The secret history of chess (1)

by ChessBase
1/10/2015 – Unexpectedly we see a very old chess board in an Italian church from circa 873. If it is a chess board, it should not be there, since chess is supposed to enter Europe via Spain in the beginning of the 11th century. Or could there be some truth in the legends which connect Charlemagne with chess? We will start our journey to reveal the secret history of chess.

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The secret history of chess & Side Events at Tata Chess

by Leo Hovestadt

San Paolo in Vico Pancellorum circa 873

Around 800 it was the famous time of  1001 Nights, when Caliph Harun had its court in Raqqa Syria. Chess was important at the court of the Caliph. The Caliph was fond on chess and he paid professional chess players a pension. In 802 the new Byzantine emperor (Nikephoros I) sent the Caliph a letter that he revoked the peace treaty that the Caliph closed with the Empress Irene. The new Byzantine emperor did that in style, using chess language. He would no longer behave as a pawn versus a rook, like the Empress (Irene) had done towards the Caliph. This enraged the mighty Caliph who soon invaded Turkey (Asia Minor) and defeated the Byzantines.

Charlemagne and the Caliph had the same mighty enemies, the Byzantine empire and the Arabs in Spain. This was enough for Charlemagne to sent an embassy in 797 to the court of the Caliph in Raqqa. The embassy stayed there for a couple of years, so for sure Charlemagne would have received detailed reports about chess and the 1001 Night court life.

Charlemagne embassy at the court of the Caliph

The embassy returned with several very impressive presents from the Caliph. Among the presents was a white elephant which was paraded through the streets of Aachen in the year 802. According to legends there was also a chess set. However contemporary sources only mention nard (backgammon) as a present. Nard and hess in those days were often kept and played together and even both were called Tabularum after the common play board.

Maybe there are still traces of the chess set given by the Caliph. In a Paris museum there is the so called Charlemagne chess set kept. This chess set was part of the ancient French Royal collection in the Saint Denis Abbey, with links to Carolingian times.

Charlemagne chess set

One piece stands out, which could be an elephant king chess piece. This chess piece is maybe the most beautiful piece known, and could have come from the proud and rich Caliph. The chess piece carries an Arab (Kufric) inscription which translates as "made by Yusuf al-Bahilis.", helping date the piece to the 9th or 10th century, and possibly linking it to Basra in Southern Iraq. So the chess piece could have been given from the Caliph to Charlemagne.

Charlemagne elephant king chess piece

The elephant king chess piece was initially one of a kind, and was therefore doubted to be a chess piece. The chess piece is exceptionally large (16 cm high) and weighs almost two pounds. No wonder that in the middle ages chess pieces and chess boards were used in fights. The chess piece has a round and stable base, just as what is needed for a chess piece.

The Charlemagne elephant king chess piece tells a little story. It shows probably a King and is surrounded by a row of horsemen acting as defenders. A man is hanging on the head of the elephant, seemingly thrown into the air by the elephant and landed on his trunk. We see the effort from the enemy to checkmate the king (= “shah mat” or “the King is defeated”) in action.

Raindroptime Side Events at Tata Chess

Just like last year De Zwaanstraat 16 in Wijk aan Zee will become a real Raindroptime Chess Shop with more than 1500 products. In the shop there will be several events organized and exhibitions organized. There is space for about 100 people. Some of the highlights (see latest schedule):

10 January 15.00: GM Paul van der Sterren book presentation: 'Terug in het Strijdperk'
12 January 19:00:  Leo Hovestadt lecture: The secret history of chess.
17 January 15:00:  IM Cor van Wijgerden (author of the Steps method) and IM Jop Delemarre (Chess Academy): 'How do I become a stronger chessplayer".
18 January: A whole day with the Dutch Chess Queens.
24 January: GM Karel van der Weide about his soon to publish new book at Thinkers Publishing.
First week:  GM Ivan Sokolov book presentation 'The Chess Manual of Avoidable Mistakes'
First week:  Belgian chess art exposition by Phillipe Tonnard.

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