pieces, though. Whereas the Western Ruler can count on a powerful Amazon standing by his side, namely the queen, the Ethiopian king must get along with a weak "Fers" or "Minister". This counsellor moves diagonally, but only one square at a time; therefore the "Fers" is the same as the "Vizier" in the Arabic game of Shatranj. This is a clear indication of the fact that the Ethiopians adopted Shatranj and transformed it into the African brand of chess they call Senterej.

The Arab connection becomes manifest if we analyse the move of the Ethiopian "Elephant". The "Fil" or "Saba" corresponds to the bishop in western chess. The African Elephant moves diagonally by either trotting or jumping to the second square; as a result the "Fil" of Senterej corresponds to the Elephant of Arabic Shatranj.

The heritage from the Golden Age of Arab Chess at the Court of the Caliphs at Baghdad finds expression in the pawn of Senterej as well. The Ethiopian "Medeq" is modelled on the pawn of Shatranj and marches forward one square per move, no matter if it is the starting position or not. Both in the Arab Shatranj and in Ethiopian Seneterj, there is no initial two-step pawn move, consequently there is no “en passant” capture option. An Ethiopian "Medeq" that reaches the base line of the opposing force can be replaced either by a Minister, the "Fers", or by a Castle, a Horse or an Elephant, provided the piece has already been captured by the enemy.

The starting-out position of Senterej is the same as in western chess, but with three modifications: Elephants replace the Bishops; the green Negus, which corresponds to the white king, stands on e1, while the golden Negus is placed on d8; and the green Minister occupies d1, whereas the golden Minister stands on e8.

So far, so good. But there is one unique feature of Senterej that contrasts strongly with all known variants of our eternal game: a match of Ethiopian Chess starts with the “Werera" (pronounced "way-ray-ruh"), the "mobilization phase", during which the players move as fast as they wish without waiting for their opponent to move. Thus both players may operate simultaneously. As Richard Pankhurst points out, in a brief study: Werera simulates "the marshalling of troops and advance, or, as one might put it, the deployment of forces for an attack in progress" on the chessboard (see: "History and Principles of Ethiopian Chess", in: Journal of Ethiopian Studies, 1971, XI, no. 2, p. 149 pp., p. 163).

After Werera has started the opponents move as many pieces as they can lay their hands on. Though at this stage a stranger might suppose that there is great confusion on the board, Pankhurst reports that the duellists in fact keenly watch the moves of their adversary and change their tactics accordingly, frequently withdrawing the moves they have already made and substituting others so as to be in the most favourable position at the moment of the first capture.

The mobilization phase ends when the first capture occurs. After that the players move alternately as in the modern game. The big advantage of Werera is that it creates randomized initial positions, which is why it makes no sense to memorize long sequences of openings. Senterej gives ample scope for creativity at the beginning of the game, unlike western chess, where a deep study of openings theory is a prerequisite to tournament success. There is no advantage to be gained from that in Senterej.

Ruins of the Castle of Fasilidas, Gonder, Ethiopia

Traditionally Senterej has been the favourite pastime of the Ethiopian nobility. Hence it is not surprising that there is a relentless code of honour with regard to checkmate. Pankhurst explains that all form of checkmates are not considered equally honourable (see: "History and Principles of Ethiopian Chess", in: Journal of Ethiopian Studies, 1971, XI, no. 2, p. 149 pp., p. 168 p). He cites Walter Plowden, British envoy to Ethiopia, in the middle of the 19th century and author of the book "Travels in Abyssinia and the Galla Country", who has observed that "for instance, a checkmate with the rooks or the knights is considered of the merest tyro", that is to say, these pieces, "though assisting in throwing the net round the enemy, must not deal the fatal stroke". The use of the Horse "is just endurable".

Checkmate with a single Elephant "is tolerably good", the chess traveller on Her Majesty's Service state, but checkmating with two Elephants is "applauded – that is, so entangling the king that he has but two squares free", which, being commanded by the Elephants, "you check with one, and mate with the other". Plowden adds: "Mating with one, two, three or four pawns, the latter two particularly, is considered the non plus ultra of the game."

Once more Professor Pankhurst refers to Plowden who unveiled one more "peculiarity" in Senterej: Checkmate is considered "more meritorious" if the adversary had not been denuded of all his major pieces. The foregoing is a matter of etiquette, but that is not all. There is a special trap the unsuspecting beginner can stumble into: it is almost necessary to leave the enemy King two of his "capital pieces", because, if you reduce him to one, say, an Elephant or a Horse, the opponent commences counting his moves, and you must checkmate him before he has made seven moves with that given piece, otherwise the match will be drawn. Pankhurst underlines that there is one more way out for the adversary in a desperate situation: the lonely Elephant or Horse, cannot be taken, as the game is considered drawn as soon as one side has lost all its capital pieces without having been checkmated.

In a nutshell

In Senterej both sides start playing at the same time without waiting for turns. They only start to take turns after the First Capture. The phase before first capture is called the Mobilization Phase or werera. Both opposing sides start at the same time, and may move their pieces as many times as they like without concern for the number of moves the opponent makes.

The pieces move in the regular fashion, as under FIDE rules, which all apply, except in Senterej:

  1. Pawn cannot capture en passant.
  2. The two-square first move by a pawn is prohibited. Since a player can move the pawn an unlimited number of times during mobilization, the two-step rule is irrelevant. However, the two-square first move for pawns - if it were legal - would become relevant once the mobilization phase ends after first capture.

Etiquette and protocol in Senterej also differs from other kinds of chess. It is considered better to defeat one's opponent while they still have strong pieces on the board. [Source: Wikipedia]

Emperor Dawit II., better known by his birth name Lebna Dengel (1501-1540), has gone down in history as one of the early stars of Senterej. We learn from Pankhurst that the Negus Negest is said to have played chess with the Venetian artist Gregorio Bicini who worked at the Ethiopian court back then. Other big names in the history of Ethiopian Chess are Ras Michael Sehul of Tigre (ca. 1691-1779), his grandson Ras Wolde Sellassie (ca. 1745-1816) and Sahle Sellassie, King of Shewa (ca. 1795-1847).

Taytu Betul, Empress of Ethiopia (source: Wikipedia Portugese)

And there was even a strong female player who taught her male challengers many bitter lessons at the board of Senterej: Taytu Betul (ca. 1851-1918), the third of four children in an aristocratic Ethiopian family that was related to the Solomonic Dynasty – the traditional Imperial House of Ethiopia, claiming descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Taytu Betul married King Menelik of Shewa, later Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia.

Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia

The decendent of the Queen of Sheba has lived up to her name by answering the Italian envoy, Count Antonelli, who tried to bully the hesitant Menelik II into accepting the establishment of a protectorate over Ethiopia: "I am a woman. I do not like war. However, I would rather die than accepting your deal. We have our dignity to preserve." The outspoken and courageous Empress took part in the campaign of 1895-96 against the Italian expeditionary corps that invaded Ethiopia after the breakdown of the negotiations with Rome. She joined forces with Emperor Menelik II and the Imperial Army, commanding 3000 cannoneers at the Battle of Adowa, which resulted in a humiliating defeat for Italy on March 1st, 1896.

Senterej was still being played at the Imperial Palace in Addis Ababa at the time of the second Italian invasion 1935-1936. During the second half of the 20th century, however, Senterej has increasingly been superseded by modern chess. One of the last old masters of Senterej, Miikael Imru, sadly passed away in 2008.

But more recently there have been plans to start a revival of Senterej. Richard Pankhurst has proposed staging a tournament of Senterej, and there are plans to organize it on the occasion of Ethiopias National Holiday, the Day of Adowa on March 2nd, 2010. It could be a festive affair: the audience at a Senterej game is not compelled to be silent. On the contrary: provided that is not an official tournament every onlooker can participate and has a voice in the game. The spectators are even allowed to touch the pieces in order to suggest advisable moves. That is the cheerful African spirit in chess – just the way Empress Taytu Betul loved it.

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